Political power shifts in Richmond but resistance to campaign finance limits remains the same

By: - February 2, 2022 6:21 pm

The Capitol at dusk. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Dominion Energy bankrolling shadowy attack ads against Gov. Glenn Youngkin in rural Virginia apparently didn’t convince enough legislators the state needs tougher laws reining in the company’s political influence.

The record-breaking sums spent in last year’s governor’s race — more than $135 million combined between Youngkin and his Democratic opponent, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe — didn’t inspire the General Assembly to seriously consider broader limits on money in state politics, covering all corporations, interest groups and individual donors.

And with the return to Republican control in the House of Delegates, more modest, bipartisan proposals to prevent state politicians from using campaign cash to cover personal expenses are facing surprise GOP opposition after passing the chamber 100-0 last year. Two versions of that bill, one sponsored by a Democrat and one filed by a Republican, were killed Wednesday morning in a Republican-led House subcommittee.

“I’m really stunned,” said Nancy Morgan, an organizer with the citizen advocacy group MoneyOutVA, which has seen 15 of the 23 reform bills it’s tracking die in the session’s first weeks. “It’s a good thing we’ve got a five-year plan.” 

Garren Shipley, a spokesman for House Speaker Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, said he could not comment on why the Republican caucus reversed course on the personal use bills. The office of Del. Israel O’Quinn, R-Washington, who chairs the subcommittee and voted against the bills, didn’t respond to an emailed inquiry. In the past, opponents have argued candidates might be too easily tripped up by the perhaps blurry line between political and personal expenses. That concern helped derail the bill late last year in the Democratic-controlled Senate, which has not yet taken up the bill in the current session.

The debate over restricting campaign cash doesn’t fall neatly along party lines, with both Republican and Democratic legislators pushing reform bills. Regardless of which party has ruled committees over the years, enough bipartisan votes coalesce to block the legislation from moving forward, leaving Virginia one of about a dozen states that put virtually no limits on campaign donations.

Del. Tim Anderson, a Trump-style Republican from Virginia Beach, told a House subcommittee he believes one of the reasons he flipped a Democratic-held seat last fall was the public’s perception that politicians in Richmond are beholden to powerful donors.

“Virginia is the Wild West. It’s embarrassing,” Anderson said at the Wednesday hearing. “The voters want to talk about it. The voters want it.”

The subcommittee, though, didn’t want to talk about it, unanimously voting down Anderson’s proposal to put federal-style caps on the amount of money political campaigns can take from a single donor.

According to the Virginia Public Access Project, six of the most expensive House of Delegates contests in state history occurred in 2021. In the most expensive election, the Northern Virginia matchup between Democratic Del. Wendy Gooditis and unsuccessful GOP challenger Nick Clemente, the two candidates spent a combined $4.8 million, or nearly $119 for each vote cast.

There seems to be broad agreement that the costs of running for office are growing alarmingly high, with ever-larger sums required to mount a serious campaign. But the legislature remains divided over whether tighter laws will be an improvement or push political spenders to embrace dark-money tactics to avoid any new rules.

With the Dominion-inspired proposals specifically, at least some of the divide boils down to a struggle between Dominion allies and Dominion critics. At a Senate Privileges and Elections Committee meeting this week, Sen. Lionell Spruill, D-Chesapeake, suggested a Democratic colleague who has repeatedly sought to ban political donations by Dominion and other state-regulated utilities simply had a “hard-on” against the company. Dominion is Spruill’s largest donor, according to VPAP, contributing more than $255,000 to his campaigns in the last decade. 

Meanwhile, the left-leaning advocacy group Clean Virginia, which works to limit Dominion’s influence, accused legislators who killed the ban of trying to keep a big donor happy at the expense of the public good.

“Members of these powerful committees talked a tough game on the campaign trail, but ultimately defaulted to Dominion Energy over their constituents yet again,” Clean Virginia Executive Director Brennan Gilmore said in a news release.

Some Republicans said explicitly their attitudes on Dominion money changed after it was revealed the company and its top executives helped fund a shadowy PAC that ran ads against Youngkin in conservative areas painting him as soft on guns. 

As he presented a bill to the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee, Sen. Richard Stuart, R-Westmoreland, said he’d taken Dominion money before but felt the company using a “surreptitious” PAC to try to sway an election was “beyond the pale.”

“I felt compelled to file this bill to try to stop this activity,” Stuart said. “Because clearly they’ve become too powerful in Richmond.”

Dominion critics have long argued state-regulated utilities should be treated differently than other corporate interests due to their unique status as monopolies with captive customers who have used their influence at the General Assembly to pad their profits at the expense of ratepayers.

Youngkin privately signaled his support for a bill limiting Dominion’s political spending, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. But his office did not confirm that stance publicly, and it didn’t appear to sway many Republican votes.

Dominion didn’t have its own staffers testify against the bills, instead sending a McGuireWoods lobbyist to reiterate the company’s position that the bills infringe on free speech rights and, if the state is going to pursue campaign finance reform, it should restrict all sources of money equally.

“This is banning political speech by two corporations,” said Chris Nolen of McGuireWoods, referring to a bill that would impact Dominion and Appalachian Power. “And when you do that, you elevate the speech of others.”

Broader bills putting limits on all donors have also gone down in defeat, partly out of concern they’ll invite more wealthy candidates who can use their own fortunes to fund a campaign.

“I think if you have folks who are able to give themselves two or three million dollars then it just puts people like me at a disadvantage,” Del. Candi Mundon King, D-Prince William, said during a hearing.

Staff attorneys advised lawmakers they’d run into legal trouble by restricting self-funding by candidates or their family members, citing case law indicating governments have less power to regulate self-funding because it doesn’t involve outside parties seeking political influence.

That concern is a fresh one after Youngkin, a newcomer to state politics who amassed a sizable fortune in his private equity career, won last year while loaning his campaign $20 million of his own money. 

Creating limits that wouldn’t apply to self-funders, said Sen. Jill Vogel, R-Fauquier, argued in the Senate, would only encourage parties to recruit the wealthiest candidates they can find.

“Contributions are speech. When you set up artificial barriers to speech, people find ways around it. I think sunlight is the best way,” Vogel said. “It’s imperfect, but I think it’s, in Virginia, as good as we can get right now.”

A handful of bills meant to boost transparency in political spending are still alive.

Some require more disclosure for PAC spending and ads clearly meant to erode a candidate’s support without explicitly telling people to vote against them. A bill moving through the House would require political campaigns to keep more detailed spending records that state election officials could review for accuracy, tightening a system that currently has few checks to ensure candidates are properly disclosing all their spending. 

Another bill would require the state to maintain its own searchable campaign finance database similar to the one currently provided by VPAP, a donor-funded nonprofit. Anderson, the bill’s sponsor, said he has nothing against VPAP, but believes the state shouldn’t rely on a third party to parse and publish data the government could publish on its own.

As for the more sweeping proposals, they appear to be going back to the same study committee that was supposed to take an exhaustive look at campaign finance reform last summer.

Because that work wasn’t finished by the original deadline, lawmakers will have to approve another resolution this session extending the study.

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Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville. Contact him at [email protected]