Virginia is halfway through a whirlwind legislative session. How are new laws going to change the lives of Virginians? And Montgomery County Public Schools are taking the first steps toward redistricting, making some parents and students hopeful and others angry. How might the process end?
The upcoming Virginia elections have received nationwide attention — and cash.
All 140 seats in the General Assembly are up for grabs, and donations have reached about $53 million. That’s 67% more money raised than in Virginia’s last off-off elections in 2015.
Both Democrats and Republicans have received donations from national groups, including special interest organizations concerned with issues like gun policy and abortion.
We’ll look at the biggest donors and the races pulling in the largest donations. Plus, we’ll dive into Virginia’s campaign finance laws that make these donations possible.
Produced by Cydney Grannan
- Tom Sherwood Resident Analyst; Contributing Writer for Washington City Paper; @tomsherwood
- Stephen Farnsworth Professor of Political Science and International Affairs; Director, Center for Leadership and Media Studies, University of Mary Washington; @drsfarnsworth
- Alan Suderman Reporter, The Associated Press; @AlanSuderman
KOJO NNAMDIVirginia's legislative races have seen record-breaking fundraising, much of it coming from national organizations and special interest groups outside of the Commonwealth. General Assembly candidates have raised about $53 million so far, with some individuals pulling in over $1 million apiece. That's a lot of dough. And where it's coming from is sparking some debate on the campaign trail. Joining us to talk about the money pouring into Virginia elections is Tom Sherwood. He's our resident analyst and contributing writer for Washington City Paper. Tom Sherwood, welcome.
TOM SHERWOODGood afternoon.
NNAMDIAlso in studio with us is Stephen Farnsworth. He's a professor of political science and international affairs and the director of the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington. Stephen Farnsworth, good to see you again.
STEPHEN FARNSWORTHThank you for the invitation.
NNAMDIAnd joining us by phone is Alan Suderman. He's a reporter for the Associated Press. Hi, Alan.
ALAN SUDERMANHi. Hey, quick question. Tom, are you going to get a Nats tattoo if they win the series?
SHERWOODI have one tattoo, and that's it, only for WAMU and this city. No, but welcome. This is the former Loose Lips guy, you know, so we'll have to control the mike when he tries to talk too much.
NNAMDIWell, Alan, I've got to tell you, Tom is so excited about the Nationals playing that you might find that if they happen to win the World Series, he could change his mind. But that's another story.
SHERWOODOne pitch at a time. One pitch at a time.
NNAMDIAlan, to the business at hand, the Virginia Public Access Project just released an analysis of campaign disclosures for Virginia races, which you wrote about. Get us up to speed. How much money has been raised, and who has raised more, Democrats or Republicans?
FARNSWORTHWell, a lot has been raised. The Democrats are seeing a huge flood of cash come in. Like you said, a lot of it from out-of-state groups who are very eager to help Democrats flip control of the state legislature, where Republicans are currently holding onto very slim majorities in both the State House and the State Senate.
FARNSWORTHSome of the biggest groups are coming from gun control advocacy groups like Michael Bloomberg's Every Town for Gun Safety. As you know, there was a mass shooting in Virginia Beach earlier this year. Governor Ralph Northam, who's a Democrat, responded by calling a special session for lawmakers to come back and discuss new gun restrictions. Republicans rejected that idea, and instead put the issue to a crime commission for further study and to come out with a report after the election. So, guns is a big issue, and we're seeing that in the outside group money that's coming in.
SHERWOODAlan, it's important to note, I think, Virginia has -- and the professor can speak to this, probably -- there are virtually no restrictions on how much money can be given in Virginia. I think there are 10 or 11 states where you can give what you want to who you want for how much you want. It just has to be reported. Although there are some organizations where they don't disclose who their PAC members are.
NNAMDICare to weigh in on that, Stephen Farnsworth?
FARNSWORTHYeah, I think that one of the things that makes Virginia different from the federal election system is this open season that you have as a donor to give money. It's great news for politicians, and that's probably why it won't change in terms of Virginia law. But when you look at the federal system and the restrictions and the limitations, you see so many ways that people get around it, that you really have to wonder if maybe a system that does focus more on disclosure has its advantages.
NNAMDIAlan Suderman, there's some money, quite a bit of it coming from instate, too. Tell us about Michael Bills. Who's Michael Bills?
SUDERMANSure. Michael Bills is an investor. He used to work at Goldman Sachs. He's got a firm now, his own firm that he manages. It's about a 1.5 billion investment fund that he manages. He lives in Charlottesville. He's an environmentalist, and a couple years ago, he started this group called Clean Virginia to kind of counterbalance the political power of Dominion Energy. That is the investor-owned utility that's, you know, kind of the 800-pound gorilla in Virginia politics.
SUDERMANBills has been spending aggressively this campaign cycle. He spent -- I think this cycle, he spent -- he's closing in on the $2 million mark, giving to candidates who have pledged to not take money from regulated monopolies like Dominion.
NNAMDIThat's his condition, isn't it?
SUDERMANYeah, that's how he -- you're right, that's his condition for giving. And he's kind of really reshaped a lot of -- you know, had a big impact, especially on the Democratic side. You know, in addition to giving his own money, he's also, you know, influential with big environmental groups like the League of Conservation Voters, who are always some of the top donors in statewide races.
SUDERMANSo, you know, because of Bills, you know, there's really no Democrat running statewide, or with plans to run statewide, that is taking Dominion money. So, it's kind of an interesting phenomenon and an interesting impact he's been able to have, you know, just one guy in Charlottesville.
SHERWOODFor Alan and the professor, is there any indication that all this slush of money that's pouring into races -- I mean, there's 500,000 to a candidate here, a couple hundred thousand to another candidate there -- is there any indication at all the voters don't like this idea of this slush of money flowing through the state, or is it just commonplace in the Commonwealth?
FARNSWORTHWell, I do think that there's a great willingness for the politicians to take this money. It's very useful to them. They can put flyers.
FARNSWORTHBut for voters, you're really looking at an environment where most people aren't paying that much attention. They're going to see a lot of flyers, and then probably not going to look at the money source that's listed there. I think what you see here is a wide-open politics that people are used to. I think what's really interesting about money and politics in this cycle is the extent to which Dominion is really facing a very different environment.
FARNSWORTHOnce upon a time, Democrats in Virginia were competing for the Dominion endorsement, for that kind of money. And it is really extraordinary, and it speaks to how quickly Virginia is changing, that now, almost certainly, the statewide ticket that the Virginia Democrats put forward next election cycle will be a Dominion-free funding ticket.
SHERWOODAnd, Alan, has Dominion given that much to the Republicans, or are they also careful about what they're doing? I would think Dominion is rethinking its approach.
SUDERMANRight. Well, you know, there are several Democrats who are still very close to Dominion, especially in the State Senate. Some of the lawmakers have been around for a long time.
SHERWOOD(overlapping) Has Richard Saslaw, the Northern Virginia leader of the Democrats in the Senate, is he...
SUDERMANYeah, you'd probably be hard pressed to find a lawmaker who is a bigger defender of Dominion than Senator Saslaw. You know, Dominion has increased some of its giving to a Republican group that's based in D.C., the Republican State Leadership Committee, which is among one of the biggest Republican donors this year. So, that's new this year, as well.
SHERWOODDoes the money have that big of an impact? Where does all this money go? It seems to me almost hard to spend. Is it just pamphlets and bumper stickers and ads, TV ads?
SUDERMANYeah well, we're seeing a lot of TV ads, especially in the Richmond market. You know, the control of the legislature is going to come down to suburban races, you know, in Northern Virginia, in Richmond, in the Hampton Roads area. So, you know, TV markets in those areas are just kind of saturated with ads. I'm not sure what it is in Northern Virginia. You know, ads are a lot more expensive up there, but we're seeing, you know, multimillion dollar TV ad buys.
SHERWOODA lot of cable ads.
NNAMDIWhat's this money being used for?
FARNSWORTHWell, the main thing is still the traditional outlets of flyers in the mailbox. I live in a pretty competitive district right now, the Fredericksburg area seat -- which used to be Speaker Howell's old district -- is a seat that was decided by less than 150 votes last cycle. And the Democrats and Republicans are spending huge amounts of money there. And so that's going on.
FARNSWORTHBut what you also see, of course, is new media buys. This is one of the things that people can tailor pretty precisely to different people who are on Facebook or using Twitter or other social media outlets to make sure that you're reaching those people who care a lot about politics, who are most likely to vote. And that's a scenario where you can see a lot of stuff.
FARNSWORTHBut, ultimately, you've got to think with this kind of money, that there's really a diminishing return. I mean, once you get five or six flyers in your mailbox in a given week, what is the value of the next half dozen? That's just not necessarily money well spent. But because this election is so pivotal, there are narrow majorities in the House and in the Senate, both parties see really optimistic futures and really pessimistic futures, depending on a handful of seats in the suburbs. And, as a result, there's money everywhere. It's a great time to be collecting money as a politician.
SHERWOODSo, you should tape your mailbox shut for the next 10 days or so.
FARNSWORTHBelieve me, I'm tempted.
NNAMDIHere is Sally in Alexandria, Virginia. Sally, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SALLYThank you very much. I've enjoyed the discussion so far. I'm a member of a national group called American Promise and a member of the Virginia chapter. And we are working very hard to get big money out of politics, because we believe that once that problem is solved, we can solve so many other problems. Once your vote and my vote counts as much as Dominion's, then we can start attacking guns and gerrymandering and healthcare and all the other issues.
SALLYSo, we're actually working to get resolutions introduced in the Virginia Senate that will say that we want to overturn Citizens United. And, unbelievably, 20 states -- many of which are quite red - have already passed such resolutions.
NNAMDIWhat's the likelihood of such a resolution passing in Virginia, Stephen Farnsworth?
FARNSWORTHWell, I think regardless of which party controls the legislature next year, they're going to want to keep a system that looks a lot like the current system. You are seeing a reality where most of the money goes to the folks who are seen as being in power or likely to stay in power. And that environment is going to be very favorable for the majority party next year.
FARNSWORTHAnd so I think a lot of the things that parties promise when they're in the minority, they find it difficult to deliver on if they end up in the majority. I don't think that's unique to Virginia. I think it's the reality that once you have power and the status quo has put you there, you're going to be real hesitant about changing anything that would undermine that status quo.
SHERWOOD(overlapping) To that very point, there is a proposal -- if it passes the legislature again in January -- to shift redistricting in Virginia to a citizens commission. It seems if the Democrats were to win the House and Senate back this fall and take full control of the governor's office, the House and the Senate in January, they might be less likely or maybe they'll be less encouraged to go to an independent commission to redraw the lines. They'll have the power. And the Supreme Court says there's no problem. If you want to draw partisan lines -- as long as they're not racially discriminatory or other ways discriminatory - you can just draw lines to protect yourself. And the Democrats could do that.
FARNSWORTHI do think there's a great risk of that, as a temptation. If the Democrats are in the majority, this would be the first time that the Democratic Party would have full control over the redistricting process since after the 1990 census. So, they've been in the wilderness a long time. And, as a result, that would be a very, very difficult thing to put forward -- the issue of a second vote in the legislature before it goes to the public -- for this constitutional amendment against gerrymandering.
SHERWOODYeah, that would be next year, when we have Trump on the ballot and the Democrats. And it could be quite the mess.
NNAMDIHere's Ann in McClain, Virginia, who has a slightly different concern about the money. Ann, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ANNYes, hi. A native Virginian, dating back to the 1600s. We are very concerned about what we're seeing in Virginia, our history, our traditions. We've lived in Northern Virginia now for 20 years, and to us, it looks like New York and New Jersey. We're wondering if there's some way we can take Northern Virginia and combine it with D.C. and make a state. (laugh)
SHERWOODWell, I don't know if we -- the city might want to take back all the land in Virginia that was given -- that Virginia took back in 1848, when it was part of the District. But I don't think that's going to happen. I think that's not going to happen. I don't think Maryland wants to be involved with D.C. And I'm pretty sure Virginians wouldn't vote to join up with D.C.
NNAMDIYou're concerned about the state losing its rural character, Ann?
ANNYes, I am. We've been recently to Charlottesville and beyond. And we find that a lot of the state is being -- you know, of course, we have a carpetbagger named McAuliffe there. But it is becoming less and less rural, and we don't think the rural voters get enough say in what's happening in the state government.
FARNSWORTHWell, I think it's important to recognize...
NNAMDIYou think the future?
FARNSWORTHWell, I think it's important to recognize that Virginia has had extraordinary economic growth, and it has become incredibly attractive for people to do business. I mean, one of the things that I notice with my students at Mary Washington is that when they come from other states and they look at the economic opportunities, as well -- of course, I teach in political science, so the political opportunities, as well -- for careers in Washington or Richmond, they find a way to stay.
FARNSWORTHI mean, there are so many places in this country that would love to have the economic opportunity and the economic vibrancy that Virginia has. But what that does mean is a lot of people come from somewhere else. And now a majority of Virginians were born in another state. And that reality funnels through extraordinary economic opportunities. But, no doubt about it, as the caller is mentioning, it dramatically changes the culture of the place. But for some people -- and, increasingly, a majority -- the old Virginia doesn't mean the Virginia of tomorrow.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation on the money going into Virginia's legislative elections. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about the money in Virginia's upcoming legislative elections with Tom Sherwood. He's our resident analyst and contributing writer for Washington City Paper. Stephen Farnsworth is a professor of political science and international affairs and the director of the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington. And Alan Suderman is a reporter for the Associated Press. Alan joins us by phone.
NNAMDIOne district that's seen a lot of money pouring in is that of Virginia's House Speaker Kirk Cox. Stephen Farnsworth, he's a Republican whose district was redrawn as part of the plan to fix racial gerrymandering. He's facing a Democratic challenger, Sheila Bynum-Cox. (sic) Cox just released an...huh?
NNAMDI...Coleman, Sheila Bynum-Coleman. Cox just released an attack ad recently against Bynum-Coleman, which Laura Vozzella wrote for the Washington Post. And I know she talked with you about it. Tell us about that ad, and if it's typical of the ads that are running in the lead-up to this election?
FARNSWORTHYeah well, I think one of the real casualties of politics in October is context. And so what happened in this particular case was a comment that she made that made reference to police in the schools. And by selecting a part of a paragraph, the Cox campaign was able to focus on making the claim that the Democratic challenger there was somehow not sufficiently supportive of security in the schools or the police.
NNAMDICommon practice these days, isn't it?
FARNSWORTHWell, absolutely. I mean...
SHERWOODThat's politics for hundreds of years. (laugh)
FARNSWORTHYeah. And, of course, that is what happens in October, in a lot of elections. And so the -- but no doubt about it, both of these candidates have already raised more than a million dollars. They have plenty of money to set the discourse the way that they want, to answer whatever charges the other side puts forward. It's a district that changed dramatically with respect to the new lines that the court ordered. And that has created a bigger challenge for the Republican speaker than he's ever faced in his career.
SHERWOODJust how nasty do you expect the last -- there's lots of mailings, you know, get to know the candidate, issues and all that. But in the hectic, final week, 10 days, often, the campaigns do get a lot nastier, and people are running hard on guns and other issues. Maybe Alan has seen some of these ads or not down in the Richmond area. How nasty is it?
SUDERMANYeah, it always...
SHERWOOD(overlapping) What happened to the Virginia gentleman? Which is, I guess, just a bourbon now.
NNAMDIGo ahead, Alan.
SUDERMANYeah, that's long gone. I mean, you know, one of the funnier attack ads was in Dr. Farnsworth's district, where the Republican there said the Democrat support of a Green New Deal means he's opposed to hamburgers. So, I think we'll see, you know, stuff along those kind of lines really heat up. And, you know, it'll be no-holds-barred, and that's nothing new. I mean, the idea of the gentile Virginia way, at least in elections, you know, there's been some bareknuckle fights here.
SHERWOOD(overlapping) Abortion was a big issue earlier this year, but, I mean, with what Governor Northam said and what Delegate Tran said, I mean, has abortion played out as a big issue for either of you?
SUDERMANI think we can expect that to come up, you know, probably in a big way, right before the election. You know, Republicans are pretty bullish on campaigning on some of the comments that Delegate Tran made. And campaigning on kind of late-term abortion issues, they feel like that's a big positive for them, that they can win back. Especially some of these suburban women voters who have really kind of abandoned the party during the Trump era.
NNAMDISpeaking of the Trump era...
SHERWOODI have -- well, the Trump effect, Rachel Bitecofer from Christopher Newport and others have been saying that Trump is a significant factor in this local state elections. Tom Davis, the former Republican congressman from Northern Virginia, was telling me a couple weeks ago that he sees Trump as, quote, "radioactive in some of these races."
FARNSWORTHWell, we did a statewide survey at Mary Washington in September. And this is one of the key things that we find, that Donald Trump is really making a very difficult environment for Republican candidates to make their own case as a Republican, particularly in suburban areas. If you look back to the 2016 Republican primary, Trump was never all that popular, even among Republicans in the suburbs. And some of the things that he has said and done, I think have made it very difficult for Republicans to compete effectively, particularly in suburban districts.
FARNSWORTHYou saw that in 2017, where the Democrats picked up a lot of seats in Prince William, and in Henrico and Chesterfield in the Richmond suburbs, and some in Hampton Roads. You also saw that in 2018, where there were three separate Republican incumbents, who, facing the barrage of commentary every day that was so Trump-focused, found it hard to get their own footing. And so, three Republicans lost to Democrats in the U.S. House last year. And all indications are -- from surveys that we've done and others -- is that Trump continues to be a liability for Republicans in the suburbs in 2019, as well.
SHERWOODAnd the flipside of that is the extraordinary change from last winter and early spring, when Democratic Governor Ralph Northam was on the ropes under pressure to quit over the blackface issues. I saw in a recent report -- it might have been you, Alan -- reporting that Governor Northam's The Way Ahead Political Action Committee will have spent a million-and-a-half dollars himself. And he is actually getting out on the campaign trail, not so much here in Northern Virginia, but he seems to have survived that horrible experience in the spring.
SUDERMANYeah. I think he will go to -- he's planning stops the rest of the weekends before Election Day. I guess there's two left. I think he is going to Northern Virginia. Yeah, he's pretty much back to normal. I mean, he's not raised as much money as his predecessors, but, you know, his camp will say, you know, if you look at where we are now compared to, you know, right after that racist yearbook photo surfaced, no one would've expected that, you know, he'd be not only campaigning for people and fundraising for them. You know, they'll point out that, you know, it's just kind of a remarkable turnaround.
NNAMDILet's talk about...
SHERWOOD(overlapping) It is. Among African American voters, it's very high.
NNAMDILet's talk about approval rates for Northam. You did a study, Stephen.
FARNSWORTHRight. Yeah, absolutely. And our survey shows that Northam's approval has really rebounded dramatically. He had an extraordinary first year as governor, remember, with the Medicaid expansion. In the fall before the scandal erupted, his approval rating was at 55 percent. In our survey last September, it was 47, which is a huge increase from where he was in February. There was a UVA survey done in the middle of what people sometimes refer to as the events of February. And his approval rating was under 20 percent.
FARNSWORTHAnd so that kind of recovery -- and I think that's another Trump effect, because there's been so much controversy out of what's going on in Washington, I think the people have moved on. A lot of voters have moved on from the scandal, and Northam's approval rating is good. A lot of Democrats who once said he should leave office are now saying please help me campaign. Please help me raise money. Can you give me a donation? And so there's really been a 180, I think, in Northam's political future. That's not to say that it's all that bright going forward, but he survived.
SHERWOOD(overlapping) But he doesn't have to run again, though.
FARNSWORTHHe doesn't have to run.
SHERWOODBut what about Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax and Attorney General Mark Herring, who both had their own issues? They don't seem to have bounced back. Or do you have any polling on that, or do you have any sense of that, you and Alan?
FARNSWORTHWell, we didn't ask about the Lieutenant Governor's prospects or the Attorney General's prospects.
SHERWOODThey're different issues.
SHERWOODFairfax is a different issue...
SHERWOOD...sexual issues. And Herring acknowledged he had done a blackface incident in the past.
FARNSWORTHYeah, but certainly among Virginia Democrats, there is a great temptation to turn the page on all three of these politicians to come up with a new set of Democratic leaders going forward in the next generation.
NNAMDIHere is Michael in Ashburn, Virginia. Michael, your turn.
MICHAELGood afternoon, gentlemen. I used to be the controller of an organization called Americans Elect. And I'm pretty familiar with the line items of where costs are with regards to elections. And, if I recall correctly, the number one line item -- besides legal and polling -- was media. So, I wonder, why can't we return to the days of, what was it called, open access, free access, where everybody had the opportunity to get ads or space on the air without it costing them anything? It would certainly remove the money aspect from the campaign with regards to media.
NNAMDIStephen Farnsworth, how likely is that?
FARNSWORTHWell, the politicians don't want to make the media angry, and so the media want to be able to continue to collect campaign dollars. And so this is going to be, I think, the status quo, going forward. No doubt about it, the discourse in the country might be better if we had free air time for candidates. But I don't see either the media or the politicians really pushing for that.
SHERWOODWe don't even have fair access, really. I mean, we used to have it where if you did time with one candidate, you had to do equal time with another candidate. And that's gone by the boards, too.
NNAMDIAlan, there are a few races in Northern Virginia that have pulled in big-dollar donations. I'd like to start by talking about a big race up here between Tim Hugo and Dan Helmer. Remind us what's happening in that race, and how much money they're raising.
SUDERMANWhat's happening in that race, Delegate Hugo is kind of on a lonely island up there in Fairfax County. He's, I think, the northernmost Republican who was able to hold on during a blue wave in 2017 that saw a lot of House Republicans from Northern Virginia lose their seats. It's a Democratic-leaning district, where Democrats really want to take out Delegate Hugo, who's in leadership. And House Republicans feel like, you know, they're confident that Hugo -- who's been around for a long time -- can use those personal connections to hold on. But it was a really close race in '17, and it's getting a ton of money this year.
SHERWOODCan I ask about the aborted fees that were a special session on guns this year? The governor called for a special session. The Republicans, wary of the special session, were in session for 90 minutes, and then called it an end. And that seems to have enflamed the Democrats on one side, who want more commonsense, they call it, gun control. The Republicans said, did they make a mistake by not doing anything then or did -- where does guns -- I guess, where do guns play?
NNAMDIJust about a minute left.
FARNSWORTHWell, guns matter a lot in some districts, particularly in the Virginia Beach area, but also in Northern Virginia, where there's a lot of concern over that kind of safety concern. And so, Virginia has changed in yet another way when we think about guns, because once upon a time the Democrats would never emphasize guns. But now, increasingly, Democrats are doing just that, because the gun issue looks to be more of a winner for them, particularly in the suburbs, than it ever was before.
SUDERMANYeah, I would just say I agree with that and, you know, it's actually part of an attack ad in one Virginia Beach district where a survivor of the mass shooting is lambasting a Republican senator for not doing more on guns. And, you know, so it's certainly a key issue down there.
NNAMDIAlan Suderman is a reporter for the Associated Press. Alan, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIStephen Farnsworth is a professor of political science and international affairs and the director of the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington. Stephen Farnsworth, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDITom Sherwood is our resident analyst and contributing writer for Washington City Paper. Will the Nationals win tonight?
SHERWOODWell, I would hope so. It's one pitch at a time. You know, 60 percent of the people who go to the Nats games live in Virginia, so they should all be pulling for the Nats tonight.
NNAMDIWhat time did you go to bed last night?
SHERWOODOh, about 2:00.
NNAMDI(laugh) And that's it for this show. This installment of our Virginia Vote series was produced by Cydney Grannan. And our preview of the Marine Corp Marathon was produced by Victoria Chamberlin. And mark your calendars. Tom and I will be hosting WAMU's live Virginia elections coverage on November 5th. We'll be joined by our colleagues in the newsroom, as well as political leaders and analysts from across the Commonwealth. Our election night special starts at 9:00 p.m. on the 5th of November. And on tomorrow's show, we'll be talking about the Nats historic World Series run. Hopefully, we'll have a second win to report on. Thank you for listening, and go Nats. Stay in the fight. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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