FOR anyone shopping for a candidate, Virginia’s General Assembly elections are a political bazaar.
State legislature elections like the one just concluded don’t have a lot of rules when it comes to campaign financing.
For congressional elections, the Federal Election Commission limits individual contributions to $2,800 per candidate per election, and up to $5,000 a year from PACs that have more than 50 donors and contribute to at least five federal candidates.
Virginia is a little more lax. All that is required for General Assembly campaigns is that the candidates tell who gave what.
Consequently, more money was spent on some of the state races this year than is invested in elections to the U.S. Congress.
Sometimes, money doesn’t talk loudly enough.
Paul Milde loaned himself close to half a million dollars to win the GOP primary, only to lose the 28th House District (Stafford and Fredericksburg) election to Democrat Joshua Cole.
Tim Chapman spent almost a million dollars in a failed bid to get the nomination for the Board of Supervisors chairmanship in Fairfax County.
Incumbent Tim Hugo and Democrat challenger Dan Helmer raised $3.6 million between 2018 and 2019 in the race for the 40th House District seat. Helmer, who won, says the state should emulate the U.S. House limits.
The problem it that, with some exceptions, the folks who raise the most money tend to win the elections, which means they will have more clout to decide whether to come up with stricter contribution limits.
Mark Rozell is dean of the Schar School at George Mason University. In an interview with Washington NPR station WAMU, he astutely noted, “If history is any guide, people who claim they’re going to fundamentally change the system that benefits them rarely do.”
Virginia, with its off-off-year elections and a close battle for control of the legislature, was a cash magnet this time, according to WAMU:
Pro-environment donors contributed about $6 million;
Abortion rights advocates: $3 million;
Gun-control groups: $1.6 million;
Gun rights advocates: $600,000.
Across the board, the Democrats seem to have outspent their GOP rivals.
The Democratic Party of Virginia gave $5.8 million to candidates. The Republican Party gave GOP hopefuls $3.8 million. The Virginia Senate Democrat Caucus gave $5.5 million. The Republican Caucus handed out a mere $2.2 million.
Almost any politician would claim to be for campaign finance reform. The idea of “buying” an election by outspending on ads and other campaign needs is unpalatable to the allegedly fair-minded. A cynic might suspect that large contributions give the donor unfair access to the candidate should he or she get elected. Also, it is painful to see worthy candidates lose because they didn’t have enough cash—their own or other people’s.
In truth, though, either one side or the other (or both) can see an advantage in having access to a political ATM.
Gov. Ralph Northam, who is said to have long advocated campaign finance reform, pushed legislation to cap contributions this year. He was unsuccessful.
Now the Democrats have gained the whip hand in the state legislature while bringing in more money than their rivals.
It will be interesting to see if a Democratic governor can persuade a Democratic-controlled Senate and House of Delegates to rein in the contributions that helped give them that power.