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It’s not voters funneling millions into General Assembly races

Everyone calls the General Assembly elections high stakes, but it is also top dollar.

Capital News Service



By Alyssa Hutton and Jimmy Sidney

Everyone calls the upcoming General Assembly election high stakes, but it is also top dollar.

More than $158 million has been funneled into the House and Senate races this election cycle, a more than 30% increase since the last time all 140 seats in the General Assembly were up for election back in 2019.

The bloated war chests are a product of redistricting, which brought new competition to many districts. There are a lot of open seats with no incumbent.

“Add to this the fact that the contests for control of both the House of Delegates and the Senate are extremely close, and you have the recipe for huge dollar campaigns,” according to John McGlennon, a professor of government at William & Mary.

The Money Advantage

Democrats outraised Republicans in both chambers, with the latest campaign finance releases. Those totals include in-kind contributions as well, which are non-monetary donations of goods or services.

But both parties have put a lot of resources into these races, so a money advantage in any particular race may not be overwhelming, according to McGlennon. McGlennon is also running for reelection to the James City County Board of Supervisors.

State Senate representatives serve a four-year term. Over $80.7 million was raised among the 40 state Senate races. That includes $29.9 million invested this year in the four races ranked as competitive by the Virginia Public Access Project. That number goes up when the $9 million is added in from the hot race between Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, and Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Henrico.

Senate fundraising is 50% higher than in 2019. Democratic candidates have raised over $13 million more than Republicans. Final campaign finance reports will be filed in December.

Delegates hold House seats for a two-year term, and candidates running for a House seat have had less time to raise money. This year, the combined 100 seats have brought in over $77.5 million. The seven House races ranked as competitivehave garnered almost $31 million this year.

House fundraising is 15% higher than 2019. Democratic candidates have outraised Republicans by almost $10 million.

The amount of money a candidate raises is not necessarily indicative of their success on Election Day, according to Richard Meagher, department chair of the political science department at Randolph-Macon College.

Candidates can overcome fundraising gaps with better campaign strategy, tactics, more dedicated volunteers or just by being a better candidate.

“But it’s much harder to win if you cannot at least stay competitive,” Meagher stated.

Grassroot Donations Under $100

Political readers and candidates follow donations like the stock market. But at the end of the day, what do the millions mean for Virginia voters? The top donors thrusting approximately $50 million into the statehouse races just this year are Clean Virginia, Dominion Energy and the political action committees for both parties.

It’s not grassroots voters handing over buckets of cash to the candidate they believe in the most, it’s mostly players who hope to set policy down the road.

Grassroots donations are usually characterized as a number of small, recurring donations of around $5 or $10, according to Amanda Wintersieck, an associate professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University.

A look at the donations made under $100 tells its own story. This type of smaller money is usually from voters, not PACs, lobbyists or special interest groups. But these contributors are often motivated by ideological issues, and tend to be further to the right or left than the typical voter, according to Alex Keena, an associate professor of political science at VCU.

Capital News Service looked at smaller fundraising efforts this year in the VPAP-ranked competitive districts, including October totals. CNS also looked at the closely-watched Henrico County races between Dunnavant and VanValkenburg for the Senate, and incumbent Del. Rodney Willett, D-Henrico, against Republican challenger Riley Shaia for the House.

Every Democrat, except one, in a closely watched race leads their Republican opponent when it comes to smaller donations.

Democrat Russet Perry, a candidate in a northern Virginia Senate race, leads the pack with $168,490 in cash donations under $100.

At the other end, Republican Lee Peters brought in $5,412 for his Fredericksburg-area race against Democrat Joshua Cole. Peters was just ahead of an independent candidate for cash donations under $100.

Big Youngkin Money

Youngkin’s Spirit of Virginia PAC has been especially active, sending at least $14.4 million to Republican candidates this year. The PAC has recently donated millions to help Republicans win as races heat up statewide. These larger PACs are moving around hundreds of thousands of dollars on the regular.

The benefits of a governor using their influence in statehouse races include securing allies, bolstering candidates and raising the profile of a candidate considering a run for Congress or president.

Pundits have speculated Youngkin might make a bid for the 2024 presidential race, although the governor has not filed paperwork or committed an answer. But, helping usher in a Republican majority would look good on the resume.

Youngkin has been more assertive with his PAC than most governors, according to Keena.

 “One of the problems is we don’t really have campaign finance in Virginia,” Keena said, “Glenn Youngkin can get his buddies in the financial sector to donate millions of dollars and then he can use that money however he likes, you know, to donate to whoever he wants.”

Where’d All The Money Go?

So what happens to all the cash on hand once the election is over — win or lose? In Virginia, the answer might be a hearty shrug.

On paper, once candidates submit final reports, they must properly rid the excess campaign money. They can pay off debts, use it in a future election, or donate to a charity, candidate, or PAC.

It is technically illegal for candidates to use excess money for personal or immediate familial use.

However, unlike most states, there is not much of a mechanism to enforce the law or prevent “vague, unitemized expenditures,” according to a Virginia Mercury article.

Campaign finance reform has been attempted a few times in recent history, but has failed on a bipartisan basis.

That being said, one way to spend unused campaign money is to save it for future campaigns. It’s speculation, but it wouldn’t be impossible for the Spirit of Virginia PAC to switch gears and help bankroll a Youngkin campaign for national office sometime in the future.

Trickle-Down Effect

“I look at where the funds come from other candidates and there are plenty of people who can self-fund their campaigns,” said Crystal Varner Parker, a minister running for school board in the Fairfield District of Henrico County. “I can’t do that.”

The top-dollar stakes of statehouse races have driven up the campaign costs for local races, she said.

It’s a competitive race with five candidates on the ballot. Most of the money raised for her campaign came from grassroots donations, she said. Parker uses social media and word-of-mouth to encourage voters to come out to her events and contribute to her campaign.

Running during a high-profile election means more money is needed, she said.

“The cost of things when it comes to campaign marketing materials have gone up in price, that they are more expensive than they were four years ago, during the last round of General Assembly and local elections,” Parker said.

Her plea to voters is to support candidates they believe in.

“I’m not someone who donates to every campaign, but if you really believe in a candidate you need to put your money where your mouth is because campaigns cost money,” Parker said.

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The Capital News Service is a flagship program of VCU’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture. In the program, journalism students cover news in Richmond and across Virginia and distribute their stories, photos, and other content to more than 100 newspapers, television and radio stations, and news websites.