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Out-of-State Money Comes Up Big For Democrats in Virginia

Virginia Democrats have raised millions more than Republicans in out-of-state cash donations ahead of the Nov. 5 elections that will determine control of the General Assembly.

Democratic legislative candidates last month outraised their Republican opponents by more than $2.4 million in out-of-state money, according to a Capital News Service analysis of data from the Virginia Department of Elections.

During September, the 128 Democratic candidates for the Virginia House and Senate received about 2,500 donations totaling almost $3.34 million from outside Virginia. The 96 Republican candidates received about 400 out-of-state donations totaling approximately $900,000.

That differential was a big reason the Democrats amassed more than Republicans in itemized monetary donations — contributions of more than $100. In reports filed last week, Democrats running for the General Assembly reported raising a combined $8.1 million during September. Republicans raised a combined $4.6 million.

Democrats got nearly $2 million from donors in D.C., almost $567,000 from New York and $263,000 from California, as well as donations from 43 other states. Republicans, on the other hand, raised about $614,000 from supporters in D.C., $53,000 from Georgia, $24,000 from Florida and smaller amounts from 32 other states.

Kathryn Gilley, communications director for the Virginia House Democrats, cited the “blue wave” that began in 2017 when the Democrats flipped 15 seats in the House as a reason for the party’s uptick in out-of-state fundraising.

“The wave election and resulting legislative accomplishments, like Medicaid expansion, brought national attention to Virginia, and more broadly, the importance of state legislatures as a whole,” Gilley said.

David Ramadan, a Republican who served in the Virginia House in 2012-16, said taking large amounts of out-of-state donations could hurt Democrats in some districts. Some Republican candidates have accused their Democratic rivals of being beholden to outside interests, he noted.

The Democrats nationwide have “an organized, cohesive political machine” that can be mobilized to support the party’s efforts at the state level, said Ramadan, now an adjunct professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. He credited Terry McAuliffe, who chaired the Democratic National Committee before being elected governor of Virginia in 2013, for that development.

Bob Holsworth, founder of a consulting firm called Decide Smart and former director of the Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University, cites the Democratic advocacy organization Act Blue as a reason for the party’s success in securing donations for its legislative candidates in Virginia.

“Act Blue has been very successful in enlisting small donors, both inside and outside the Commonwealth,” Holsworth said. “The Democrats have far more small donors than the Republicans, and about one-third of the Act Blue money comes from out of state.”

Holsworth also cited the unpopularity of the National Rifle Association, a key GOP supporter, in competitive suburban districts. The NRA’s political action committee made three donations to Virginia Republicans in September: $25,000 to Sen. Mark Obenshain of Harrisonburg, $2,500 to Sen. Bill DeSteph of Virginia Beach and $1,000 to Del. Thomas Wright of Lunenburg County.

“Important out-of-state GOP funders such as the NRA have given considerable money, but almost all the competitive races are in suburban districts where the NRA is not popular and gun control groups such as Everytown for Gun Safety can have more influence,” Holsworth said.

Everytown for Gun Safety, a group that was founded by New York businessman Michael Bloomberg and advocates for universal background checks on firearms purchases and other gun control measures, made 26 donations totaling almost $500,000 to Democratic legislative candidates in Virginia last month, records show.

Other out-of-state organizations that made monetary donations of at least $50,000 to Democrats were:

  • EMILY’s List, a D.C.-based group that funds women candidates who support abortion rights — 13 donations totaling $766,000.
  • Democracy PAC, a D.C.-based committee affiliated with Democrats — 15 donations totaling $575,000.
  • The Service Employees International Union of New York — 171 donations totaling about $318,000.
  • The Future Now Fund, a D.C.-based organization that supports “progressive candidates” — 18 donations totaling $117,500.
  • The 314 Action Victory Fund, a D.C.-based group concerned about climate change — two donations totaling $75,000.
  • The Green Advocacy Project, a California-based environmental group — five donations totaling $50,000.

Only one out-of-state group contributed more than $50,000 to Republican candidates in September: the Republican State Leadership Committee, based in Washington. It made 12 donations totaling $585,000.

Six out-of-state individuals each gave Virginia Democrats at least $25,000 last month. They included John Frantz, a retired business executive in Massachusetts, who made 27 donations totaling $73,500, and Lisa Mennet, a mental health care advocate in Seattle, Washington, with six donations totaling $51,000.

The biggest out-of-state donation that Virginia Republicans received in September was $4,000 from Tatnall Hillman, a retiree in Massachusetts.

Democrats are focused on the House and Senate because they haven’t controlled the Virginia General Assembly since 1993, said Miles Coleman of the Center for Politics of the University of Virginia.

“They could pass laws that the GOP has been blocking — like gun safety legislation — as well as take up the Equal Rights Amendment ratification,” Coleman said.

That possibility has helped Virginia Democrats draw money from out of state, Coleman said.

“There seems to be lots happening in Virginia that national groups could have a stake in,” Coleman said.

Patricia Cason / Capital News Service

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