Big money pours into Virginia's close governor's race
Voters in two states will elect new governors next month. Given that the outcome of New Jersey's race appears to be a foregone conclusion with self-funding billionaire Democrat Phil Murphy holding a double-digit lead over Republican Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, the Virginia race between Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam and Republican lobbyist and party activist Ed Gillespie is shaping up to be the year's closest gubernatorial election.
Large sums of money are pouring into the race in Virginia, one of only six states that do not limit campaign contributions in any way. (The others are Alabama, Missouri, Nebraska, Oregon and Utah.) This means that individuals, corporations, and PACs can directly contribute as much money as they want to campaigns in those states — and they are taking full advantage of the law in Virginia.
Thus far Northam leads the fundraising overall, with $7.1 million raised in September alone and just under $22.8 million total as of Sept. 30. Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chair, raised nearly $4.4 million in September and $14.8 million through the cycle. As of the latest filing, Northam has $5.6 million on hand compared to a little under $2.5 million for Gillespie.
Northam's single biggest contributor so far is the DGA (Democratic Governors Association) Action Fund, which has given him over $3 million in the cycle. The DGA is a 527 organization that can raise unlimited funds from individuals, corporations or labor unions but must register with the IRS and disclose contributions and expenditures.
Through the first half of 2017 alone, the DGA raised over $18.9 million, according to finance reports filed with the IRS.
Some of its biggest donors this year have been the pharmaceutical company Pfizer ($425,000), the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 825 of New Jersey ($300,000), and health insurers Anthem ($300,000), Aetna ($250,000) and the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association ($250,000). According to the Center for Responsive Politics' OpenSecrets.org database, Blue Cross was the DGA's top donor in the 2016 cycle, giving nearly $1.9 million. The group's biggest Virginia-based donor so far this year is Maximus Inc., a for-profit, privatizing company that provides business services to government agencies in the U.S. and other countries; it has given $100,000.
Northam has also gotten significant help from liberal interest groups. Since July 1, he has received $755,000 in direct contributions from the Virginia League of Conservation Voters and was also the beneficiary of a $582,500 canvassing effort by the group. In addition, he got over $500,000 from Planned Parenthood, $320,000 from the National Education Association, and $300,000 from the Laborers' International Union.
Northam and Gillespie are both receiving support from energy companies with business interests in the state. Since March, Pittsburgh-based natural gas pipeline company EQT — the lead developer behind the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline that would carry fracked gas from West Virginia to Virginia's Pittsylvania County — has contributed $20,000 to Northam's campaign. And in July, U.S. Marcellus Gas Infrastructure contributed $10,000 to both candidates. The company is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Florida-based NextEra Energy, which is also one of the Mountain Valley Pipeline developers and a big contributor to both Republicans and Democrats.
In addition, Dominion Energy has contributed $25,000 to Gillespie's campaign. Besides being a major electricity provider in Virginia, Dominion is the lead developer of the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which would carry fracked gas from Harrison County, West Virginia, through Virginia to to Robeson County, North Carolina, and possibly into South Carolina. The controversy over the pipelines was a major theme in the primary.
Prominent figures get involved
To date, Gillespie's top donor has been the Republican Governors Association (RGA), the GOP counterpart to the DGA. In September, the RGA contributed $1 million directly to Gillespie's campaign, while A Stronger Virginia — a PAC set up by the RGA for the purpose of pumping money into the Virginia governor's race — has contributed $4 million to Gillespie since June. Over a third of all the money Gillespie has received so far in this election cycle has come from the RGA.
The RGA vastly out-raised the DGA in the first half of this year, taking in over $30.7 million in contributions. According to OpenSecrets.org, the RGA's top donor in 2016 was energy conglomerate Koch Industries, which contributed over $2 million; right behind them was Blue Cross Blue Shield, which donated just under $2 million. Koch Industries has given another $250,000 to the RGA this year. The RGA's top Virginia-based donor so far this year has been tobacco giant Altria, which gave over $300,000.
According to its mid-year report filed with the IRS, the RGA spent a total nationwide of almost $11.4 million through the first six months of 2016. Of that, $5 million went to the A Stronger Virginia PAC in January before the Republican primary, where Gillespie's leading opponent was Corey Stewart, a far-right member of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors; two days after Gillespie's primary win, his campaign received another $1 million from the PAC. The only other contribution the RGA reported in that period was a $25,000 donation to the “American Comeback Committee,” a group that ran ads in the last gubernatorial election in Hawaii, which has another election coming up next year.
A significant portion of Gillespie's top contributors are familiar Republican donors including Nevada casino mogul and current Republican National Committee (RNC) finance chair Steve Wynn, Wisconsin shipping supply magnate Dick Uihlein, and homebuilder Dwight Schar, who has residences in Virginia and Florida. Gillespie's top donor aside from the RGA and his own PAC has been Jay Faison of Charlotte, North Carolina, who in 2013 sold most of his shares in the audiovisual company he founded and invested $175 million to start the ClearPath Foundation to promote conservative clean energy solutions; he wrote Gillespie a $133,000 check in July. Last year Faison's PAC, ClearPath Action, spent over $3 million to help elect House and Senate Republicans.
Among the big-name donors who gave to Gillespie in September were Altria, which contributed $100,000 (and $110,000 overall); energy technology billionaire and Houston Texans owner Robert McNair, who contributed $100,000; and former President George W. Bush, who contributed $50,000. That's in addition to a $25,000 donation Bush made in March and another $25,000 he made last year to Let's Grow, Virginia!, a PAC Gillespie formed in 2015 for his gubernatorial run. Gillespie chaired the RNC during Bush's presidential re-election campaign.
Despite Northam's significant fundraising advantage, the race is still close, according to three recent polls. While two showed Northam with leads of four and six points, another conducted by Monmouth University showed Gillespie with a slim 48 to 47 percent advantage.
Meanwhile, the high-profile race has caught has caught the attention of some very big names: This week, former President Barack Obama is campaigning for Northam in Richmond, while Vice President Mike Pence stumped for Gillespie in southwest Virginia last weekend.
Paul Blest is a contributing writer for Facing South. He is also a contributing writer for the Outline and has written for The Nation and Current Affairs. He lives in Raleigh, North Carolina.