Ralph Northam’s Plan to Empower Virginia’s Political Class

Under pressure from his rival for accepting money from Dominion, Democratic Party candidate for governor Ralph Northam has called for a cap on campaign donations and a ban on corporate contributions.

“Virginia’s campaign finance system is a boondoggle that alienates its citizens and makes them lose faith in government,” Northam said in a statement. “Virginians across every part of the political spectrum want a system that is more responsive to the people, and less reliant on big checks from a few donors.”

Reports the Washington Post:

Northam’s plan would limit donations to $10,000 (with political parties excluded), bar businesses and corporations from giving and require nonprofits trying to influence Virginia elections to reveal their donors.

Hmmm. Interesting plan. Let’s see how it would work out in the 2017 gubernatorial race.

Based on campaign contributions reported so far on the Virginia Public Access Project website, the $10,000 cap on donations would hurt Northam but cripple his opponent Tom Perriello. Northam would lose $832,000 from the capped donations while his radical chic opponent, reliant upon a handful of well-heeled donors, would lose $1,243,000. The ban on business contributions would harm Northam to the tune of $220,000 while not touching Perriello at all — not one business entity was reported to have contributed to him — but the sums of money contributed by business are trivial compared to those donated by individuals. (For purposes of this analysis, I counted only business donations of $1,000 or more.)

If Northam’s plan had been enacted in this election cycle, it would have effectively knee-capped his opponent for the Democratic Party nomination. As the party-establishment candidate, Northam would have surged from a two-to-one fund-raising advantage over Perriello to a more than four-to-one advantage.

Of course, if Northam’s campaign-finance plan were enacted, it would apply to future elections, not this one, so no one can accuse him of designing it with the idea of taking out Perriello. But the numbers show how campaign reform proposals potentially can have an anti-democratic effect. Personally, I have no use for Perriello or his leftist brand of populism. I believe that Perriello would be a disaster as governor. But I do believe he injects a healthy competition into the democratic process.

Virginia’s political process is dominated by a two-party oligarchy which has erected all manner of rules to maintain the status quo. Northam’s plan would stifle the democratic impulse even more by making it even more difficult for outsider candidates to make a credible run at office.

Yeah, Virginia’s system of unlimited campaign contributions sucks. It gives rich people far more influence over the electoral outcome than ordinary Virginians. But is the alternative any better — bequeathing the advantage to those who rise up through the political machinery of the two-party duopoly and freezing out outsiders? The only way a third party — a Libertarian Party or a Green Party — stands a chance to make a successful run in Virginia is if an insurgent can persuade a handful of deep-pocketed sponsors to underwrite his or her campaign.

You can count on the two-party duopolists re-writing campaign donation laws to benefit themselves and squelch competitors. Northam proposes to outlaw business contributions. Why would he not also outlaw labor union contributions? Because labor unions donate overwhelmingly to Democrats — duh! It’s an iron rule of politics: People in power rig the rules to perpetuate their hold on power.

How about donations cycled through “leadership” committees? Northam would specifically exclude political parties from his caps and bans. As it turns out, he has received $110,000 from Common Good VA, a “leadership” committee set up by Northam’s political ally Governor Terry McAuliffe. Since 2014, the committee has raised $8.6 million in donations. Under Northam’s plan, contributions by Common Good VA to candidates would be exempted from the ban. Less clear from his press release is whether big donors would be permitted to contribute more than $10,000 leadership committees like Common Good VA and similar entities on the Republican side.

Northam’s plan does include a couple of good ideas. It would ban the personal use of campaign funds, and it would mandate donor disclosure for nonprofits seeking to influence Virginia elections. But the main effect of his proposals would not be to rid money from politics, but to fortify the control of Virginia’s political class over the money and suppress insurgent candidates. I don’t know anyone who thinks that’s a good idea but members of the political class.

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11 responses to “Ralph Northam’s Plan to Empower Virginia’s Political Class”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    I wonder if it it will take for Bacon to vote for Gillespie is if he promises to force UVA to lower it’s tuition!

    Of course if Northam promised that – Jim would claim it was bogus and you could not trust him, eh?


  2. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    If business donations are barred, so should donations from labor unions and interest groups such as the Sierra Club, as well as PACs. Allow donations from individuals only, and those cannot be bundled.

    1. djrippert Avatar


    2. LarrytheG Avatar

      TMT – I agree with you but the Sierra Club money is 1-100 or 1-1000 of the corporate… and labor is on the scale of 1-10…

      take a look:

      and here is the Sierra Club:

      Sierra Club – DC Chapter (Washington, DC): $500
      Sierra Club – Va Chapter (Richmond): $569,617
      Sierra Club PAC (San Francisco, CA): $659,700

      $1,487,282 Public Employees
      $1,302,526 Organized Labor

      now look at the rest:

      Amount Donor
      $13,153,700 Political
      $9,046,138 Real Estate/Construction
      $6,070,179 Health Care
      $5,743,928 Law
      $5,494,285 Retail, Services
      $5,405,769 Financial Services
      $4,498,540 Energy, Natural Resources
      $3,915,210 Technology, Communication
      $2,193,418 Transportation

      that’s 55 million corporate to 3 million labor to 1.5 million Sierra Club

  3. djrippert Avatar

    For how many years have I been making this point on this blog.
    Northam is right. But Jim misses two points. First, I believe a big chunk of Perriello’s money came from Soros. A Euro fat cat meddling in American politics? Kind of contrary to the liberal narrative of the Russians stealing the presidential election from Hillary. Second, Northam can voluntarily give back the money over the caps and still have more money than Perriello.

    I disagree with Jim’s point about reducing the money reducing the competitiveness of Virginia elections. Other than the one-term governor the big money goes to incumbents anyway. And … for the governor’s race – the off year BS means that virtually nobody votes in the primary. Hell, the Republiclowns frequently don’t waste their time with primaries preferring truly bizarre conventions instead. Either way – people don’t vote in the Governor’s primary because they saw some expensive TV commercial. They vote because they are heavily politicized. As for the general election – by then Ole’ Tricky Dick Saslaw will be drenching his candidate with as much of his accumulated money as possible. No Libertarian (or Green Party or whatever) candidate stands a chance.

    Northam is right – get the money out of politics and limit what the candidate himself can contribute to his or her own campaign.

    1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

      I also agree strongly that the candidate’s ability to self-fund should be limited. A candidate should be able to put more of his/her money in the campaign beyond what is allowed for contributions, but the Mark Warners of this world should be capped.

      And I’d go further if permitted by the Constitution (some of these will need an amendment to the U.S. Constitution), no donations across state lines. Virginia election for Virginians only. Etc. If we really wanted to clip influence we’d limit contributions to residents of the candidate’s district. Only candidates for U.S. Senate and statewide constitutional offices should be permitted to get contributions from anywhere in the state.

  4. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: Soros.. true… but how much on the GOP side will come from Koch – and a slew of anonymous dark money donors who launder through the PACs and through 3rd party advertising for the candidates?

    here’s Open Secrets tally of 2015-2016 political money in Virginia:

    Total Itemized Contributions ** $196,927,739 6
    Total to Candidates and Parties $163,490,597 N/A
    Total to Democrats $66,240,029 8
    Total to Republicans $93,011,265 6
    Individual donations ($200+)* $131,228,535 7
    Soft money donations $40,199,503 7
    PAC donations $69,936,676 1


    1. djrippert Avatar

      This isn’t Democrat vs Republican. It’s Democrat vs Democrat. The Koch Brothers are irrelevant in the Democratic primary. However, the narrative of foreigners meddling in US politics is relevant. It’s one of the major charges leveled at Trump by the Dems. And now … Perriello is taking large sums of money from a Hungarian.

      This is a very smart move by Northam. He may be more apt than I thought.

  5. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    Darn that pesky First Amendment.

    I think you can prohibit or limit corporate dollars legally, but as has been recently pointed out much of the business activity in his country is conducted by sole proprietors or something other than a C-Corp, so that’s hardly fair unless it is across the board. If you place a limit on each business entity or individual, the number of donations will proliferate as family members or multiple entities owned by the same individual chip in. Union cash is indeed far less than corporate cash, but it is rare to see CEOs on a phone bank – the unions provide a lot of donated labor to campaigns. Does cash corrupt but volunteer time does not? Frankly I think the time is harder to ignore than the cash when the chips are cashed in after the election.

    I have always believed that the solution is sunshine, transparency, including full reporting by the “dark money” entities that both parties publicly berate but privately love. In recent years I have become open to limits, because a small group have abused the system and tainted the reputations of everybody. But everybody who gives money wants something, every individual, every union, every association, and every major corporation. They will all call the recipient and say, please vote for this! The $100 donor can be more blatant and insistent than the big donor. And, as noted, the campaign volunteer.

    Money is like water and will find a way to flow around the rocks any way you arrange them.

  6. LarrytheG Avatar

    still not convinced that standing on a soapbox and blathering your view is the same as spending a ton of money on media advertising … but I’ll go along with Steve about disclosure… and I wonder how many folks realize that what’s on VPAP is not automatically and easily available as soon as the money moves.

    and I still point out that PACs and other critters essentially launder money .. so that the original donor is effectively hidden.

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