A Campaign Finance Reform Lesson – the 2021 Elections for the Virginia House of Delegates

by James C. Sherlock

Money in politics matters for a lot of reasons. Most of them are unsupportive of a republican form of government.

The majority of the Virginia political class is addicted to unlimited campaign donations, a powerful incumbent protection mechanism. They do not blush when they contend that transparency is all that is required when they oppose funding limits.

They avoid the fact that massive donations are transactional.

Dominion Energy’s enormous giving to Virginia candidates over the years has been pretty evenly split between the parties. Let’s call it what it is, a balanced investment portfolio. The ROI has been spectacular.

The Virginia Public Access Project (VPAP), enabled by Virginia’s Campaign Finance Disclosure Act of 2006, is our primary resource for shedding light into the dark corners of the money flows.

This report singles out donations to candidates for the House of Delegates in the past two years. We can see where the money comes from and assess for ourselves what the donors may expect in return for their largesse.

In the November 2021 House elections, the money advantage of the Democratic candidates did not prove decisive in garnering the votes of the electorate.

But money also buys access. We will never know the effects of this avalanche of dollars on the votes of the members of both parties going forward. Many of the politicians themselves won’t know.

Big picture – House of Delegates donors and recipients. When VPAP calculated all donations from all donors to House races in 2020-21, the top ten recipients were Democrats.

The top five donors to House races in 2020-21 were:

  1. House Democratic Caucus $7,869,218
  2. Democratic Party Of Virginia $4,278,314
  3. Clean Virginia Fund $3,500,333 House candidates (of $6,133,433 total). Clean Virginia’s money is from Charlottesville’s Michael Bills.  He personally gave $7,470,000 total in 2020-21, including the Clean Virginia donations  That does not include the nearly $2 million to House candidates who ran last fall contributed by his wife Sonjia Smith (of $2,775,600 total). We suspect their phone calls get returned.
  4. Republican Party of Virginia $3,224,467.
  5. Dominion Energy, $2,615,568. 62% of that was to Democratic candidates.  

Single interest donors. Perhaps the clearest answer to that question is the case of single interest donors. By definition, they know exactly what they expect. Single interest donors are defined in that survey as:

labor unions and non-business groups focused on social or ideological issues

Democrats were the overwhelming beneficiaries of the $7,400,313 donated by single interest contributors. This is where Clean Virginia’s donations are pigeonholed as part of the $4,320,658 contributed by environmental interests. It shows the limitations of the analysis that Mr. Bills is listed as having given only $2,500 in that category.

The first legislator on the single interest list is Elizabeth Guzman, at $431,263, then 26 more Democrats before reaching current Speaker of the House Todd Gilbert at $37,500. Then 13 more Democrats before reaching the next Republican on the list.

Switching to percentage of total funds raised from single-interest donors, we see 19 Democrats on the list, starting with Clint Jenkins at 43% and Guzman at 42%, before we get to the first Republican, Jeff Campbell, at 17%. Then seven more Democrats. Then Les Adams. Then eight more Democrats.

The bottom 40 on that list are all Republicans.

Business donors. When we look at business donors, defined as

companies who employ lobbyists,

of the nine politicians who received 75% or more of their contributions from businesses, five were Democrats and four were Republicans. When we switch to dollar amount, Democrats dominated. The top five recipients of business donations were Democrats, led by then Appropriations Committee Chairman Luke Torian with over $800,000 raised.

That may not have been Del. Torian’s doing. I don’t expect he had to ask. Appropriators draw corporate lobbyist donations like flowers attract bees.

The “other” category,

small businesses who do not have registered lobbyists

favored Republicans overwhelmingly. By percentage of their total donations from small businesses, the top 17 recipients were Republicans.

Political Party donors, defined as

party, caucus or candidate committees,

show another mixed picture. Of the 15 candidates that got more than 40% of their money from those sources, eight were Republicans. But once again in the dollars calculation, four of the five candidates who received over $500,000 were Democrats.

Small donors, 

those who have given $100 or less during election cycle

showed a balance of donations in percentage of a candidate’s funds raised. The top two recipients were Republicans and the next three Democrats. The dollar amounts heavily favored Democrats.

Individual donors

individuals who are not registered lobbyists

are also balanced in their giving relative to the percentage of a candidate’s total money raised. Of the 10 candidates who received more than 50% of their donations from individual donors, five were from each party.

The dollar amounts from individual donors tell once again a different story. The top six and nine of the top ten recipients were Democrats.

Campaign finance reform in the General Assembly. To give them their due, some Democrats in the General Assembly have proven more open to campaign finance limits than many of their Republican colleagues. There are not enough of either.

An honorable exception on the Republican side is Delegate Tim Anderson, R – Virginia Beach. He has introduced in the 2022 General Assembly HB 85, a bill that offers major campaign finance reform. The patrons are Anderson and Senator Joe Morrissey, D-Petersburg, another strong supporter of reform. HB 85 represents by far the most sweeping reform effort in the 2022 session.

As an object lesson to the patrons, H.B. 85 has not yet been assigned to the House Privileges and Elections Committee, nor even to the Speaker’s own Rules Committee.  

Virginia campaign finance reform interests rely on grassroots communications with politicians and published reports to make their case. They are fighting a good fight, but they are not winning.

So, in a state infamous for unlimited dollar donations, we are left with taking a look regularly at who is donating, how much, and to whom.

It is all we have at this point.