Outside Money Floods Virginia Governor Race

The national parties and special-interest groups have budgeted tens of millions of dollars to spend.

Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez (right) talks to California megadonor Tom Steyer following a press conference for Steyer's NextGen America and immigration activist groups in Falls Church, Va. on Sept. 12.
Zach C. Cohen
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Zach C. Cohen
Sept. 17, 2017, 3:15 p.m.

FALLS CHURCH, Va.—Months after high-profile special congressional elections and a year before potentially power-shifting midterms, party activists and donors are keying in on the race that every four years tends to serve as a thermometer of the national mood.

As campaign finance filings due Friday affirmed, the open-seat contest for Virginia governor is again attracting national money as outside groups representing a wide spectrum of interests are weighing in.

Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam enters the final two months with national trends on his side and a $3 million cash-on-hand advantage over Republican Ed Gillespie, a former national party chair and lobbyist. But both sides see the race as competitive in an unpredictable political environment.

“I honestly believe Virginia is the epicenter of politics over the next 60 days in the United States of America,” California billionaire Tom Steyer said in an interview last week.

Steyer himself has invested heavily. Standing alongside Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez at a news conference here last week, Steyer pledged $1 million for a partnership with immigration rights groups to mobilize voters on the issue in Northern Virginia, in the wake of white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville.

Steyer’s NextGen America also plans to spend $2 million to target college students, and the group is contributing to a $2 million digital campaign—which kicked off by highlighting Gillespie’s opposition to abortion rights—cosponsored with Planned Parenthood, Priorities USA, Progress Virginia, and the Virginia League of Conservation Voters PAC.

“This isn’t simply an issue of Ralph Northam and Eddie Gillespie,” Perez said before urging activists to fight for immigrants, jobs, and health care. “Virginia is ground zero in these battles. And to win these battles, we have to be organized.”

Northam’s vocal disapproval of mandatory transvaginal ultrasounds while in the state legislature five years ago helped earn him the support of abortion-rights groups. Planned Parenthood has telegraphed a $3 million budget for volunteers and mailers to elect Northam, and NARAL Pro-Choice America and its state chapter began door-knocking campaigns this month that will continue through November. Meanwhile, the antiabortion Susan B. Anthony List plans to run digital ads for Gillespie.

Environmental groups are also getting involved for Northam. LCV, bolstered by $1.4 million from the national headquarters, launched a $1.1 million field program in the Richmond area and gave $700,000 to Northam last month.

Unions, including the National Education Association and the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, have shelled out money for Northam. Seven national unions are also running “education and electoral programs” through a joint PAC called For Our Future, according a spokesman.

The race has also been a battleground over gun control, with the National Rifle Association endorsing Gillespie. On the other side of the issue, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund says it will spend $700,000 for Northam. A spokesman for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, which has vouched for Northam, said it is also “looking into some opportunities” to run advertisements in October.

Let America Vote, a pro-voting rights group helmed by former Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander, boasts it knocked on “over 130,000 doors in just over two months” supporting Northam and legislative candidates running this year.

In a phone interview, Kander wouldn’t rule out running paid media but said the group’s focus was on “voter contacts” on “a variety of issues.”

“We wanted to start making a difference as soon as possible after organizing in February,” Kander said. “And the only thing stopping Republicans in Virginia from passing oppressive voting laws is the governor’s veto,” thanks to the GOP’s control of both legislative chambers.

Of course, party apparatuses are also shelling out support. The Democratic Governors Association has given $2 million to Northam, and the DNC has slotted another $1.5 million for Democrats statewide, with races for lieutenant governor and attorney general also on the ballot. The National Democratic Redistricting Committee, a group backed by former President Obama and former Attorney General Eric Holder, complemented the DGA’s $140,000 in donations to the state Democratic Party with another $500,000.

DGA spokesman Jared Leopold said the NDRC’s donation would aid “field efforts” supporting Northam and House of Delegates candidates.

“On both the Democratic and Republican side, people see Virginia as a big race that has significant implications,” including for which party controls the redistricting process after the 2020 census, Leopold said.

Republicans have spent millions as well. Gillespie’s biggest donor as of Aug. 31 was the Republican Governors Association, which has given him $3 million through its state PAC, A Stronger Virginia, which it seeded with $8 million.

RGA spokesman Jon Thompson declined to say how much more the group will spend but said it was “all in” for Gillespie.

The RGA and a nonprofit affiliate, State Solutions Inc, have run digital ads targeting Northam for his support for a natural-gas pipeline and voting against disclosing sexual predators’ work addresses. (On the latter, the RGA cites a February 2016 tiebreaker vote to send a bill on the topic back to committee. Northam spokesman David Turner said Northam felt “it needed to be considered further” and cited the pediatric neurologist’s “career helping children” as evidence that the claim was “false” and “disgusting.”)

Americans for Prosperity, an arm of the Koch brothers’ political network, is also spending at least $1.8 million opposing Northam, running mailers and a TV ad telling Virginians to “vote against” Northam, citing his attendance record at economic development meetings.

“It’s not a decision we undertake lightly,” AFP President Tim Phillips told reporters this month of the group’s express advocacy against Northam. Phillips, a Leesburg, Virginia resident, says he voted for Gillespie in the primary. “My home state is falling behind on too many issues.”

Individual out-of-state donations are also flowing to candidates, who can accept unlimited contributions. Prominent Republican donors Jay Faison, Stephen Wynn, Richard Uihlein, and Foster Friess forked over between $20,000 and $133,000 to Gillespie since July, according to reports filed Friday with the State Board of Elections and compiled by the Virginia Public Access Project. Meanwhile, Fred Eychaner of Chicago gave $125,000 to the Virginia Democratic Party.

Even more national figures could jump into the fray. Gillespie has invited President Trump and his cabinet to stump for him. Vice President Mike Pence and wife Karen Pence have made plans to fundraise for Gillespie, a onetime aide to former President George W. Bush.

There has been national interest in the race all year. Former Rep. Tom Perriello’s populist challenge to Northam in the Democratic primary was largely funded by out-of-state donors. Perriello, now a staunch Northam supporter, continues to raise funds for Win Virginia, which is working to flip seats in the state House. One of the group’s largest donors is LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman of California, who has given the group $300,000.

“Democrats have not always been able to focus as many resources at the state and local level,” Perriello said. “And I think what you’re seeing, from the activists and grassroots groups to the candidates themselves to the donors, is a lot more interest in state and local offices. And Virginia just happens to be the prime mover just because the nature of the schedule.”

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