A Virginia legislative panel formed to study campaign finance reform failed to deliver its final report on Wednesday in yet another setback for advocates who say the cost of elections in the commonwealth is untenable.
Virginia’s rules governing election spending are among the least restrictive in the country, with virtually no limits on the amount of money individuals and corporations can donate to state politicians. The General Assembly created the subcommittee almost two years ago to review potential reforms, including limits on political donations and new disclosure requirements.
The panel was initially scheduled to complete its work in 2021, but state lawmakers granted it a 12-month extension early last year citing delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The subcommittee was due to release a final report of its findings and recommendations at the start of the 2023 legislative session on Jan. 11.
That deadline has now come and gone. While the subcommittee did issue a draft report in October 2021, it never held a vote, as required by law, to formalize the recommendations. It then went through 2022 without holding a single meeting.
Neither state Del. Margaret Ransone (R-Westmoreland) nor state Sen. Lionell Spruill (D-Chesapeake), who co-chair the body, responded to OpenSecrets’ requests for comment. But the Virginia Mercury reported last month that there was confusion within the subcommittee over who, exactly, its members were as well as logistical challenges in finding a time for everyone involved to meet at the state capitol in Richmond.
“It was a missed opportunity,” Nancy Morgan, a campaign reform advocate with the group BigMoneyOutVA, said of the subcommittee’s inaction. She noted that four out of five Virginians think there’s too much money in politics.
The joint resolution establishing the subcommittee noted that the spiraling cost of state elections not only forces politicians to spend more time fundraising as opposed to governing, but also tests “the integrity of the candidates who ask for money and the donors who respond.”
The resolution called on the subcommittee to review the effectiveness of the state’s present laws and consider reforms — including contribution limits, public financing programs and more detailed disclosure requirements — with the aim of promoting “public confidence” in Virginia’s campaign finance system.
Large donors dominate state elections
Virginia is one of four states — along with Nebraska, Oregon and Utah — that do not limit the amount of money candidates and political action committees can receive from individual donors, corporations, labor unions, party committees or other candidates.
Under this system, the cost of Virginia legislative races more than tripled over the last two decades, from $38.9 million in 1999 to nearly $134.8 million in 2019, when adjusted for inflation, according to an OpenSecrets analysis of campaign finance reports. Likewise, the cost of gubernatorial races rose from $58.4 million in 2001 to nearly $188 million in 2021, when adjusted for inflation.
Races for governor and lieutenant governor each set new fundraising records in 2021, which ranks among the commonwealth’s costliest election years. The race for attorney general was the second most expensive in the state’s history. Twenty-three state House races attracted more than $1 million in political donations and more than a quarter also hit all-time fundraising records.
As election costs have grown, so too has the role of large donors, whose contributions make up an enormous slice of candidates’ total fundraising. In 2021, nearly two-thirds of the money raised by state candidates in Virginia came from large donors contributing more than $50,000 in total to campaigns, OpenSecrets found. By contrast, 8.4% of the money raised came from small donors who gave $200 or less. These figures do not account for the vast sums of money wealthy individuals, corporations and special interest groups also direct to party committees and independent PACs, which collectively spend millions on state elections.
State Del. Tim Anderson (R-Virginia Beach), a self-described “campaign finance hawk,” said he worries about the level of influence this amount of money can buy and wants the state’s campaign finance laws to be more like those of the federal government.
“If I was running for a federal position … the maximum a donor could give me is $2,900,” he told OpenSecrets. “But as a delegate, I can receive unlimited money. And some delegates have received $500,000 from donors, $100,000 from donors. That’s just a — that’s a broken system.”
“That is an insane concept to really wrap your head around,” Anderson said. “Three million dollars. For a delegate spot. And, you know, that repeats all over Virginia in the higher profile races.”
‘If kids have access to the candy, they want the candy’
Public surveys suggest that a majority of voters from both parties support limiting the influence of money in elections. In 2021, a poll commissioned by BigMoneyOutVA and VaOurWay found that 75% of Virginians, including 82% of Democrats and 67% of Republicans, approved of contribution limits. More than half favored barring corporations from giving money directly to campaigns, and 59% expressed support for a state constitutional amendment that would give Virginia more flexibility to regulate election spending.
Yet proposed campaign finance reforms rarely get far in the Virginia General Assembly. After the subcommittee released its draft report in late 2021, state lawmakers from both parties introduced almost two dozen bills seeking to improve transparency and limit political spending. Several of the bills adopted language from the draft and would have codified the subcommittee’s unofficial recommendations, which called for a ban on the personal use of campaign funds, changes to election disclosure laws and improvements to the state’s electronic reporting systems, among other transparency reforms.
Only two bills crossed the governor’s desk — House Bill 125, which increased the fine for political advertisement violations to $25,000, and House Bill 492, which established a records retention policy and system for auditing disclosure reports. House Bill 86, which sought to establish a searchable campaign finance database, passed the state House and Senate but failed to secure $147,200 in funding needed to move forward.
“You’re asking the children to guard the candy store,” Anderson said of his colleagues’ resistance to reform. “If kids have access to the candy, they want the candy, and the system is set up to where the more powerful you are in politics, the more money you can raise.”
HB 86 was among a handful of campaign finance reforms the freshman lawmaker introduced or co-sponsored during his first term in office. Another one of his bills would have placed a federal-style cap on the amount of money candidates can accept from a single donor. Like many other reform bills, it died in committee.
In November, Anderson filed a resolution to impose term limits on state lawmakers, which he says would clear a path towards campaign finance reforms.
“These politicians get so powerful because they’ve done this for so long,” he said. “They can raise so much money that they insulate themselves from any possible challenge.”
Democratic and Republican lawmakers have also resurrected several proposed reforms from the previous legislative session.
Morgan is hopeful some of these bills will get to a vote. While she acknowledged that the upcoming elections in Virginia could present a challenge, she said reform bills also give lawmakers an opportunity to show that they care about good governance.
2023 elections likely to attract more big money
All 140 seats in Virginia’s state legislature are on the ballot in November. In addition, primary elections this year could be unusually contentious after a court-approved redistricting plan forced several incumbents of the same party into the same districts. According to the Virginia Public Access Project, a nonprofit organization that tracks elections in the state, 21 delegates and 12 state senators are set to compete against another incumbent for their party’s nomination.
While state law prohibits legislators from raising campaign money during the General Assembly’s legislative session, PACs are already drawing large contributions ahead of what is expected to be an expensive election cycle. Twenty-two committees have reported receiving one or more donations exceeding $10,000 since the New Year, according to records obtained by VPAP.
The largest donation came from Securiport LLC, a border security company that dumped $1 million into a recently-formed PAC, Renew Virginia, on Jan. 4. Juan Pablo Segura, whose father is the president and CEO of the company, is rumored to be a potential Republican candidate for a state Senate seat covering Loudoun County, according to Virginia Scope.
Meanwhile, hedge-fund manager Michael Bills — the state’s top individual donor in 2021 — has made sure his PAC is starting the new year with its coffers full. Shortly after the midterm elections in November 2022, Bills put $2.5 million into the Clean Virginia Fund, a group he formed in 2018 to counter Dominion Energy’s political influence in the state. The PAC provides donations to state candidates who do not accept money from Virginia’s largest publicly-regulated electric utility companies, a spokesperson told OpenSecrets.