Democratic 26th District candidates both try small-donor approach — but reveal different campaign spending philosophies as they try to chase Del. Wilt.

By Andrew Jenner

Editor’s Note: Randi B. Hagi interviewed Brent Finnegan for this story.

By emphasizing small, individual donations and not seeking corporate money from power companies such as Dominion Energy, the two Democrats running for the party’s nomination in the 26th House of Delegates seat this fall are following larger trends within the party.

And according to first-quarter campaign finance reports released last week, they both out-raised incumbent Tony Wilt in the quarter (R-Broadway) – although Wilt’s campaign has considerably more money in the bank than either of his potential general-election opponents.

“We’re proud of the fact that we have so much local support, grassroots support. We’re a people-driven campaign,” said Brent Finnegan, who led all 26th District candidates with $11,361.03 in contributions between Jan. 1 and March 31. “A $3 donation from someone who’s on a fixed income or can’t afford to give much more, means as much to me as $1,000 from someone with means who can afford to give more.”

Cathy Copeland, the second candidate for the Democratic nomination, raised $8,340.18.

“I’m thrilled that so many people generously donated to my campaign,” she said. “When I was planning my campaign, I wanted to gain $10,000 in receipts for the primary. We’re well on our way there … and I’m excited that I’m focusing my spending on connecting with voters.”

Republican incumbent Tony Wilt raised $5,897.78 from 24 total donors but enters April with a campaign balance of nearly $54,000, compared to a little over $9,000 for Finnegan and just under $3,000 for Copeland. Wilt also is running unopposed in the primary and has the advantage of watching both Democrats spend their cash just to get that party’s nomination.

This year’s campaign for the seat brought back the same candidates from 2017, when Finnegan defeated Copeland in a firehouse primary but lost the general election to Wilt by 10 points. But Democrats see the district — which includes roughly the same number of voters in Harrisonburg as in the Rockingham County portion —  as potentially in reach after Democratic U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine won the 26th District vote on his way to an easy reelection across the state.

Finnegan reported the highest number of donors, with 178 total contributions from 132 people, and $4,777.03 in donations of less than $100. Copeland collected 88 contributions from 83 donors. She raised $2,838 in donations of less than $100.

Wilt’s money came from a variety of sources, including companies, PACs and individual donors. He did not respond to interview requests for this story.

Democrats differ on big-picture spending philosophy

Copeland is running her campaign with an all-volunteer staff, a strategy that allows her to spend more on priorities such as meeting voters and improving her name recognition. Her campaign spent $2,715.60 during the first quarter.

“I think that campaigns can get overwhelmed by all the cash that they’re trying to bring in,” Copeland said. “[Relying on volunteers] is something that could be done in more campaigns.”

Finnegan spent $10,376.56 over the same period, with campaign staff being his biggest expense. He said fairly paying for time spent on his campaign is part of living up to the values he’s running on.

Finnegan ended his unsuccessful 2017 campaign with more than $7,000 left in his campaign fund.

Pointing out that the race was decided by less that 2,000 votes and a Democratic takeover of the General Assembly was a possibility, Copeland said she wondered “how much that $7,000 could have gone to flipping the 26th District.”

“If people are giving me money for my campaign in 2019, I’m going to spend it so I can be elected in 2019. I’m not going to line my pockets for a future run,” said Copeland, who hopes to reform state electoral law by prohibiting campaign “war chests,” capping donations and banning corporate donations.

“I’m not trying to say bad things about [Finnegan]. I’m just pointing out that I might handle my finances differently,” she added.

Finnegan defended the decision to retain some money, saying he knew getting elected could require more than one run to spread his name and message.

“Until we have public financing of campaigns, we need [money] to be competitive and to win in November,” he said.

The Democratic primary election will be held on June 11.

Money pours into short GOP primary campaign for HD25 nomination

In less than four weeks between declaring his candidacy on March 6 and the end of the year’s first campaign finance reporting period, local businessman Chris Runion raised $64,941 in contributions. Most of that total came in large donations from other area business leaders, including a $15,000 gift from Bill Holtzman, founder of the Holtzman Oil Corporation in Mount Jackson. According to the Virginia Public Access Project, Holtzman has given $2.9 million to Republican candidates in Virginia elections since 1997.

Runion also received donations of at least $1,000 from more than a dozen other people. After spending a little more than $6,500 last reporting cycle, Runion entered April with $58,429.75 in his campaign fund.

Still, Marshall Pattie, a JMU professor and Augusta County Supervisor, had considerably more campaign money on April 1, reporting a balance of $75,457.53. That’s largely because Pattie loaned his campaign more than $71,000 at the end of March. He also received several large contributions, including $1,000 from Ed Gillespie’s PAC– Let’s Grow, Virginia! – and $3,000 from John Root, founder of Blue Ridge Lumber. Pattie spent $10,230.26 during the reporting period.

As of this morning, no campaign finance report for Richard Fox, the third candidate in the race, is available on the Department of Elections’ website. While Fox told The Citizen he filed his report by last week’s deadline, a Department of Elections spokesperson said Monday that none had been received.

The nomination will be decided in a firehouse primary on April 27, with one voting location in each of the three counties that are part of the 25th District. In Rockingham County, voting will happen at the Bridgewater Town Hall.

State Sen. Obenshain has 35 times more money than Democratic opponent 

For the second election in a row, State Sen. Mark Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg) faces a challenge from Democrat April Moore.

Obenshain, a state senator since 2004 and the Republican candidate for attorney general in 2013, finished the first quarter of the year with more than $232,000 in his campaign fund.

Moore, a writer and activist from Shenandoah County, ended the period with $6,447.59 in the bank. Moore received a total of $16,125 through 64 contributions, with no cash contribution larger than $1,000.

Meanwhile, Obenshain received $38,273.11 in contributions in the first quarter of the year. That includes $4,000 from the Virginia Trial Lawyers PAC and Allen, Allen, Allen & Allen, a Richmond law firm. Over the four-year campaign cycle to date, the Virginia Trial Lawyers PAC has given $21,000 to Obenshain’s campaign. Bill Holtzman of the Holtzman Oil Corporation has given $10,500 in the current cycle. The ending balance for Obenshain’s campaign fund on March 31 was $232,230.05.

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