Big Money: Fundraising in local General Assembly races reaches six figures

By Jeremiah Knupp, senior contributor

The most recent campaign finance reports filed with the Virginia Department of Elections show that local candidates have raised nearly $1.5 million in their quests for a seat in the General Assembly in this November’s election. This year, all four House of Delegates districts and both state Senate districts that cover Rockingham County and Harrisonburg are contested, and the races are generating record sums of cash.  

While The Washington Post reports that, statewide, Democrats are outraising Republicans, the opposite is true in central Virginia and the Valley. In all six races with a Rockingham County or Harrisonburg connection, Republican candidates have outraised their Democratic opponents, usually at least four to one. A notable regional exception is Jennifer Lewis, the Democratic candidate in the 20th House of Delegates district, an area that includes parts of Augusta, Nelson and Highland counties, and the cities of Waynesboro and Staunton. Lewis’s year-to-date fundraising has beat her Republican opponent, John Avoli, by just under $1,000, though Avoli is catching up, outraising Lewis by $8,000 over the last reporting period. Both candidates are competing for the office recently vacated by Steve Landes.

The closest local race, in fundraising terms, is the 26th District House of Delegates contest, where Democratic candidate Brent Finnegan has raised just over $70,000 since January, while his Republican opponent Tony Wilt has gathered nearly $108,000. In the July and August reporting period, Finnegan outraised Wilt by nearly $8,000.

While these figures reflect money raised since January 1 of this year, many candidates, like Finnegan, announced their candidacy in 2018 and have been raising money ever since. Meanwhile, incumbents like Wilt are in a constant state of fundraising. Republican Mark Obenshain, the incumbent 26th District Senator, has raised $170,000 so far this year, though his campaign committee has brought in at least $140,000 in the three years since his last election in 2015, leaving it with $270,000 on hand as of August 31.

Democratic candidates like Finnegan often emphasize that much of their campaign cash comes from small donors who give $100 or less. In nearly all the local races, Democratic candidates had more small donors than larger donors. The only exception was 24th District Democratic Senate candidate Annette Hyde, who only had 20 percent of her donors contribute $100 or less. Five of the six Republicans in those races have reported more donations of greater than $100 than small donations, with 58th District House of Delegates Republican candidate Rob Bell, whose received nearly the same number of small and large contributions (note that these splits reflect number of donors, not total dollar amount). Finnegan rules the small donor game with 1,532 of his 1,765 donations (87 percent) being $100 or less.

Candidates for state legislative offices are required to file eight finance reports during the course of an election year cycle. A closer look at the data these reports contain is an insight into Virginia’s campaign finance law.

Unlike Federal elections there are no limits to contributions to state-level elections in Virginia. Nick Freitas, a Republican serving as the 30th District delegate, who finds himself both an incumbent and a write-in candidatereceived a $500,000 donation from out-of-state megadonor Richard Uihlein in July (a contribution of $1,000 or more must be reported to the state Department of Elections within a day of receiving it).

That Freitas donation highlights another aspect of state campaign finance laws. In his opposed 2017 race Freitas spent just $73,000. He says much of the half-a-million dollars will be passed on, in his name, to other campaigns in swing districts throughout the state, adding another layer to the original source of the money. Since receiving the donation Freitas’s campaign has made nine $5,000 contributions to other candidates in the state, including one to Wilt, and 22 additional donations of between $500 and $2,000.

Contributions cannot be made to state executives or legislators during an active legislation session and candidates cannot accept anonymous donations. As in federal elections, state candidates cannot accept contributions from outside the U.S., but they can take money from individuals, political action committees (PACs) and businesses from around the country. The name, address and profession, or associated business, must be reported of anyone contributing more than $100 to a candidate over the course of an election cycle. Due to this rule, Republicans allege that many of Democrat’s small donation are coming out-of-state through organizations like ActBlue or the Sister District Project.

The Virginia Public Access Project calculates where a candidate’s large donations come from. When it comes to large donors, most local candidates are getting at least 80 percent of these donations from within the state. The candidate with the most out-of-state large donations was 26th District Senate Democratic candidate April Moore, who has received 37 percent of her contributions over $100 from donors outside of Virginia.

Despite local races awash in cash, the deluge is yet to come. Historically, the final month before Election Day is when candidates bring in the most cash. In their 2017 contest, both Finnegan and Wilt raised nearly 25 percent of their total funds in the month leading up to the November election. Regardless of whether that holds true this year, 2019 is already well on its way to be the most expensive state legislative contest the area has ever seen, with all candidates reporting a total of $1,386,280 in campaign donations between Jan. 1 and Aug. 31 of this year.

In 2015, the last time all six area legislative seats were up for election, total campaign donations over the same period were $790,941; in 2011, that figure was just $391,892.

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