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Campaign Finance Reform? Maybe Next Cycle. This One’s Too Important

U.S. News & World Report logo U.S. News & World Report 10/7/2021 Elliott Davis
FILE - Virginia gubernatorial candidates, Democrat Terry McAuliffe left, and Republican Glenn Youngkin, pose for a photo, during the Virginia FREE leadership luncheon, in McLean, Va. McAuliffe and Youngkin are set to square off in Virginia’s first gubernatorial debate of the general election season, Thursday, Sept. 16. The race is being closely watched as a possible indicator of voter sentiment heading into the 2022 national midterm elections. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen, File) © (Cliff Owen/AP-File) FILE - Virginia gubernatorial candidates, Democrat Terry McAuliffe left, and Republican Glenn Youngkin, pose for a photo, during the Virginia FREE leadership luncheon, in McLean, Va. McAuliffe and Youngkin are set to square off in Virginia’s first gubernatorial debate of the general election season, Thursday, Sept. 16. The race is being closely watched as a possible indicator of voter sentiment heading into the 2022 national midterm elections. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen, File)

Campaign finance reform. It's a frequent political talking point that's usually just that – something that gets a lot of lip service but rarely any action.

Now, more than a decade after the landmark Citizens United decision and the movements it sparked, Virginia – with its age-old law allowing across-the-board unlimited campaign contributions – should have been an easy and obvious target of real reform. Instead, the two main candidates in the commonwealth's 2021 gubernatorial campaign are shattering fundraising records and political analysts still believe that legal changes there are highly unlikely.

Terry McAuliffe and Glenn Youngkin have raised a combined $66 million through August, which is more than double the previous record at this point of the state's gubernatorial campaign, according to data from the Virginia Public Access Project. Youngkin, the Republican nominee, has brought in $5 million more than McAuliffe, Virginia's former Democratic governor, but that lead is due in part to the businessman's self-financing. McAuliffe, however, has a strong advantage in cash on hand with just a month left in the race, according to an Open Secrets analysis. Both candidates are pounding the airwaves, with more than $20 million spent to date between them on broadcast TV ads alone, according to VPAP tracking.

Part of the reason they have been able to raise and spend this much money? Virginia is one of only a handful of states that allows for unlimited contributions, with donor disclosure being the only real form of regulation, according to VPAP. Candidates can accept money from any source, the nonprofit notes. In fact, Virginia is one of only five states that has no limits on contributions from corporations, the Richmond Times-Dispatch has reported.

"This state is probably more of a free-for-all than most states," says Bob Holsworth, a longtime Virginia political analyst who was a panelist for the first debate between McAuliffe and Youngkin.

The effects of the state's anything-goes campaign finance law are evident in the race beyond the broad numbers alone. Both candidates have received at least 75% of their funds from donors who gave $10,000 or more, and small donors – those who gave less than $100 – have had a minimal impact on their campaign war chests, according to Open Secrets. McAuliffe and Youngkin have also both accepted multi-million dollar donations from each major political party's governors' association, as well as several six-figure donations from wealthy individuals, Open Secrets notes.

The lack of regulation in Virginia means that a lot of money is being donated from other parts of the country. Close to 30% of McAuliffe's funds have come from out-of-state, according to VPAP. The former governor, who served from 2014 to 2018, has accepted large amounts of cash from Maryland, New York and Washington, D.C., in particular, according to Alex Keena, an assistant professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University. The Virginia Public Access Project notes that only 8% of Youngkin's donations have come from out-of-state, but nearly half of his funds are from self-financing.

"All of this money flowing into Virginia – much of it out-of-state – raises questions about the candidates' priorities once they get into office and whether they have an incentive to connect with ordinary voters once they are in office," Keena says in an email.


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Past attempts to reform the state's law have "ended up going nowhere," says Mark Rozell, the dean of George Mason University's Schar School of Policy and Government. Just earlier this year, the Virginia state Senate scrapped legislation that would have prevented legislators from using campaign money for personal expenses, according to the Virginia Mercury. Broader talks will continue, however: A state panel is currently assessing whether to recommend changes in Virginia law to the General Assembly and has been tasked with producing a report for lawmakers by Nov. 1, according to the Times-Dispatch. But political experts maintain that this and any other attempts at reform are probably only window dressing, even with the gubernatorial campaign shattering fundraising records.

"I have closely followed Virginia elections since the early '80s and can say that after almost every state office election cycle there are pronouncements about the need for campaign finance reform here, sometimes followed by reform commission studies and legislative proposals that ultimately die," Rozell says in an email.

Analysts add that reform in Virginia is unlikely because people in power are indifferent toward the effects of unlimited contributions and more concerned about how possible limits might hurt their chances of winning.

"I would really be surprised," Holsworth says, referring to whether reforms are coming. "So many people here are comfortable with this idea of 'disclosure.'"

Progressive candidates – such as former Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy – have expressed previously a desire to pursue campaign finance reform in the commonwealth, but "it's a big step from that to getting the sitting members to vote on something that can constrain themselves," says Brendan Glavin, a senior data analyst for Open Secrets.

"One reason is a simple, universal truth about politics: politicians rarely support reforms to election rules that have served them in the past," Keena adds, referring to the rationale behind change being doubtful.

Beyond politicians' self-centered reasons for wanting to avoid reform, they are also banking on the possibility that the public might not care much about the issue, says Holsworth. He cites an old quote from Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who has said that there is about as much voter interest in campaign finance reform as there is in "static cling," according to The Baltimore Sun. This indifference, along with a political landscape that is increasingly polarized, allows for the status quo.

Meanwhile, money will likely continue pouring into the Virginia gubernatorial campaign as the clock ticks on Nov. 2. McAuliffe and Youngkin are breaking financial records not only because of the system that enables this, but also because the race is "so closely competitive," Rozell says. A Monmouth University poll released in late September shows the former governor with a 5-point lead over the Republican businessman, and The Cook Political Report has the race as a toss-up.

"As the polls continue to tighten, the stakes get bigger and contributors are willing to step up and give more," Rozell adds, while also noting that Virginia's off-year gubernatorial elections get more national attention when they are competitive, which impacts fundraising too.

But as donations pile up, change in Virginia when it comes to campaign finance is still a longshot, according to Keena.

"My take on this issue is that probably nothing will change any time soon," he says, "except the fundraising figures will continue to climb and more and more money will flow into Virginia from wealthy donors and out-of-state lobbyists."

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