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Millionaires Leave Their Mark on Virginia Governor's Race

A sign on a wall saying 'VOTE'
A sign welcomes voters to a polling location in Henrico County. (Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Conservative businessmen Pete Snyder and Glenn Youngkin have vowed to bring board-room discipline to the governor’s mansion. The latest round of campaign finance reports show they’re also carrying over another asset from their private sector days: money. 

Nearly 80% of the $6.8 million Pete Snyder raised last quarter came from his own loans, in-kind contributions to his own campaign, or donations he’d previously made to his political action committee. Youngkin took in nearly $7.7 million, with over 73% of that total coming from loans to his campaign and in-kind contributions from Youngkin LLC, his investment firm.

The candidates lead the seven-person Republican pack in cash on hand ahead of a May 8 convention. Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe -- another millionaire businessman -- holds a commanding lead among Democrats and the field at large with $8.5 million in cash on hand as of the end of March. 

Both Snyder and Youngkin have spent millions on TV and radio advertising as they barnstorm the state ahead of a May 8 nominating convention. John McGlennon, a professor of government at the College of William and Mary, said it remained to be seen if the self-funding would pay off for the relatively small, plugged-in universe of GOP convention-goers. 

“The money in and of itself is no guarantee of success, though it sure allows you to get your message out there,” McGlennon said. 

In a statement, Youngkin spokesperson Macaulay Porter said Youngkin had taken in more money than other GOP candidates even without his own cash.

“Glenn is investing in his own victory and Republican candidates across Virginia because he’s committed to winning and is tired of seeing his home state fall further and further behind due to poor leadership and bad decisions by political insiders in Richmond,” Porter said.

Snyder’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment. 

Self-financing is hardly unprecedented in Virginia’s free-flowing campaign finance system. Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) drew from his personal wealth in his unsuccessful 1996 run for U.S. Senate against former Sen. John Warner (R-VA), leading the Republican to liken his opponent to the “robber barons of the late 1800s,” the Virginian-Pilot reported at the time. McAuliffe, meanwhile, poured over $750,000 of his own money in his first, unsuccessful bid to win the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 2009, though he has not made that move in his latest bid.

McGlennon said the money needed to be matched with a compelling message to voters.

“You can see it in the most recent presidential campaign,” McGlennon said. “Mike Bloomberg, Tom Steyer and others put enormous investments of their personal money into campaigns and got very little return for it.”

The strategy is not limited to Virginia Republicans this cycle. Del. Mark Levine (D-Alexandria) loaned his lieutenant governor campaign $350,000. 

Candidates in both parties have also drawn heavily from millionaire donors. Snyder drew a $1 million check from investment banker Mark Kimsey, a regular donor to Mark Warner in his re-election campaign last year.

Clean Virginia, a fund formed by Charlottesville investor Michael Bills, and his wife, Sonjia Smith, collectively gave Democrats $1.26 million in the last quarter alone, including $750,000 to gubernatorial hopeful Jennifer Carroll Foy. The figure made up over 40% of her first-quarter haul.

Sharon Yang, a spokesperson for Carroll Foy, maintained the money was not at odds with the former delegate’s ethics plan, which calls for a $2,800 cap on most kinds of contributions to end a “rigged system.”

“Politicians of the past have made corruption a staple of their time in Richmond and frankly, we can’t fix our broken campaign finance system until we elect anti-corruption champions like Jennifer Carroll Foy," Yang said.

Clean Virginia’s spokesperson, Cassady Craighill, said Smith made her decisions about giving independently from Bills. She said the organization differed from individual and corporate donors because it had specific policy ambitions.

“The bottom line is that there is no equivalency between contributions from corporations that have a legal responsibility to maximize profit for their shareholders and nonprofit organizations like Clean Virginia, which has a legal responsibility to promote social welfare,” she said in a statement.

Carroll Foy has attempted to contrast her own working class background with that of McAuliffe, who is known for hosting large fundraisers at his McLean mansion complete with a pool, guesthouse, and basketball and tennis courts. 

During his latest run, McAuliffe has drawn from a thick rolodex of Democratic donors ranging from labor unions to CEOs. He’s drawn $250,000 from tech billionaire Sanjay Govil as well as the Laborers International Union of North America Education Fund, and $100,000 apiece from U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and billionaire investor Ronald Burkle, among others.

Campaigns with smaller hauls have also drawn attention to the number of donations they’ve received of $100 or less -- a better measure, they say, of grassroots support. By that measure, state Sen. Amanda Chase (R-Midlothian) led Republicans with nearly 1,900 donations followed closely by Del. Kirk Cox (D-Colonial Heights). Among Democrats, McAuliffe pulled in over 7,800 small-dollar donations followed by nearly 3,700 for Carroll Foy.

Attempts to reign in Virginia’s unusually unrestrictive campaign finance system have so far gone nowhere in the General Assembly. A commission is set to study existing laws and recommend improvements ahead of next year’s legislative session.

Ben Paviour covers state politics for VPM News with a focus on accountability journalism.