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How activist Princess Blanding got a boost from a GOP operative

person behind political signs
Photos of campaign signage during the general election from outside the North Courthouse Road Library, a polling location in Chesterfield. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

A mysterious group that spent more than $60,000 promoting third-party candidate Princess Blanding in Virginia’s closely contested governor’s race is connected to a longtime GOP operative.

The group’s treasurer, Thomas Datwyler, also holds that role for a handful of political action committees that have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars supporting GOP politicians ranging from Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) to Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green (R-GA). Another PAC connected to Datwyler is reportedly under investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

There’s almost no public information about “Our First Principles Fund,” which sent out mailers shortly before Election Day attacking Democrat Terry McAuliffe and promoting Blanding. The group hasn’t registered with the Virginia Department of Elections or the Federal Election Commission. It registered as a not-for-profit “ exempt” organization in February in Delaware. Its web presence is skeletal and no one answers its listed phone number.

The mystery behind the group highlights what critics say are shortcomings in Virginia’s disclosure laws. While lawmakers regularly tout the commonwealth’s unlimited-spending campaign finance laws as transparent, there are big loopholes for certain non-profits and other groups if they can claim that their primary focus isn’t on Virginia elections, according to Austin Graham, a lawyer with the Campaign Legal Center.

“Virginia overall,  the transparency requirements are pretty relaxed,” Graham says. “I think this is an example of that.”

McAuliffe lost to Republican Glenn Youngkin by over 60,000 votes, according to unofficial results from the Department of Elections. Blanding, who ran a campaign heavily focused on criminal justice reform, garnered around 23,000 votes.

What we know about Our First Principles Fund

The group filed two disclosures with the Dept. of Elections dated Oct. 26 showing it spent $62,597 on mailers, and listing Datwyler as treasurer. A group with a nearly identical name -- First Principle Fund -- and the same website spent at least $148,000 attacking Del. Kirk Cox during the GOP gubernatorial nomination fight without filing any state or federal election disclosures.

Datwyler is also named as treasurer for a number of other political groups registered with the Federal Election Commission. The “ Right Women PAC,” for example, spent over $675,000 promoting Republican House candidates and attacking Democratic opponents during last year’s Congressional races. Datwyler’s consultancy, 9Seven Consulting, reported over $1 million in business during the 2020 campaign cycle on the federal level. In Virginia, the consultancy did compliance work as recently as October for Del. John McGuire (R-Goochland).

Datwyler is also listed as the treasurer for a group that is reportedly under investigation from the FBI. Axios reported in May that the bureau is investigating 1820 PAC, a group that backed U.S. Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) in her 2020 re-election campaign, for an alleged illegal finance scheme involving a defense contractor. (Axios reported there was no indication Collins knew about the alleged scheme). In 2012, Datwyler was “reprimanded” by administrative judges in Minnesota for violating that state’s ban on corporate contributions, according to the Star Tribune.

Datwyler did not respond to phone calls and emails seeking comment.

Virginia law requires groups that receive and spend for the “primary purpose” of advocating for or against a candidate to register with the state and disclose their donors and spending. But that definition can leave out groups like 501(c)(4)’s, “ social welfare organizations” that can contribute politically and lobby lawmakers but that spend a majority of their money on civic or charitable activities. That means Virginia voters won’t know who is backing organizations that spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in last week’s elections largely backing Republicans, including more than $300,000 from the American Principles Project attacking McAuliffe, who lost to Republican Glenn Youngkin, and nearly $75,000 from the American Federation for Children targeting Del. Roslyn Tyler (D-Sussex), who lost her seat last week to Republican Otto Wachsmann.

While some states, like Rhode Island, require 501(c)(4)’s to disclose their donors and contributions, Virginia and the federal government do not. Nancy Morgan, an organizer with the Virginia chapter of the good governance group American Promise, said they’re working with Sen. Barbara Favola (D-Arlington) to draft legislation that would increase disclosure requirements.

Democrats in the General Assembly and Gov. Ralph Northam campaigned on tightening Virginia’s open-ended campaign finance system. But lawmakers have made no major changes since Democrats flipped the chamber in 2019. A study group met four times and produced a draft report in October recommending some changes to Virginia law, including banning the personal use of campaign dollars. It’s not clear where those proposals stand after Republicans gained control of the executive branch and likely the House of Delegates in last week’s elections; Morgan said the subcommittee ended with “more of a whimper than a bang” from the perspective of advocates frustrated at the lack of progress, though the report indicated the group may meet in the future.

Governor-elect Youngkin was highly critical of one of Virginia’s biggest donors, Dominion Energy, on the campaign trail after the company donated $200,000 to a secretive group that attacked him from the right. Still, he wouldn’t say what his policies toward the state-regulated monopoly might be. The wealthy businessman has said he won’t accept his salary as governor and will put at least some of his more than $300 million in financial holdings in a blind trust. A spokesperson for Youngkin didn’t respond to a request for comment on his broader views on campaign finance reform.

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.