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Who was the big winner in Virginia’s primaries?

A large glass building with the Dominion Energy logo on the side
Jimmy Cloutier
Dominion Energy headquarters, as seen in Richmond, Va., on June 22, 2023.

One party can claim victory: wealthy donors.

VPM News editor's note: Dominion Energy and Clean Virginia are VPM donors. This article has been lightly edited for clarity and grammar.

Read the original story on the Virginia Center for Investigative Journalism at WHRO's website.

In the hotly-contested June primaries to decide the balance of power in the Virginia General Assembly, one party can claim victory: big donors.

The overwhelming share of campaign funding in the low-turnout, yet expensive, primaries in Greater Richmond and the Hampton Roads came from political organizations, business interests and corporate-aligned political action committees, according to an OpenSecrets analysis of campaign finance reports. Most candidates who raised big-donor money won.

Candidates in 19 contested races in the two regions raised more than $12 million when excluding self-funding. Less than 5% of that money came from small donors giving $100 or less, OpenSecrets found.

By contrast, two major donors — Dominion Energy and climate activist and investor Michael Bills, founder of Clean Virginia — accounted for nearly 18% of total contributions.

OpenSecrets analyzed data from campaign finance reports filed for this election cycle, including those submitted to the state on June 12 and covering contributions and expenses in the final weeks of the primary season.

Unlike the federal government and most other states, Virginia places no limits on the amount of money candidates can accept from wealthy donors. Advocates of campaign finance reform say the system tilts political power and access toward large funders over voters.

Without contribution limits, candidates have little choice but to lean on big donors, Nancy Morgan, a reform advocate with BigMoneyOutVA, told OpenSecrets and the Virginia Center for Investigative Journalism at WHRO.

“In the absence of any legislation, people don't want to … unilaterally disarm,” Morgan said. “People say, you know, we have to get this money. How else are we going to do it?”

A dozen campaign finance reform proposals were rejected by Virginia lawmakers from both parties in this year’s General Assembly session.

“We’re in an endless spiral … a money arms war between two groups,” Morgan added, referring to two donors in particular who are responsible for an outsized share of political contributions — Dominion Energy and Clean Virginia, a rival PAC funded by Bills.

Dominion Energy alone has funneled more than $1.3 million to primary candidates in Richmond and Hampton Roads since 2020. The energy giant, which is regulated by Virginia lawmakers, accounted for 10% of total candidate funding during this election cycle.

As the state’s largest publicly-regulated electric utility, Dominion regularly ranks among the biggest political donors in state elections. Critics have accused the corporate giant of using its political clout to loosen regulations and lock in favorable rates. Several of the lawmakers who accepted money from Dominion supported its preferred legislation in the past, including a 2015 rate freeze that was opposed by consumer protection advocates and has since been revoked.

In 2018, Bills formed Clean Virginia to counter Dominion’s political influence, financing candidates who agree not to take money from publicly-regulated utilities. Since 2020, the PAC has directed $832,000 in political donations to candidates in Richmond and Hampton Roads.

Sonjia Smith, Bills' wife, has donated an additional $500,000 to many of the same candidates.

That money has bolstered the campaigns of political newcomers like Rae Cousins and Nadarius Clark, who last month won Democratic primary elections in the 79th and 84th House districts, respectively. Cousins’ opponent received funding from Dominion.

All but two winning candidates for the General Assembly in the two regions — Republicans Michael Dillender and Andrew Pittman — accepted money from either Dominion or Clean Virginia.

Other big donors include those involved in Virginia’s budding gambling industry. State Sen. Louise Lucas (D–Portsmouth), who sponsored legislation in 2020 to legalize commercial gambling in the state, received at least $202,000 from casino developers — including $77,500 from Urban One, which is advocating for a site in Richmond.

Lucas defeated state Sen. Lionell Spruill (D–Chesapeake) in this year’s most expensive election to date, after redistricting forced the two veteran lawmakers to compete in the 18th Senate district.

Betting on Virginia Jobs — a PAC funded by the developers of the Bristol Casino in southwest Virginia — also gave $69,000 to candidates in the two regions, including Sens. Lucas, Emily Brewer (R–Isle of Wight) and Lamont Bagby (D–Henrico).

Political organizations and liberal groups also came out in force during the primaries.

Former Delegate Lashrecse Aird, who defeated incumbent Sen. Joseph Morrissey (D-Petersburg) in another costly contest, was the second biggest fundraiser in the region, after Lucas. Aird received substantial support from labor unions, abortion rights groups and Democratic-aligned PACs. That includes more than $280,000 from the union-funded PAC Workers Vote and nearly $106,000 from Planned Parenthood of Virginia, which also ran ads criticizing Morrissey for his voting record on abortion.

This story was produced in partnership with OpenSecrets, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that tracks money in politics. Jimmy Cloutier is a reporting fellow at OpenSecrets. He can be reached at [email protected].

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