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Virginia’s 10th Congressional District primary is getting expensive

Campaign literature sits on a chair.
Margaret Barthel
Campaign literature from candidates in the primary.

Several leading candidates have raised more than $1M.

WAMU reported this story.

Virginia’s 10th Congressional District is home to one of the most competitive Democratic primaries in the commonwealth this year, with a dozen candidates vying for their party’s nod to run for retiring Rep. Jennifer Wexton’s seat this fall.

With a week left before the June 18th primary date — and early voting underway — the contest is shaping up to be a costly one, according to the final round of federal campaign filings before Election Day.

“It’s a rare opportunity for Democrats to see an open congressional seat in the Washington suburbs, and that means that you have a huge field and a huge amount of money being spent,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington. “This may end up being one of the most expensive Democratic congressional primaries in the history of Virginia.”

Farnsworth underscores the importance of understanding the flow of money as one window into a candidate’s thinking on the issues.

“This is one of the things that I think we could do a better job of in American politics. And that’s being much more transparent about money, not just the money directly going into the campaigns, but also these independent expenditures,” he said. “What are these organizations? What are they looking for? Who are the donors to these organizations? These are things that are useful for voters to know when they go to the polls.”

The top fundraiser in the race, Del. Dan Helmer, has raised $1.5 million. Several other leading candidates have also crossed the $1-million mark, including State Sen. Suhas Subramanyam, who is Wexton’s pick for the seat, and former Speaker of the Virginia House Eileen Filler-Corn, who has former Gov. Ralph Northam’s endorsement. Krystle Kaul, a political newcomer who has worked in national security roles, has also crossed the $1-million threshold, a total which includes significant personal loans from herself.

Other candidates have smaller campaign hauls and are pinning their hopes on their name recognition as elected officials who have represented or previously represented parts of the district. Those include State Sen. Jennifer Boysko; Del. David Reid; and Del. Michelle Maldonaldo.

Former Virginia education secretary Atif Qarni, former General Assembly candidate Travis Nembhard, university librarian Mark Leighton, and veterans Adrian Pokharel and Marion DeVoe are also touting their public service backgrounds.

U.S. Virginia Rep. Jennifer Wexton, seen here at her home in Leesburg on September 16, 2023, announced she will not seek reelection due to being diagnosed with progressive supra nuclear palsy, a degenerative neurological disease.
Robb Hill
The Washington Post via Getty File
U.S. Virginia Rep. Jennifer Wexton, seen here at her home in Leesburg on September 16, 2023, announced she will not seek reelection due to being diagnosed with progressive supra nuclear palsy, a degenerative neurological disease.

The last competitive Democratic primary for the seat in 2018 saw significant spending, too. Wexton, who was considered the establishment favorite, raised more than $1 million in advance of the primary (where one of her competitors was Helmer, in his first-ever bid for a congressional seat). She went on to spend more than $6 million in the general election to defeat incumbent Republican Rep. Barbara Comstock.

Farnsworth sees primaries, particularly with crowded candidate fields, as an exercise in candidates’ ability to differentiate themselves from the pack, and expand and energize their base of support beyond the voters in their immediate community or existing district.

That means directing large sums of money toward a relatively small number of primary voters who will decide the winner.

“You may be looking at this contest of the winner getting 25% of the vote or something like that, because there are so many well-funded and reasonably well-known candidates in this field,” Farnsworth said.

Independent spending

As the race enters its final week — widely considered the time when many voters tune into the election for the first time — a handful of candidates are also attracting millions of dollars in independent spending from outside groups. (Campaigns are bound by federal contribution limits in accepting direct support from individuals or groups, but PACs can spend freely if they do not directly coordinate with political candidates.)

So far, a variety of outside groups have spent a total of $2.7 million in independent expenditures on the race, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. That money has mostly bought TV time, digital ads or mailers for the groups’ preferred candidates.

Helmer has received by far the most PAC support: $2.2 million. Protect Progress PAC, one of a three groups formed by leaders in the cryptocurrency industry to support candidates in congressional races this cycle, has spent the most: $1.2 million.

The group’s website says it boosts Democratic candidates who are supportive of the industry’s expansion.

“Providing blockchain innovators the ability to develop their networks under a clearer regulatory and legal framework is vital if the broader open blockchain economy is to grow to its full potential here in the United States,” according to the site.

The group is part of $78 million in planned spending by industry leaders in this election cycle, per Politico.

Helmer’s website signals his support for blockchain technologies and cryptocurrencies, given appropriate consumer protections. That position is included on his website alongside language about economic success for working families.

“Dan is someone that wants to see us have a country where we have an economy that makes it possible for everybody to access the middle class,” said Brendon Mills, Helmer’s campaign manager, when asked about Protect Progress’ spending in the race. “He’s very interested in technologies and other opportunities for us to grow that.”

Helmer weighed in on social media in support of the U.S. House’s passage in May of the Financial Innovation and Technology for the 21st Century Act, an industry-backed bill that creates new regulatory guidelines. The head of the Securities and Exchange Commission has criticized the legislation for creating loopholes the industry could exploit.

Helmer and all of the other current General Assembly members in the contest supported a bill to create a commission to study the issue earlier in the spring. He and Subramanyam both accept campaign donations in the form of cryptocurrency on their websites.

VoteVets PAC, which focuses on electing veterans to political office, has also spent $858,000 on digital advertising and TV ads for the Helmer campaign. The money is part of $45 million in planned spending by the group on behalf of Democratic candidates in this election cycle, per The New York Times. Helmer is an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan.

VoteVets has been a supporter of Helmer’s campaigns over the years. He also supported them, donating money from his own federal PAC to the group immediately after the 2023 General Assembly race, according to reporting from The Huffington Post. That donation happened before he became a federal candidate, which would require him to shutter his federal PAC.

The Subramanyam campaign has received $265,000 from the Indian-American Impact Fund, which supports Indian and South Asian Americans seeking public office.

“If elected in November, Suhas would represent a district with more than 65,000 South Asian residents, ranking among the nation’s top ten concentrations,” a press release from the fund announcing their support for the Subramanyam campaign read.

The fund said it is focused on sending mailers to 90,000 likely voters, of whom more than 20,000 are South Asian.

Filler-Corn, meanwhile, has received $120,000 in independent spending from Democratic Majority for Israel — but that support appears to have been one-time spending for a TV ad in early May.

Filler-Corn donated $110,000 to the group from her state political PAC the day after the group announced its support for her campaign, which resulted in a complaint against her with the Federal Election Commission, according to The Huffington Post. The complaint argued that the exchange constitutes illegally passing money from a state account, which is not subject to federal contribution limits, to a federal one.

Filler-Corn’s campaign said the contribution was above-board because the money was transferred in a series of contributions and not a lump sum.

Filler-Corn is the only candidate so far to be facing a significant negative ad campaign. The group Virginia Democratic Action PAC has spent $112,000 on digital ads and direct mail criticizing Filler-Corn’s background as a lobbyist. The leader of the PAC, Connor Farrell, is also behind the FEC complaint.

The negative campaign was first reported in The Washington Post. Filler Corn’s campaign called the allegations “baseless” and suggested they were “sexist” and “rely on vile anti-semitic tropes.” Filler-Corn was the first woman and first Jewish person to serve as the Virginia Speaker of the House.

Margaret Barthel is the Northern Virginia reporter at WAMU.
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