Nearly $2 million in “dark money” pours into historic Virginia campaigns
- Category: Local News
- Published: 15 September 2023
By Jimmy Cloutier
Virginia Center for Investigative Journalism at WHRO
Independent political groups backed largely by “dark money” organizations and wealthy donors have spent nearly $1.7 million on Virginia candidates this election cycle, raising concerns about transparency and the influence of outside money in the tightly contested battle for control of the General Assembly.
The outside spending groups have poured more than $1.4 million in efforts to elect Republican candidates and $245,000 to support Democrats, paying for campaign ads, mailers, phone banks and door-to-door canvassing to support their preferred candidates, according to independent expenditure reports filed with the Virginia Department of Elections. The reports, obtained by OpenSecrets and the Virginia Center for Investigative Journalism at WHRO, cover spending up to Sept. 12 and include funding for the heated July primaries.
All 140 seats in the General Assembly are on the November ballot after an historic redistricting. Republicans currently hold a slim majority in the House, while Democrats control power in the closely-divided Senate.
Most of the outside money flowing into Virginia traces back to 501(c)(4) nonprofits that aren’t required to disclose donors, also known as dark money groups. Some watchdog groups are concerned about the political influence of special interest organizations that can conceal their donors and motivations.
"Voters have a right to know which wealthy special interests are spending this money to secretly influence their vote and their government," said Elizabeth Shimek, a senior legal counsel for campaign finance at the Campaign Legal Center. “People have a right to cast an informed ballot.”
Virginians could see even more dark money pour into the state in the weeks leading up to November. The outcome of the election will determine whether Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin can enact his sweeping agenda, including efforts to expand public funding of private education and ban abortion after 15 weeks.
The three largest outside spenders in Virginia — responsible for three-quarters of independent expenditures — are largely, if not entirely, funded by dark money, according to an analysis by OpenSecrets and VCIJ at WHRO. The analysis used data from OpenSecrets and the Virginia Public Access Project, a nonprofit tracking campaign finance in the commonwealth.
The largest spender in Virginia this election cycle was Americans for Prosperity, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit founded by the billionaire owners of Koch Industries and best known for its efforts to cut taxes, block action on climate change, and reduce government funding for social welfare programs.
The group celebrated Virginia's withdrawal from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a cap-and-trade program intended to encourage electric utilities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Americans for Prosperity did not respond to requests for comment.
Independent expenditure reports show that the group spent more than $1 million in support of 17 Republican candidates in Virginia, mostly in competitive state senate districts, including Dels. Tara Durant of Fredericksburg and Emily Brewer of Suffolk, who are each running to fill open senate seats. The two candidates received nearly $221,000 and $179,000 in support from Americans for Prosperity, respectively.
Another $208,000 supported former state Sen. Glen Sturtevant (R-Chesterfield), who defeated incumbent Sen. Amanda Chase in the June 20 Republican primary.
The American Federation for Children, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit that advocates for "school choice" programs that use public funds to pay for private schooling was the second-largest spender. The organization did not respond to a request for comment.
Former U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos co-founded the nonprofit in 2004. Although DeVos is no longer affiliated with the organization, she and her husband, Dick DeVos, donated $500,000 this year to its national political arm, the American Federation for Children Action Fund, according to recent tax filings.
The Maryland-based organization poured about $9 million into several state races during the 2022 election, helping elect candidates who later advanced legislation to direct taxpayer dollars to private education, according to reporting by NBC News.
This year, the nonprofit formed a state political action committee called the Virginia Federation for Children to influence elections. The PAC spent $302,000 during the primary elections, supporting eight Republican candidates — all but one of whom will be on the ballot in November.
Durant and Brewer received $98,000 and $61,000 in support from the PAC, respectively. The Virginia Federation for Children also reported spending an additional $60,000 on negative ads against Democrats in August, including Durant's opponent, Joel Griffin.
Unlike Americans for Prosperity, the Virginia Federation for Children is a registered political committee that files regularly scheduled campaign finance reports. The PAC identifies donors who made direct contributions to it.
However, the Virginia PAC’s largest source of funding is the American Federation for Children, which keeps its contributors' names secret.
In the leadup to Virginia’s June primaries, the American Federation for Children steered $400,000 in dark money to the Virginia Federation for Children — 71% of the PAC's total funds in 2023, according to state campaign finance reports.
On the Democratic side, only one group spent more than a few thousands dollars on independent expenditures in Virginia – Forward Majority Action, the political arm of the dark money group Fair Democracy, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit. Forward Majority Action, led by a former campaign staffer for President Barack Obama, supports Democratic efforts to flip state governments, according to its website. Forward Majority Action and Fair Democracy did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Forward Majority Action has spent almost $241,000 on Virginia elections in 2023, mostly supporting Democrats running in House races, records show. The group has helped prop up several first-time candidates for the General Assembly including Travis Nembhard in Bristow, Karen Jenkins in Suffolk and Jessica Anderson in James City.
Forward Majority has also run attack ads targeting Durant and Brewer, while supporting their opponents, Griffin and Del. Clint Jenkins (D-Suffolk).
Like the Virginia Federation for Children, Forward Majority Action is subject to disclosure requirements but funded in large part by dark money. In June, the group reported receiving nearly $2.5 million in donations from organizations and individuals including the billionaire hedge fund manager Stephen Mandel, who gave the group $535,000.
Its single largest source of funding is the nonprofit Fair Democracy, which steered more than $1.1 million in anonymous donations to the PAC, according to federal campaign finance reports. That figure represents about 46% of the PAC’s total funding in 2023.
Shimek, from the Campaign Legal Center, told OpenSecrets that “transparency is a critical tool for an informed electorate,” allowing voters to weigh the credibility of campaign ads and come to the polls with a clearer understanding of the candidates.
Unlike regular candidate finance reports, independent expenditure reports are currently filed by paper and not made immediately public. OpenSecrets and VCIJ at WHRO obtained the reports after filing a public record request.
The Virginia General Assembly shot down a dozen campaign finance reforms introduced during the 2023 legislative session, including contribution limits and new disclosure requirements.
One bill, introduced by Sen. Barbara Favola (D-Arlington), would have required political groups, including dark money nonprofits, that make independent expenditures to identify their top three individual donors on campaign ads.
Republican lawmakers warned that the measure could have a “chilling effect,” discouraging top donors who may not want their names appearing on ads. They also said that the disclosure requirements may be unwieldy, with the donors’ names taking up valuable real estate on political messages.
Favola told OpenSecrets in February that public interest outweighs any inconvenience the new requirements may have imposed.
“This is trying to get to the groups that hide behind the Citizens United decision,” she said, referencing the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2010 that paved the way for political groups to spend unlimited sums to support or oppose political candidates. “I, for one, would like to know who’s funding my opponent, right? And I think voters would like to know as well.”
# # #
This article is part of U.S. Democracy Day, a nationwide collaborative on Sept. 15, the International Day of Democracy, in which news organizations cover how democracy works and the threats it faces. To learn more, visit usdemocracyday.org