About two-thirds Democrats running in next week’s state primaries say they won’t take money from Dominion Energy, according to the activist group Activate Virginia. But at least half-dozen of that group are going a step farther and saying they won’t take any dollars from corporate donors.
The candidates who’ve made the decision say it’s a way to breed trust with voters set an example for changing Virginia’s campaign finance laws, and distinguish themselves in crowded primaries.
Zachary Brown, a law student at the University of Richmond who is running against Eileen Bedell and Ghazala Hashmi in the 10th Senate District, only raised around $2,000 in April and May. But the 23-year-old law student says he came by it honestly.
“We can’t have our constituents second-guessing our votes because we take contributions from large corporations,” Brown said.
Senate candidate Veena Lothe has had better luck with a similar message, raising $33,000 in April and May in a race against Del. Debra Rodman, who raised about double that. Lothe points out that many Democratic Congressional candidates made the same move in last year’s elections.
“And it did not put them at a disadvantage at all,” Lothe said. “In fact, it was a great talking point that brought in lots of small-dollar donations.”
With a couple of notable exceptions, including Democratic socialist Lee Carter, the candidates are generally challengers. Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington, said that group generally needs something “new and different” to overcome the inherent benefits of incumbency.
“Incumbents are going to get most of the campaign finance money anyway,” Farnsworth said. “So you can make a statement of principal out of your disadvantage.”
Lothe’s ultimate goal is to pass changes to Virginia’s notoriously lax campaign finance laws, including capping contributions at $5,000 and banning corporate contributions outright. But first, she’ll have to get back Rodman, who is backed by Gov. Ralph Northam’s PAC and who says she shares many of Lothe’s broad campaign finance goals.
The winner of that race will face incumbent Republican Siobhan Dunnavant, who raised nearly $110,000 in the same period from donors ranging from Dominion to the healthcare company Med Atlantic.
There's also the question of whether Democrats will truly root out corporate dollars. Critics say Dominion and corporate dollars still reach candidates through the Democratic Party and its various affiliated PACs, which are less squeamish about taking money from various special interests.
And Farnsworth was skeptical of the notion that small donors could make up for the loss of corporate dollars in the higher-stake seats, where six-figure hauls are the norm.
“Those are pretty big numbers for friends and neighbors plugging into a campaign,” Farnsworth said.