Nine years before his opaque conflict-of-interest statements got him in trouble with the Democratic U.S. Department of Justice, Bob McDonnell’s opaque campaign finance reports got him in trouble with the Democratic nominee for attorney general.
Late in his 2005 race with Creigh Deeds, McDonnell received $2 million — nearly all of it in one check — from a single donor: the Republican State Leadership Committee. Alarmingly — because of disputed rules that have since been changed — voters did not have to be told before the election from whom the group had harvested the money, leaving them to guess at the expectations that accompanied it. The McDonnell-Deeds contest was the national organization’s initial splash in Virginia. It has remained a giant ATM for Republican statewide and General Assembly candidates.
The RSLC is the biggest out-of-state, party-affiliated donor organization of the 2015 Virginia legislative campaign and the ninth-largest overall, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, an online monitor of money in politics. The RSLC has already steered $961,482 to Republican candidates for the House of Delegates and Virginia Senate. Strategists say there’s a lot more where that came from and that we’ll see it in these final six days until the election. For the current cycle, the RSLC has budgeted $40 million for state campaigns across the country, but many of its priority races are in Virginia.
The Washington-based organization’s biggest beneficiary in Virginia is Glen Sturtevant. He’s in a close contest with Dan Gecker for a Republican-vacated, suburban Richmond seat that’s a must-win for Democrats if they’re to take back the Senate next week, giving Gov. Terry McAuliffe much-needed traction in the last half of his term. More than $450,000 of the $770,000 Sturtevant had raised through Sept. 30 came from the RSLC. It has since given him $150,000 on Oct. 16 and $125,000 more this past Friday.
Not surprisingly, Sturtevant also is a target of national big money.
Everytown for Gun Safety, a pro-gun control group bankrolled by former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, is spending $700,000 on blistering television commercials that depict Sturtevant, a youthful-looking, National Rifle Association-backed lawyer and Richmond School Board member, as the face of unrepentant gun-rights apologists. Everytown, largely spared from disclosing its donors because it is set up as a nonprofit, social-welfare group, also is spending $1.5 million on advertisements in Northern Virginia, helping — and hoping — that Democrats hold a vital Senate seat there.
Republicans are fuming over the Bloomberg play in Virginia, representing it not as an intervention but an invasion — one in which Democrats such as Gecker are fully subordinating their largely local messages to a Bloomberg-financed anti-gun screed that’s a dog whistle for the liberal base.
That’s a potent talking point that complements the larger focus of Republicans: Informing and mobilizing their own hard-kernel of voters. De facto Republican groups such as the NRA and the National Federation of Independent Business help with money, direct mail and radio spots. As this year’s principal Republican sugar daddy, the RSLC does it the old-fashioned way: almost entirely with cash to candidates.
The RSLC, which is independent of the Republican National Committee and has as its other-party counterpart the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, has concentrated in recent years in bulking up the GOP presence in state capitals. That’s because legislatures largely control congressional redistricting. The inflated, mostly gerrymandered Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives — that includes 8 of Virginia’s 11 seats — is a reflection of Republican control of 69 of 99 legislative chambers. Among them: Virginia’s House and Senate.
The RSLC also is synonymous with two leading Virginia political figures — one well known but hoping to become a household name; the other, a largely anonymous insider who’s happy to stay that way.
Ed Gillespie, the Washington fixer who nearly defeated Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., last year and is running for governor in 2017, was the organization’s chairman. Chris Jankowski, a lawyer, was its president and chief executive officer. Jankowski also did several tours as a Richmond lobbyist and has returned to campaign work as a consultant. One of his clients is the RSLC poster child in Virginia this year: Glen Sturtevant.
In 2013, that distinction fell to Sen. Mark Obenshain of Harrisonburg, the Republican nominee for attorney general. Of the $6.7 million that Obenshain raised for his 165-vote loss to Mark Herring, nearly a quarter — $2.7 million — came from the RSLC. It helped finance a TV advertising blitz with which Obenshain distanced himself from his controversial running mates, Ken Cuccinelli for governor and E.W. Jackson for lieutenant governor.
Virginia first learned of the RSLC’s largesse in 2005, with that seven-figure contribution to McDonnell. The $2 million donation, which represented a third of McDonnell’s total fundraising for attorney general, caught the attention of Democrats and Republicans — not just because of its size but because there was no immediate way to determine the origins of the RSLC cash.
In the closing days of a contest that McDonnell would win by 323 votes, Deeds hammered McDonnell for taking so-called dark money — dollars whose origins, and the individuals and interests behind them, were unclear. To Democrats, it seemed a blatant attempt to bypass Virginia’s already lax campaign disclosure laws and to conceal from voters the identities of those who might be pulling McDonnell’s strings.
The RSLC would eventually make public its donors — and do so in complete compliance with the law. Because it is established under federal tax law, it has to report its benefactors, depending on the political cycle, semi-annually or quarterly.
McDonnell had been sworn in as attorney general before the public finally got a glimpse at a filing that showed in 2006 that many of the RSLC’s biggest donors would be those similarly generous with the group in 2015: insurance giants, casinos, energy companies, and pharmaceutical firms.
After McDonnell’s election — it was his first big step toward a governorship ultimately overshadowed by his corruption conviction — Virginia law was changed to force groups such as the RSLC to regularly disclose spending, as any political committee does. So the RSLC’s big money is no longer a secret. It’s just big.