Following the Funds: Expert calls outside influence in VA elections “historic”

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PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — Unlike ever before, out of state political groups are donating large sums of cash to general assembly candidates and in some cases putting boots on the ground to help get out the vote.

In just this year alone, state candidates with districts in Hampton Roads have accepted more than $3.5 million dollars in political contributions from out of state sources according to the latest campaign finance data from the Virginia Public Access Project.

“We’re at levels we’ve never seen before in Virginia,” said Dr. Ben Melusky, an assistant professor of political science with Old Dominion University, about campaign donations this election cycle. “There’s just money everywhere.”

Republicans hold control over the states legislative branch by extremely thin margins of 51-48 in the House of Delegates and 20-19 in the Senate. Both chambers have a vacancy.

Melusky said add that Virginia elects its state representatives on “off-cycle” years (meaning no federal candidates are on the ballot) and you see why outside groups are willing to spend big.

“If there is kind of a gap of light in there that it could be a flipped district, there will be money flowing to it,” Melusky said.

Groups like Washington D.C. based Emily’s List, Republican State Leadership Committee and New York-headquartered Everytown for Gun Safety have all donated considerable amounts of cash into races this year.

Emily’s List, an organization that supports pro-choice Democratic women candidates, announced in October that they would be investing $2.1 million in Virginia’s upcoming election to help flip the balance of power. Everytown for Gun Safety, whose mission is to advocate for stricter gun laws, indicated they would invest $2.5 million.

While neighboring states, North Carolina and Maryland, have restrictions on how much money can be donated to political campaigns and committees, Virginia has no rules.

The spending has created an up hill battle for incumbents like Delegate Glenn Davis, R-Virginia Beach. School teacher Karen Mallard, D-Candidate for Delegate VA-84, has out fun-raised him by nearly double. As of the end of September, Mallard has raised $634,431 to Davis’ $347,747.

However if you take away both of the candidates out of state donations, Mallard trails $305,857 to Davis’ $342,047.

“It’s outside influence from people that don’t have to live under our laws and our policies here in Virginia…all they are concerned about is how can we make Virginia look like a democrat state, before 2020 comes around,” Davis said.

It’s a theory Emily’s List came out and confirmed. In 2021 Virginia’s US House of Representative districts will be redrawn. There is the possibility districts could become more favorable for Democrat candidates through the process that Emily’s List says needs to be “fair and representative of voters.”

Mallard is Virginia’s top recipient of cash from Emily’s List, reporting she has $208,000 from the group that is also helping to staff her quest for office.

“They are on weekly phone calls advising of us on our campaign,” Mallard said. “We’re standing up and we’re fighting for our children and we are fighting for their future. And we are going to fight like mothers. And all across the country mothers are doing that.”

Mallard said the donations from outside sources have no effect on how she would serve her constituents.

“Constituents of Virginia Beach know where my heart lies,” Mallard said. “And I would tell you I would rather have 1,000 people in California give me a dollar. Then one company, one big tobacco company, give me a huge check.”

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