Dominion ranks as the top political donor in the state. But there are others also pouring millions into state elections.
RICHMOND – Where does the Virginia General Assembly’s money come from? On Jan. 19, members of the Virginia Senate’s Elections Committee shot down a proposal to block utilities like Dominion from giving campaign donations.
It’s no surprise, as public utilities constantly rank in the Top Ten in terms of campaign donors. Dominion Energy, for example, provided $1.329 million to races across the state from 2020 to 2021.
Politics is expensive and here’s a look at the major groups funding campaigns around Virginia.
Where Does The Money Come From?
A list of the top donors to Virginia House and Senate races in 2019 reveals few surprises at first glance. The largest sources of cash for candidates are Party organizations. They lead by a large margin, followed by issue advocacy groups, like Clean Virginia or the National Rifle Association, and business interests.
The smallest group of donors among these heavy-hitters are private individuals. They represent just under $3 million total investment across all House and Senate races. This, compared to over $30 million doled out by Party organizations and partisan PACs combined.
But that figure might be misleading. Many individual donors with the resources to give huge amounts of money in a single election cycle may prefer to give their money to partisan PACs and issue advocacy groups. These groups distribute that money to candidates. Likewise, industry and advocacy groups might choose to funnel their money through party organizations and other PACs. Instead of donating to campaigns, donating indirectly through these groups make their spending harder to track.
Another factor is the average size of individual donations. Individual donations are comparatively quite low, as very few people have the resources to donate huge amounts over one election cycle. However, John McGlennon, a professor of government at the College of William & Mary, says that the share of small donors in the pool is likely getting bigger.
“One of the things we’ve seen in the past couple of years is that [businesses] are a declining share because of the motivation in the last several election cycles of activists on both sides, but primarily on the Democratic side, to find smaller donors,” he said.
Business Interests Donate Millions, but Don’t Care Which Party Wins
Breaking the numbers down by Party, an unusual pattern emerges. Party organizations and issue advocacy groups donated almost exclusively to their chosen Party. However, industry and business donors split their money evenly between Democrats and Republicans.
We tend to think of political donations as a way to support candidates we want to see in office. However, McGlennon says that for large businesses, they play a different role.
“In many instances some interest groups do award campaign contributions more on the question of where people currently have power as opposed to trying to influence the outcome of an election. So it may be that some groups want to make sure that they’ve made a contribution to someone who chairs an important committee, a committee that deals with issues that matter to them,” McGlennon said.
In other words, businesses often don’t have any interest in influencing the outcomes elections. They just want to make sure the winner takes some money from them.
RELATED: Virginia Lawmakers Reject Contribution Ban
Where Does the Money Go?
Dominion Energy is the largest corporate donor in Virginia politics. Unlike many other business interests, Dominion’s activities are entangled with state law. That’s because Dominion operates largely without competition in the Commonwealth.
However, that also means the rates Dominion sets are regulated by state law, and can’t be raised above a certain level. In practice, Dominion has skirted these restrictions. The legislature has been reluctant to impose greater regulation.
Brennan Gilmore, executive director of Clean Virginia, says that’s precisely why Dominion should be barred from political spending.
“For 11 million dollars that Dominion put in over a decade to various candidates, they were allowed to essentially write the rules that governed their profits,” Gilmore said.
Data from the Virginia Public Access Project (VPAP) confirms that from 2010-2020, Dominion gave just over $11 million to Virginia candidates.
A breakdown of donations from Dominion Energy in 2019 shows that the money they invest in influencing politicians takes two main paths: direct contributions to campaigns, and contributions to PACs. But what is a PAC?
The Power of PACs
A PAC (Political Action Committee) is a group, not affiliated directly with any campaign, that raises and spends money for the purposes of supporting or defeating candidates in an election. These groups can donate directly to individual candidates. Originally, donations were limited to $5,000 per candidate per election, just like any other donor.
However, after the SpeechNOW vs. FEC (2010) ruling, these groups gained the right to spend an unlimited amount on political advertising and other activities. They are able to do this so long as they don’t coordinate directly with candidates.
In other words, Dominion Energy and other corporations can’t donate over $5,000 to individual candidates. But they can skirt these limits and continue to spend exorbitant amounts of money in the political sphere by funneling that cash through partisan PACs.
Party Money Bypasses Leadership
In 2019, the Majority Leader of the Virginia Senate, Dick Saslaw (D-Alexandria), received less than $7,000 from the Virginia Democratic Party. Of the donations he received in 2019 that totaled more than $7,000, none were from Party organizations or partisan PACs. Instead, the majority of that money came from business interests like Dominion Energy. A smaller share of those donors came from labor organizations and private individuals.
So does that mean the Democrats are now the party of big business? Yes and no. Dominion Energy, along with Saslaw’s other major corporate donors, also gave tens of thousands of dollars to Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment (R-Gloucester). In fact, Party leadership in both chambers received most of their money from business interests. In 2019, the campaign cash Dominion donated was almost equally between the parties. Basically, both parties are beholden to the interests of Dominion.
It’s not that the partisan PACs don’t care about helping prominent members retain their seats. Instead, partisan PAC money primarily supports vulnerable seats in the Commonwealth, who require more investment to win. For instance, the House Democratic caucus spent $401,141 on their effort to flip the 28th district. Democrat Joshua Cole won that race by just over three percent of the vote.
For the leadership, their seats were never in danger to begin with. Speaker of the House Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax) and House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Page), along with Norment and Saslaw, won their elections with just over 75% of the vote on average.
Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment won his race by an overwhelming 22 point margin. He received hundreds of thousands of dollars in corporate cash, while taking next to nothing from Party organizations.
Party organizations prefer to spend their money on more competitive races. However, business interests continue to throw money at races in both Blue and Red candidates.
John McGlennon, a professor of government at William and Mary, said this not an accident. It and reflects corporate donors’ strategy to win regardless of who’s elected.
“Obviously every group has its own priorities and intentions in making these contributions, but as a general rule, business and industry groups are thinking in terms of how do we increase our influence over those who are likely to win.”
Direct donations make up only a portion of this cash, according to McGlennon. He says Party leadership use PACs to distribute the money among members.
“In some instances they create their own PACs, and so contributions are made by business or industry to those PACs. The industry makes the contribution to the leadership PAC, and then the leadership PAC, that is aligned with a particular member, the Speaker or the majority or minority leader of each chamber, then will make a determination about which candidates to give support to,” he said
One example of this is Todd Gilbert’s Republican Commonwealth Leadership PAC. The PAC accepted $15,000 from Dominion in 2019, while Gilbert’s campaign accepted only $2,000 directly.
Dominion Over the General Assembly
Dominion Energy was the single largest corporate donor to Party leadership. But campaign finance data provided by the VPAP shows that the money likely didn’t stay concentrated in the upper echelons.
In fact, both Republican and Democratic leadership spent far more on transfers to other campaigns and party organizations than they did on their own re-election efforts. Campaign finance reports can’t track individual dollars. However, it’s likely that this represents at least a partial redistribution of corporate donations from Dominion and others corporate interests to the broader Democratic and Republican caucuses.
In total, 72 members of the General Assembly from both parties accepted direct contributions from Dominion Energy in 2019. That’s just under half of the 150 total membership of both chambers. And many more have likely accepted Dominion money, knowingly or unknowingly, through transfers from other campaigns, Party contributions, and PAC spending.
The constant flow of money from corporate donors to campaigns, PACs, and party organizations makes the influence of Dominion and other business interests hard to track in concrete terms. One thing, however, is certain. There are no state institutions that are not touched by their influence.
Killed in Committee
That influence became apparent in 2020 when Delegate Jay Jones (D-Norfolk) introduced House Bill 1132, which would have strengthened state oversight of Dominion and allowed the State Corporation Commission to set utility rates. The bill passed the House with a 77-23 vote, garnering support from Democrats and Republicans alike.
However, in the Senate, the bill never even saw the light of day, dying in committee on an 8-7 vote. Those 8 votes included some the recipients of Dominion’s largest donations including Saslaw, Norment, and president pro tempore Louise Lucas. All together, the eight legislators who killed the bill received over $200,000 in direct donations from Dominion in 2019.
During a special session earlier this year, Governor Ralph Northam requested that legislators incorporate an amendment that would have used Dominion’s excess profits to forgive utility debts for Virginia residents. These debts have skyrocketed since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
That proposal was watered down in House and Senate versions of the appropriations bill, according to the Virginia Energy and Policy Institute, which said the passed version would allow Dominion to “forgive” the debts now, but those costs would return right back to customers in future years. 11 of the 22 members of the Senate and House appropriations committees took donations from Dominion Energy in 2019.
Some Limitations to Corporate Money
Dominion’s influence in the Commonwealth only extends so far, however, as the fate of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline shows. The project, which drew criticism from environmental groups, received significant support from Governor Ralph Northam and former Governor Terry McAuliffe. Both Northam and McAuliffe are recipients of Dominion money. Despite support from the executive branch, Dominion and Duke Energy ultimately withdrew from the project.
Dominion said their reasons for withdrawing were due to costly permitting processes and legal challenges. These challenges include a Supreme Court case which Dominion ultimately won, but which cost of utility company millions. The case concerns a section of pipeline which Dominion designed to pass under the Appalachian Trail.
According to Dominion, the cost of the project increased from $4.5 billion to $8 billion as a result of several lawsuits and court decisions involving the utility company.
Tracking Your Own Influence
It will take concerted political action on a large scale to reduce the influence of corporate interests on politics. But there are still ways to make a difference on an individual level.
One way to do that is to track the money your local representative receives. Using tools like VPAP, you can track who donates to their campaigns. You can also contact them directly to voice your support or opposition.
Another way is by monitoring which businesses you support. Tools like “Progressive Shopper” can help you track which Party is going to get a cut of your purchase.
Combatting Corporate Power
Dominion’s influence in the General Assembly can seem overwhelmingly pervasive at times. But some groups are fighting to end political contributions from the utilities giant. Activate Virginia is a volunteer organization that supports candidates for office who refuse to take money from the company and maintains a list of Virginia legislators who don’t accept money from Dominion.
According to Gilmore, that incentive makes the choice easier for some legislators. But ultimately, he sees enthusiasm for combatting Dominion’s influence growing from grassroots movements and their leaders.
“This is not being driven by Clean Virginia, it’s not even being driven by our money. It’s being driven first and foremost by common sense. There’s a new generation of legislators who don’t look at Richmond as the playground of a bunch of corporations,” Gilmore said.
Clean Virginia is also making an effort to wean legislators off of Dominion money. They offer no-strings-attached funding to any Assembly members who refuses to take Dominion donations. So far, Gilmore says that approximately fifty legislators, or a third of the entire assembly, have now made that promise.
During a 2020 legislative session, Delegate Joshua Cole and State Senator Chap Peterson introduced identical bills to ban public service corporations, like Dominion, from making political contributions altogether.
Those bills both died in committee. Just like the vote this week, of the ten senators who killed the 2020 bills, nine took money from Dominion in 2019.
Jakob Cordes is a freelance reporter for Dogwood. You can reach him at [email protected].