Yesterday in a monumental decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the Citizens United decision also applied to state and local elections. Now elections for governors, state legislators, mayors and local officials will all be forced to allow unlimited corporate money to be spent influencing their outcome.
This decision will have major ramifications in almost every state. But yesterday's ruling won't have much impact in one state -- Virginia -- a key battleground in this year;s presidential contest.
My home state of Virginia (where I write the "Not Larry Sabato" blog that covers Virginia politics) has had a Citizens United-type of campaign finance system for decades. In fact, many national federal committees set up in Virginia even before Citizens United because of the lack of oversight and filings that the state required versus any other state. Now that the rest of the country will be joining us in this type of election system, I thought you'd all like to know what it is like.
In the last governor's race in Virginia, the two major party candidates spent about $40,000,000 combined between them. When looking at Governor McDonnell's top 100 contributors (taking out the three major GOP committees -- RGA, RNC and RPV), 40 of 100 were corporations or special interest PACs that are also unlimited under Virginia law. Meanwhile, looking at the donors to Virginia Senator Creigh Deeds, the Democratic candidate in that election, shows far fewer corporate donations flowing into the campaign.
Looking at every governor's race since 1993, corporate money always favors the GOP, but not always by the same margins. It's been worth a net advantage over the Democrats of between $2,000,000 and $5,000,000 in each governor's election. That having been said, we haven't had a single governor's election where this money made the difference in the final outcome.
Down-ballot races are a little bit different. Most corporate interests don't have the political knowledge to target key races, so they tend to dump most of their money into committees to be spread around by party leadership. When Democrats are in the governor's mansion, that money is close to evenly distributed between the two parties in the midterm legislative elections, while it strongly favors the GOP when there is a Republican governor. This has led to Virginia legislative bodies changing party control in three of the last four midterm Virginia elections.
In 1999, aided by a strong money advantage, the GOP took total control of the legislature in the midterm election of Governor Jim Gilmore. In 2007, Democrats took back the Virginia Senate and made gains in the House of Delegates in the midterm election of Governor Tim Kaine.
In 2011, Republicans retook the Virginia Senate in the midterm election of Governor Bob McDonnell, even after allowing Democrats to draw the Senate districts in the redistricting process.
The only exception to this rule was in 2003 -- the midterm election of Governor Mark Warner -- when the vast majority of Republican legislators were unopposed as Warner attempted to work them over to pass his major budget reform package in 2004.
Those are the numbers and the facts. But of course in politics there is always a little more just beneath the surface. I've worked with Democrats across the country, and one thing I've noticed about Virginia (even compared to other "southern" states) is that the unlimited money system leads Virginia Democrats to be far more cautious about taking on special interests. With all due respect to our legislators, you would be shocked and appalled at the amount of consideration even $250 can buy from a legislator in Virginia. Many corporate donors know this and while leadership gets more money there are a number of corporations that just donate $250, $500 or $1,000 to every member of the legislature. This money isn't really intended to drive a particular political outcome but is just used as a way to remain friendly with the part-time legislators.
One thing that remains to be seen in Virginia is the impact of social conservative legislation from this year on corporate donation patterns in the next legislative election. Many corporate leaders in Virginia stated their discomfort during this legislative session to the social legislation being pushed in the legislature -- "vaginal probes" just isn't the kind of thing that most companies want to be associated with. Will this lead them to pull back on the gas pedal of money to the GOP? We'll find out in Virginia in 2013 when we elect a new governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and all 100 members of the House of Delegates.