By M. Quesada | Capital News Service
RICHMOND, Va. -- In competitive General Assembly races, a majority of Democratic challengers and incumbents are outraising their opponents and hoping dollars convert to voters on Election Day.
Stakes are high with all 140 General Assembly seats up for re-election on Nov. 5 and a push to flip both chambers to a Democratic majority. A win for Democrats would mean the party leads both the executive and legislative branches and could be better positioned to pass legislative agendas.
Democrats raised $13.7 million total to Republicans $8.1 million total in five key Senate races and 26 in the House of Delegates determined by a CNS analysis of competitive races, redistricting changes and recent voting trends on Virginia Public Access Project.
In competitive House races, six Democratic challengers outraised Republican incumbents in the past three months, based on new data released by VPAP. Only three Republican incumbents held a fundraising edge over Democratic challengers -- Del. Nick Freitas, R-Culpeper, Del. Tim Hugo, R-Fairfax, and Del. Christopher Stolle, R-Virginia Beach. Freitas did not register in time to have his name on the ballot, but pledged in August to mount a write-in campaign that could translate to a win in the Culpeper Republican stronghold.
Democratic challenger Sheila Bynum-Coleman outraised Speaker of the House Del. Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, by over $200,000 during the same period. Independent candidate Linnard Harris Sr. raised $2,167.
On the other side, with 11 Democratic incumbents seeking reelection, only two Republican challengers outraised their contenders. Ian Lovejoy is vying for Democratic Del. Lee Carter’s House District 50 seat. Lovejoy outraised Carter by over $70,000. Challenger H. Otto Wachsmann Jr. outraised Del. Roslyn Tyler, D-Sussex, in the race for the seat of House District 75.
Carter said he wasn’t surprised, or unsettled, by his opponent’s cash advantage, "given the fact that Virginia has no limits on corporate contributions.”
“In fact, I've been continually surprised by how weak his fundraising has been compared to other Republicans in the area, and the fact that the overwhelming majority of his money ... comes from the Republican Party or other Republican campaigns,” Carter said. “I've never taken a single dime from for-profit corporations or industry interest groups, and I never will. That grassroots support is certainly reflected in our conversations with voters, and I'm very confident that I'll be able to win despite being outspent, just like I did in 2017."
A U.S. Supreme Court decision upheld a redistricting map that favored Democrats and also left six Republicans in Democratic-leaning districts. Some Republican strongholds also began to fade blue when Donald Trump ran against Hillary Clinton, and in recent House and U.S. Senate elections.
There are five battleground races in the Senate, based on VPAP data. In Districts 10 and 12, Democratic challengers have outraised Republican incumbents.
Del. Debra Rodman, D-Henrico, raised over $1.4 million in the last two filing periods. She outraised her opponent, incumbent Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, whose cash haul was $694,844 in the same period. The two candidates were the first to spend over $1 million in media ad-buys. District 10 challenger Ghazala Hashmi outraised first-term incumbent Sen. Glen Sturtevant, R-Richmond, by $487,951.
Sen. Lynwood Lewis, D-Accomack, the only Democratic incumbent in this group, holds an advantage of nearly $20,000 over his Republican challenger Elizabeth Lankford.
Republican Jen Kiggans and Democrat Cheryl Turpin are vying for the seat vacated by Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach. Turpin raised over $890,000 and Kiggans brought in just over $600,000.
Democratic candidates in these competitive Senate races accumulated just over $4.1 million in three months, compared to the $2.1 million raised by Republican candidates, according to campaign finance reports collected by VPAP.
Jeff Ryer, press secretary for the Virginia Senate Republican Caucus, said the party has faced similar situations before.
“Hillary Clinton outspent Donald Trump ... and yet Donald Trump was able to prevail,” he said. Ryer said the candidates’ message during an election is more important than money. “Every indication that we have is that most of the races are very close and that both State Senate and State House could go either way.”
Democrats see the uptick in fundraising as proof of the momentum they are gaining in Virginia. The party has also had a higher number of candidates run in the past two elections -- more than double the number in 2015.
“In 2017 Virginia really started a ‘blue wave,’ following Trump’s election,” said Kathryn Gilley, director of communications for the Virginia House Democrats. Gilley believes out-of-state money and interest is important for the future of Virginia. “People see that there is a possibility of flipping the chambers this year,” she said.
Across the state, Democrats have raised large amounts of cash in the past three months, even in districts that lean heavily Republican and don’t offer great odds of victory, in part due to a flood of donations Gilley referenced. But there are opportunities based on climbing voter turnout in off-year elections; heightened by the increasing popularity of absentee ballots. Still, the last time all seats were up for grabs in 2015, only 29% of registered voters turned up.
“There is greater enthusiasm, right now, among Democratic-inclined voters than Republican-inclined voters,” said Quentin Kidd, director of the Judy Ford Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University. “The candidates that are better funded at this point have a better chance in using that money to turn out voters on election day.”
Kidd said out-of-state donations represent the attention these elections have around the country. “People are looking at Virginia as a bellwether to see where voters are and then look forward to next year in the presidential race,” he said.
Key races are identified in this story from VPAP’s competitive index of House and Senate races and also include districts that lean Democratic after House redistricting. Races with an Independent candidate were not included.
Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.