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Editorial: PACs have outsized voice in elections

July 12,2017 12:19

The innocuously named “Virginians for a Better Future” filed a report with the Virginia Department of Elections in early June, declaring its intention to spend about $120,000 on the Democratic Party nomination fight. According to a Washington Post ...

IN THE CLOSING days of the surprisingly heated primary battle between Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam and former U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello, an unknown political action committee crept into the picture, with a fat wallet and an ax to grind.
The innocuously named “Virginians for a Better Future” filed a report with the Virginia Department of Elections in early June, declaring its intention to spend about $120,000 on the Democratic Party nomination fight.
According to a Washington Post story published at the time, “The filing said that the PAC would spend 25 percent of its funds against Perriello, the rest for Northam. It listed expenditures of about $24,000 for ‘digital advertisements’ and almost $60,000 for ‘direct mail.’”
The main ad promoted by the group criticized Perriello’s record on reproductive rights, while touting Northam’s professional experience as a physician and arguing he was most capable of “standing up” to President Donald Trump, who played an outsized role as a punching bag in the Democratic primary.
To his credit, Northam condemned the campaign, saying that he and Perriello were committed to a positive campaign. The lieutenant governor also sent a letter to the group, asking that they abandon the advertising and allow the two candidates to compete on their own.
It’s impossible to say with any certainty if the ads had any effect. Polling showed Northam with a comfortable lead throughout the primary campaign, and he cruised to a 12-point victory on June 13.
However, everything about the involvement of a shadowy, unaccountable PAC in that primary portends something more ominous in the fall.
When Virginians head to the polls in November, the governor’s race will be among the most closely watched in the country. New Jersey is the only other state slated to select a chief executive, and the Old Dominion is seen as a more compelling bellwether for congressional elections in 2018.
As such, spending on the statewide races — particularly governor, but also lieutenant governor and attorney general — is expected to be extravagant. And those outside the commonwealth will look to press their influence even as voters try to do what’s best for Virginia.
According to the Virginia Public Access Project, Northam has raised about $6.47 million since launching his campaign to lead Virginia. Nearly all of it — $5.77 million — has come via donors in the commonwealth or the District of Columbia.
His opponent, former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie, has raised about $4.92 million in his campaign for governor. About $3.34 million of that is from donors in Virginia and the District of Columbia, with the balance — $1.46 million — coming from other states.
But that’s only the reported totals, those donations that fall under the reporting requirements. Money spent by groups such as “Virginians for a Better Future” comes under less scrutiny. Precious little is known about these PACs or their donors, allowing them to have an outsized voice in the process with none of the accountability.
A recent story in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, looking at this particular organization, shows the lengths they will go to conceal the puppeteers behind them.
Virginians for a Better Future was incorporated in Delaware, two weeks before the primary. Only one person — Michael McShane, a Charlottesville-area Democratic consultant — is listed on the required forms, serving in the role of treasurer.
There are some loose ties between the group and Gov. Terry McAuliffe, reported by the Richmond paper in June, but nobody seems willing to claim responsibility for its efforts.
Where did the group get the more than $184,000 it ultimately poured into the Democratic primary? Who anted up that war chest? Can voters expect to see that group reappear in October and November, as the campaign enters its final stretch?
No one can say for sure. But voters should expect to hear from this PAC and many more like it in the coming weeks.
Such is the consequence of loose campaign finance laws, both nationally and in Virginia, that eschew the type of accountability and transparency that are imperative in a healthy democratic system.
But with no chance to reform those laws before November — in truth, there’s little appetite in Richmond or Washington for doing so — it falls to voters to treat with skepticism and disdain those groups looking to manipulate elections in Virginia for their selfish ends.


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