Tuesday, as he conceded defeat in the Virginia governor’s race, Ken Cuccinelli II (R) told supporters that he had come closer than polls had indicated “despite being outspent by an unprecedented $15 million.” But while he and his conservative supporters now lament that money cost them the victory they felt they deserved, they have long been the defenders of the system of campaign finance non-regulation in Virginia and nationally.
Because of the Old Dominion’s anything goes system, candidates can accept millions of dollars from any individual or corporation seeking to ensure their victory. While Governor-Elect Terry McAuliffe raised over $32 million, Cuccinelli himself reported at least $19 million in donations — including hundreds of thousands from fossil fuel companies who preferred a climate-change denier to a candidate focused on green energy.
In campaign post-mortems, conservatives from Linda Chavez to Ralph Reedboth echoed the candidate’s concession and blamed Cuccinelli’s loss on money. Jenny Beth Martin, national coordinator for Tea Party Patriots, lamented that the pro-corporate U.S. Chamber of Commerce went from making seven-figure investments in the 2009 campaign for Gov. Bob McDonnell (R-VA) but spent nothing on Cuccinelli. “Just think what would have happened if the business and donor classes of the Republican Party would have helped.” Ben Domenech blamed the “donor class” as “sore losers” who threw a “temper tantrum” by not opening up their wallets for a more conservative nominee.
As Zack Beauchamp noted Thursday, Cuccinelli got “killed in the fundraising race,” in large part because business leaders did not care for his anti-corporatist stances against a tax increase to increase transportation funding and corporate welfare. Cuccinelli embraced anti-government populist ideas — as well associally conservative ones — but not the priorities of some business interests. Had Cuccinelli embraced their agenda, as McDonnell did in 2009, others in the business community might well have supported him as enthusiastically as the energy sector did.
In an October press release called “Big Money,” the Cuccinelli campaign highlighted a fundraising appeal, sent by the chairman of the University of Virginia Council of Foundations to a hedge fund manager, explaining that he hoped to enlist a large number of UVA alums to support McAuliffe. “The more influential names we have associated with our shared voice the more likely we are going to have the future Governor’s ear,” he wrote.
Therein lies the problem. If money really is the determining factor in who wins elections, candidates who agree with powerful moneyed interests like the Chamber will always have the upper hand over those who do not. And as Virginia saw with McDonnell’s Star Scientific scandal, those wealthy benefactors will be the ones with the freest access to the politicians they bankroll. And if states are the laboratories of democracy, as the late Justice Louis Brandeissuggested, the experiment of unlimited money in Virginia might be a warning sign to conservatives nationally that “anything goes” campaign finance laws may not always work out in their favor.