RICHMOND — The race for president in Virginia is neck and neck, but a crucial contest for political cash is a blowout.
Virginians have given nearly $4 million to conservative super PACs in the 2012 election cycle but just $76,000 to liberal versions of these political action committees, according to an analysis by the Virginia Public Access Project, a nonpartisan tracker of money in politics.
Donations to super PACs skew conservative nationally, partly for reasons of ideology, partly because Republicans had a long, hard-fought primary. But the ratio is more like 3 to 1, not 50-plus to 1.
Liberal super PAC fundraising lags so badly in this key swing state that a PAC set up by Christine O’Donnell, a 2010 Republican U.S. Senate candidate from Delaware, took in more from Virginians in the past 18 months than Priorities USA Action, the biggest super PAC in President Obama’s corner.
A PAC devoted to preserving the Democratic majority in the Senate pulled in just $2,500 over that period — a mere $237 more than comedian Stephen Colbert’s tongue-in-cheek Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow PAC. This in a state where former governor Timothy M. Kaine (D) is deadlocked in a Senate race with former governor George Allen (R).
Super PACs are organizations that can accept unlimited contributions and are largely bankrolled by a few dozen wealthy contributors. That makes for quirky donation patterns that might have little or no connection to a candidate’s standing in the polls, experts said.
“The trivial mathematical answer is if one person or two people give $5 million or $10 million, and even if everybody else gives $100,000, you’re going to have a big shift,” said Bob Biersack, a senior fellow with the Center for Responsive Politics. “Because it’s a process where there are no limits, one or two people can really cause that kind of skew.”
The Supreme Court paved the way for super PACs in 2010, ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that companies and unions have a First Amendment right to make unlimited contributions. A recent study by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group and Demos, two liberal research and advocacy organizations, found that just 47 people account for more than half of the $230 million raised by super PACs from individual donors.
Chief among them is billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and his immediate family, who have given more than $36 million to PACs supporting former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R) and, after Gingrich’s presidential bid failed, presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney.
The closest thing Virginia has to Adelson is coal magnate Richard Baxter Gilliam, who donated $750,000 to American Crossroads, a super PAC founded by Republican strategist Karl Rove, and Restore Our Future, which supports Romney. The founder of the private coal company Cumberland Resources, Gilliam did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Other six-figure donors to conservative PACs include: Robert W. Bailie, a retired fiberglass-insulation executive, who donated $250,000; Nicholas F. Taubman, president of Mozart Investments in Roanoke, former president of Advance Auto Parts and President George W. Bush’s ambassador to Romania, who gave $150,000; coal company Alpha Natural Resources, which gave $105,000; William H. Goodwin Jr., a hotelier whose properties include the Jefferson Hotel in Richmond, who gave $100,000; and Bruce C. Gottwald, chairman of the chemicals firm NewMarket, who also gave $100,000.
The Virginia Public Access Project ranked super PACs in order of most Virginia donations in an analysis to be made public Monday. The top 10 consisted of conservative groups, which took in $3.7 million from January 2011 through June 30 this year.
The liberal group that raised the most, the League of Conservation Voters, ranked No. 11, with $53,000 in donations. Priorities USA Action, also a liberal organization, pops up at No. 23, with $12,800 in Virginia donations. The top three conservative PACs — American Crossroads, Club for Growth Action and Restore Our Future — each took in more than $700,000.
The disparity has some longtime observers of Virginia politics scratching their heads.
“It comes as a big surprise to me that it is that enormous,” said George Mason University political scientist Mark J. Rozell. “There has to be more than just a singular, straightforward explanation.”
There is not such a wide gap in contributions made directly to the Obama and Romney campaigns. Virginians have given the former Massachusetts governor $4.5 million since January 2011, and have donated $4.2 million to Obama in that period, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
From January 2011 to June 30, individuals and corporations across the country donated $219.3 million to conservative super PACs, $77.5 million to liberal ones and $22 million to nonpartisan PACs.
Virginians did not account for a particularly large portion of those donations, but when they did open their checkbooks, they were far more likely to give to conservative groups. Virginia donors gave $3.9 million to conservative super PACs during that period, $76,000 to liberal ones and $30,000 to nonpartisan groups.
Democrats and Republicans put their own spins on Virginia’s super PAC disparity.
“This massive fundraising advantage underscores the enthusiasm gap plaguing Democrats,” Garren Shipley, communications director for the Republican Party of Virginia, said via e-mail.
But Brad Woodhouse, communications director for the Democratic National Committee, noted that only the donations are lopsided, not the polls.
“The Sheldon Adelsons of the world . . . they have a lot of interests,” he said. “I think their motives kind of speak for themselves.”