Environmentalist Tom Steyer, former TD Ameritrade chairman Joe Ricketts’s son Todd and hedge fund manager Robert Mercer are using groups called super PACs to pump their personal resources into the state.
Americans for Prosperity, the influential conservative advocacy group backed by the billionaire Koch brothers, is using the Virginia race to refine its field program, hoping to improve on its performance in 2012. And independent opposition research groups such as American Bridge on the left and America Rising on the right have seized the chance to hone their candidate-tracking operations.
The outside cash is helping fuel a wave of attack ads sponsored by both independent groups and the candidates, deepening the negative tenor of the race.
The candidacy of Terry McAuliffe, a businessman and former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, has drawn numerous out-of-state players. Many have jumped in because they view the campaign as a key early battle that will help determine which way the state will go in 2016.
“Virginia is a very important state from a strategic standpoint,” said Steyer, a San Francisco-based hedge fund billionaire whose new super PAC, NextGen Climate Action Committee, has spent $900,000 on ads against Republican Ken Cuccinelli II. “It’s a swing state; it’s a purple state.”
The out-of-state money is crowding out funds from Virginians. Only about a quarter of the nearly $17.5 million in donations over $100 that McAuliffe received through Aug. 31 came from people or companies with a Virginia address. For Cuccinelli, who is Virginia’s attorney general, about 31 percent of the $10.8 million he received came from inside the state during the same period, according to an analysis by the Virginia Public Access Project, a nonpartisan group that tracks money in politics.
Those figures represent a break from past elections: Since 1997, every gubernatorial candidate has received at least 50 percent of his campaign money from Virginians.
The dominance of out-of-state funds demonstrates the increasingly high-profile roles being played by wealthy individuals and independent groups in elections across the country. Court decisions in 2010 freed corporations to spend money directly on federal campaigns and paved the way for the creation of super PACs, which can raise unlimited sums.
The rules are even looser in Virginia, which allows candidates to collect unlimited donations — including direct contributions from corporations and unions, which cannot give to federal candidates in the same way.