By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 22, 2008
RICHMOND -- Virginia's status as a battleground state in the presidential election for the first time in more than four decades has led to a dramatic increase in donations from state residents, especially among Democrats in Northern Virginia.
Virginians have donated a record $25.3 million to candidates during this two-year election cycle, more than 85 percent of that from Northern Virginia donors, according to campaign finance reports filed last month. The total is nearly double the $14.2 million given during the same period in the run-up to the 2004 election and more than four times the $6.3 million raised before the 2000 election.
The Democratic nominee, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, received $8.1 million from Virginia donors through July 31, and the Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, took in $5 million. The rest went to other candidates who ran in the party primaries.
Virginians have given far more to Democrats than to Republicans -- $15.9 million compared with $9.3 million -- in this election cycle, the first time in at least 20 years that the GOP has not led the presidential money battle in the historically conservative state.
The boost in fundraising is in line with a national trend and is partly attributable to the prolonged nomination battle between Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York. But in Virginia, the increase in giving to Democrats has far exceeded what has occurred in the rest of the nation. The surge in giving is firm evidence that Virginia Democrats think they can build on recent wins on the state level to capture the state's 13 electoral votes for the first time since 1964.
Donald S. Beyer Jr., a former Democratic lieutenant governor and a Northern Virginia car dealer, attributes the shift in giving to Obama, whom he calls "the most transformational leader in last 40 years." Beyer, Obama's mid-Atlantic finance chairman, and his wife, Megan Beyer, have raised more than $1.5 million for Obama. "People are very motivated," he said. "People are very, very excited."
Since before the primaries, Virginia has been the scene of unprecedented fundraising activity. Millions of dollars are being raised at swanky fundraisers at John and Jacqueline Kennedy's former home, Hickory Hill in McLean, and the Ritz-Carlton in Tysons Corner, through small donations on the Internet and by bundlers who call and e-mail friends, colleagues and prior donors.
Virginia's proximity to Washington has also contributed to the money flow, as members of Congress, former White House officials and influential lobbyists, many of whom live in Northern Virginia, have held or headlined fundraisers, including former Republican senator Fred Thompson of Tennessee and former Senate majority leader Thomas A. Daschle, a Democrat from South Dakota.
The increase does not necessarily mean that money raised in Virginia stays in Virginia. Obama and McCain are polling close across the country, and they have mounted aggressive campaigns in other battleground states, including Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Nonetheless, fundraisers for McCain and Obama said the state's status as "in play" has made their jobs much easier, with many donors writing checks without the usual arm-twisting and others contributing without having to be asked.
"The more Virginia is in play, the easier it becomes," said Bill Dean, chief executive of the Dulles-based engineering firm M.C. Dean, who has raised about $25,000 for McCain. "It's another pitch you can make."
Both candidates have poured money, paid staff and other resources into Virginia, where they have been airing ads for months. Obama's campaign has opened 43 offices and dispatched dozens of field operatives. Obama, his wife, Michelle, and his running mate, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, have campaigned in the state more than a half-dozen times since Obama secured the nomination.
McCain's campaign recently named Virginia the state with the most voters reached by phone or door-to-door canvassing at night and on weekends. Two weeks ago, McCain and his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, rallied thousands of supporters in Fairfax City.
The McCain and Obama campaigns would not discuss their fundraising efforts in the state. Information about donations has come from interviews with volunteers and reports filed with the Federal Election Commission. The information includes only contributions of $200 or more.
Nationwide, Obama raised a record-setting $466 million as of Aug. 31, and McCain collected more than $217 million.
Angel Thomas, 26, a single mother who grew up in Fairfax County and now lives in Woodbridge, had not been involved in politics before this year. Thomas first noticed Obama when he gave the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in 2004, but she did not get involved in his campaign until February, after watching his success in the primaries.
"I was really excited he was winning, and I wanted to do whatever I could to help him," she said.
Thomas, who works at Northern Virginia Community College and graduated from college $40,000 in debt, said she was sold on Obama after hearing about his proposal to offer a $4,000 tax credit for college in exchange for community service. She began volunteering for his campaign, canvassing neighborhoods and calling potential donors. And she donated whenever she could -- sometimes as little as $5 -- for a total of about $200.
Contributions to Obama from small donors have been credited with much of his fundraising success, but he and McCain have counted on well-connected bundlers to increase their Virginia totals. Many are elected officials, entrepreneurs, lawyers or lobbyists who work in Washington and live in Virginia.
"I'm sure there are some lobbyists who are doing this because they only want a job as an undersecretary or they want to tell their clients they have access to [Obama or McCain]. There's no doubt about it," said Kevin Wolf, a lawyer with the Bryan Cave firm in Washington and an Obama bundler. "But I help because I want [Obama] to win."
Wolf said he raised campaign money for the first time in 2004 for then-Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) because he wanted to defeat President Bush. This year, he has collected $75,000 for Obama, partly from an afternoon reception at his house attended by 80 people, who each gave at least $500.
Fifty-two bundlers in Virginia are raising money for McCain, including 20 who have been registered federal lobbyists, according to Public Citizen, a national nonprofit consumer group. Among them are Orson Swindle, a former prisoner of war with McCain in Vietnam, who has collected more than $100,000; Dwight C. Schar, chairman of the NVR home-building company, who has collected more than $500,000; and U.S. Rep. Eric I. Cantor (R-Va.), who has collected more than $250,000. McCain's son, Douglas McCain, a commercial airline pilot in Virginia Beach, has helped raise $50,000.
Fourteen bundlers in Virginia are raising money for Obama, including two who have been registered federal lobbyists, according to Public Citizen. They include Thomas Perrelli, managing partner of the Washington law firm Jenner & Block, who has collected more than $500,000; William R. Harvey, president of the historically black Hampton University, who has collected more than $100,000; and Mark Feierstein, a Washington consultant, who collected more than $50,000.
Bobbie Kilberg, president of the Northern Virginia Technology Council and an unsuccessful Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, has raised more than $900,000 for McCain with her husband, William Kilberg. They have contacted potential donors, and they hosted two receptions and a sit-down dinner, all attended by McCain, at their McLean home last year.
Kilberg said she was drawn to McCain because she felt "at home with his philosophy" and because his positions on issues most closely reflect hers. The McCains and the Kilbergs are friends who occasionally vacation together.
Donald Clark, a Virginia Beach trial lawyer who attended the Naval Academy with McCain, decided to raise money for him after he read a Wall Street Journal essay last year by former senator Phil Gramm of Texas describing McCain as the "right person at the right time to lead our country." In September 2007, Clark hosted a McCain fundraiser at his office that was attended by more than 75 people. He said he has raised more than $100,000 by talking up McCain's attributes without mentioning what he thinks are Obama's flaws.
"I've never done anything like this," he said.
Database editor Sarah Cohen and staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.