National Democratic Groups Pour Money Into Va. Governor's Race

Robert F. McDonnell has no Republican opposition in the governor's race, while Democrats are in a three-way contest for the nomination. Democratic groups have formed the organization Common Sense Virginia to challenge McDonnell.
Robert F. McDonnell has no Republican opposition in the governor's race, while Democrats are in a three-way contest for the nomination. Democratic groups have formed the organization Common Sense Virginia to challenge McDonnell. (By Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)
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By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 8, 2009

RICHMOND, April 7 -- National Democratic groups have started pouring money into Virginia to directly challenge Republican gubernatorial nominee Robert F. McDonnell while their party faces an increasingly negative three-way primary.

Democrats are using the money to create an organization, Common Sense Virginia, that will take on McDonnell, who has no Republican opposition and has started receiving significant funding from outside groups, including $1 million from the Republican Governors Association.

Nathan Daschle, executive director of the Democratic Governors Association, said his organization gave $100,000 to Common Sense Virginia to spread the word about what he called McDonnell's "conservative legislative record" and his close ties to religious broadcaster Pat Robertson.

One reason for the intense national interest in the Virginia's governor's race is that political leaders view it as a harbinger of the federal midterm elections in 2010. Virginia and New Jersey are the only states with gubernatorial races this year.

Outside groups have also started contributing directly to candidates. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the International Association of Firefighters have combined to give Democrat Terry McAuliffe $475,000, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, which tracks campaign contributions.

Lis Smith, McAuliffe's spokeswoman, said the money will be crucial for the party to compete against McDonnell in November.

"The national Republican Party has made good on their promises to throw everything, including the kitchen sink, into the Virginia gubernatorial race by contributing $1 million to Republican Bob McDonnell's campaign," Smith said.

McAuliffe, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, faces state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (Bath) and former delegate Brian Moran (Alexandria) in the June 9 primary.

McDonnell's lack of opposition means he will have the spring and summer to raise funds, organize his campaign and develop a message. "Everyone knows this is an important race with national implications," said Tucker Martin, McDonnell's spokesman.

Officials at Common Sense Virginia said the group will provide counter-programming about McDonnell through TV ads, canvassing and phone calls.

Daschle said the governors association will continue to fund Common Sense Virginia. The group plans a formal launch Thursday with a video about McDonnell. Spokesman Yoni Cohen signaled that the group's primary mission would be to define McDonnell as "working on behalf of right-wing special-interest groups and big corporations."

Nick Ayers, executive director of the Republican Governors Association, criticized Democrats for creating a "shadow organization" that he said is funded by labor and designed to increase union influence. In contrast, he said, his group is donating directly to McDonnell in a "transparent and respectful way" that does not attack another candidate and does not hide its involvement in the race.

"It's two very distinct tactics," Ayers said.

The outside groups, commonly known as 527s because of the section of the federal tax code that covers their activities, are able to raise unlimited amounts of money.

State lawmakers strengthened the reporting requirements for independent groups in 2006 after McDonnell's campaign for attorney general was criticized for accepting $2 million from a group called the Republican State Leadership Committee, which did not have to disclose the source of its money. McDonnell defeated Deeds by 360 votes in that race.

Virginia law now requires a 527 to disclose its contributors and register with the State Board of Elections after it gives $10,000 or more to a candidate or political organization.

Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington nonpartisan group that studies the influence of money on elections, said the way the groups are set up makes it difficult for voters to know who is behind them.

"The challenge is for Virginians to make sure they know who is funding an election," she said.

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