Virginia's Lack of Limits on Campaign Contributions Worries Some

Thomas F. Farrell II, president of Dominion Resources and a high school friend of Robert F. McDonnell, has donated $52,831 to McDonnell's campaigns.
Thomas F. Farrell II, president of Dominion Resources and a high school friend of Robert F. McDonnell, has donated $52,831 to McDonnell's campaigns. (By Steve Helber -- Associated Press)
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By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Wealthy friends and accommodating campaign finance laws have allowed the two men running for governor of Virginia to compile tens of thousands of dollars from individual donors in what is expected to be the most expensive race in the state's history.

For his campaign for governor, R. Creigh Deeds has received $160,000 from an insurance company heiress who settled in his home county and befriended the Democrat, part of $315,000 she has donated to his campaigns since 2004.

Republican Robert F. McDonnell has received more than $36,700 from Thomas F. Farrell II for his gubernatorial run. Farrell is a high school buddy of McDonnell's who grew up to become president of Dominion Resources, one of Virginia's largest companies, and has donated $52,831 to his old pal's campaigns. A Dominion spokesman said Farrell was not available for comment.

Virginia is one of only six states that impose no limits on donations, a system that has resulted, critics charge, in increasingly expensive campaigns and candidates who must cater to wealthy donors.

The rules also introduce a powerful and infrequently mentioned force into Virginia elections: luck.

"It's how the political system has worked for years," said Bruce McWilliams, whose wife, Sarah, has become Deeds's largest patron. McWilliams spoke from the porch of the Inn at Gristmill Square that he helps run with his wife and mother in Warm Springs, in Bath County. Sarah McWilliams declined to be interviewed. "There's always an element of luck," he said.

According to the Virginia Public Access Project, $32.2 million had been raised for this year's governor's race through June 30, although that number might be inflated by the spring's vigorous primary campaign. The three Democrats together raised $20.6 million. The 2005 gubernatorial campaign cost $48.7 million, a third more than in 2001.

Politicians in Virginia operate under highly unusual finance rules that require exceptional transparency of candidates and contributors but put virtually no limits on who can give and how much. The system has been little challenged in recent years, in part because proponents think it reduces the time candidates spend raising money and encourages candid giving, as donors write checks directly to candidates instead of anonymously backing independent political action groups.

But free-for-all giving also reduces the need for candidates to reach out to small donors, such as those who buoyed President Obama's federal campaign last year, and makes them beholden to a small circle of donors able to contribute tens of thousands of dollars.

It's a question that arises every four years, as the cost of statewide campaigns spirals upward: Would voters have more confidence in the state's political system if limits were imposed on donors?

Deeds and McDonnell part ways on the question. Although a Deeds spokesman, Mike Gehrke, said the campaign could not be competitive if it were to "unilaterally disarm" by accepting voluntary limits on donations, the Democratic state senator has long backed imposing legal limits on all campaigns. McDonnell supports the state's existing system of allowing unlimited but transparent giving, his spokesman said.

Deeds and McDonnell have compiled an impressive list of big givers, many of whom represent top corporate interests in the state. Deeds boasts 129 donors who have given $5,000 or more, including four donors in addition to McWilliams who have contributed more than $100,000. Top donors include real estate developers, the founder of CarMax auto dealers and Dave Matthews Band member Boyd Tinsley.

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