The battle for control of Virginia's General Assembly has candidates from both parties raising money at a record-breaking pace, but Republicans are building a wide lead in the kind of ready cash that can swing close elections in the final days.
A computer analysis of campaign finance data shows that candidates are raising money more than 50 percent faster than they were at this time in 1995, the last time all 140 seats in the General Assembly were up for election.
Legislative candidates already have raised $9.6 million and have $5.9 million sitting as cash in campaign accounts with five months to go until November's general elections. Political action committees controlled by party leaders have $2.4 million of their own cash to devote to the stretch runs of close races in the fall, and in that kind of unrestricted money, Republicans have a nearly 2 to 1 advantage.
These are some of the results of a Washington Post analysis of campaign finance reports filed June 1 and compiled by the Virginia Public Access Project, a nonprofit group sponsored by The Post, state news organizations and Virginia Commonwealth University.
At stake in the political struggle is control of both the House and Senate and control over the once-a-decade redistricting of seats that will shape legislative power for years to come. The added urgency has driven up fund-raising.
From 1991 to 1995, spending on state legislative races doubled from $10 million to $21 million. Another doubling in total campaign cost is considered unlikely this year, but lobbyists say they feel pressure to contribute in ever-higher amounts.
"We've seen it ratchet up every year," said Richmond lobbyist Robert Beasley Jones Jr. "Where you used to be able to get into an event for $100 to $125, it's now costing $250. . . . It's expensive. I don't know how to stop it."
A Web site run by Jones's firm, www.political1.com, lists a comprehensive fund-raising schedule that includes dozens of picnics, receptions and golf tournaments at which tickets are $250 or more. A weekend retreat at a Northern Neck inn with Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) costs either $10,000 or $15,000. There are so many events in so many places each weekend this summer that no lobbyist without a thick billfold and a personal helicopter could attend them all.
Lobbyists say that even unopposed incumbents are calling for large donations, stretching the budgets of companies and groups eager to stay in the good graces of powerful lawmakers. Virginia has no limit on the amount of contributions, though any contribution over $100 must be reported to the state.
"The volume of requests [for contributions] in April, May and June has been tremendous," said James W. Hazel, a Northern Virginia lobbyist with ties to the high-technology community.
The biggest player in the race for dollars has been Gilmore, known for his enthusiasm for tapping donors and for creating a Republican majority in the House of Delegates for the first time since Reconstruction.
Three PACs he controls have raised $1.66 million since his election in 1997. His New Majority Project PAC also is by far the biggest fund-raiser since April, hauling in $434,000, including $100,000 from the Republican Governors Association.
That PAC also was the most generous giver during that period, spreading $111,400 to 15 different candidates. A second Gilmore PAC gave $66,250 more.
The leading Democratic PAC, Commonwealth Victory Fund, has raised $1.55 million since the 1997 election and given away $454,000. It now has $682,000 in cash.
All together, Republican PACs have $1.53 million cash compared with $868,000 for PACs controlled by Democrats. When legislative candidates are added to the mix, the GOP has $4.9 million in cash compared with $3.3 million for Democrats.
Those are the totals through May. Most campaign money is raised later, as the general election grows nearer.
"We're very well positioned to be the majority party in the legislature," said Chris LaCivita, executive director of the Virginia GOP.
Republicans have made steady gains during the last decade. They now control all three statewide offices. In the General Assembly, there is effective parity in the House and a 21 to 19 edge for the GOP in the Senate.
Several retirements by Democratic incumbents have convinced many political observers that Republicans have the edge in seeking control of both houses, but the Democratic Party chairman, Del. Kenneth R. Plum (Fairfax), says his forces are ready for a rebound.
"We're far from gloom and doom," he said. "We're really very hopeful."
But the prospect for a Republican takeover of the House has spurred a race for the speakership. At least two of the leading contenders, Del. John H. "Jack" Rust Jr. (R-Fairfax) and Del. S. Vance Wilkins Jr. (R-Amherst), have created PACs, a traditional way for politicians to build loyalty. Rust's PAC, which already has given to several candidates, including Del. Jeannemarie Devolites (R-Fairfax), has $17,600 in the bank. Wilkins's PAC, which he controls along with a Richmond area lawmaker, has $99,100 in cash.
The list of the biggest contributors on Virginia's political landscape is dominated by the usual mix of bankers, lawyers, developers and medical PACs. Dominion Resources, the parent company of Virginia Power, has given $38,200 in the last three months. The Virginia Bankers Association has given $38,000. Philip Morris Cos. has given $37,800. And the Medical Society of Virginia has given $32,500.
One new giver since April is Microsoft Corp., based in Redmond, Wash. It gave $10,000 to the Democrats' Commonwealth Victory Fund and $10,200 to a combination of Republican PACs.
But in most cases, lobbyists say, the usual interest groups and companies are being asked to give more than ever before.
"It's crazy," said Steve Calos, executive director of Common Cause of Virginia. "Virginia is to campaign finance what the Cayman Islands are to banking. . . . Everything goes here."
CAPTION: Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) is known for his enthusiasm for tapping donors.