The battle for control of Virginia's legislature has caught the attention of the national political parties, which so far have given $900,000 to the campaign. That's more than they contributed in all of 1995, the last time all 140 General Assembly seats were on the ballot.
The flow of outside money into Virginia, one of only a handful of states with elections in this federal off year, is driven by a belief among party leaders that success this November can breed victory in 2000 and beyond.
The House Republican campaign committee, chaired by Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (Va.), has directed $315,000 into local races, helping to power the state GOP to a fund-raising edge, according to an analysis of new campaign finance reports.
On the other side, Sen. Charles S. Robb (Va.) and Mark R. Warner raised $100,000 through the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which sent a check to help pay for a Virginia voter identification program this fall that could also aid Robb's 2000 reelection campaign and Warner's likely gubernatorial run in 2001.
The national spotlight traditionally falls on Virginia's campaign every four years, when it elects all its state lawmakers at the same time.
But this year, as Republicans hope for a history-making takeover of Virginia's legislature, the state races are particularly important to both sides' strategic goals.
State and national leaders are looking ahead to when the General Assembly will redraw Virginia's congressional and legislative district boundaries after the 2000 census. The legislature can draw those boundaries to favor one party's candidates, and relatively small changes in the composition of Congress and the Virginia General Assembly can affect the balance of power.
Republicans need only to maintain their edge in the state Senate, now 21 to 19, and gain a seat in the 100-member House of Delegates to make Virginia the second state in the former Confederacy to be led by a Republican-controlled legislature and a Republican governor.
That achievement would boost Davis as he struggles to help maintain the narrow Republican majority in the U.S. House. Meanwhile, the Democrats' strategy for winning back the U.S. Senate involves defending Robb, who is considered the chamber's most vulnerable member.
"We feel that as Virginia goes, so goes the nation," said Davis. "Besides, I'm the National Republican Congressional Committee chairman, and this is my home state."
Robb's chief of staff, Thomas J. Lehner said: "There is no question that the legislative races are important. . . . [They have] implications for the congressional elections next year."
While legislative races will turn on local issues, the Virginia contests do offer the national parties a preview of themes that may resonate with voters in the 2000 national elections. This year, the state parties have developed messages about improving schools, controlling guns, preventing drug crimes and handling growth issues such as transportation.
The national money pouring into Virginia is helping to fuel a feverish fund-raising year for legislative candidates of both parties, according to analysis of a database commissioned by The Washington Post and state newspapers and compiled by Virginia Commonwealth University and the nonprofit Virginia Public Access Project.
Through Aug. 31, candidates and political action committees devoted to legislative races had spent $16 million and had campaign cash on hand totaling $10.5 million. Those figures make it virtually certain that legislative campaign spending will shatter the record of $21 million in 1995.
But Republicans hold the advantage by any measure. They have raised more than Democrats and have outspent them by nearly 2 to 1. And in campaign cash--the figure political operatives say is most crucial heading into the final phases of campaigns--Republican have $6 million, compared with $4.5 million for the Democrats.
That means more polling, more mailings and, in some parts of the state, more radio and television advertising than the Democrats. The edge in money from federal campaigns sharpens that trend.
In July and August alone, national Republicans have pumped $407,500 to local candidates and to Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R), who has pledged to raise $4 million for state candidates. National Democrats have given $123,000.
National GOP groups have maintained a 3 to 1 advantage over their Democratic counterparts in contributions to Virginia, with more money to come, party officials said.
The contributions are coming from party organizations and leaders. The Republican National Committee, for example, has contributed about $302,500, and a PAC controlled by New York Gov. George Pataki (R) has given $24,600.
The Democratic senatorial committee has given a total of $125,000, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee about $68,900, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee $37,900 and the Democratic National Committee about $52,600.
The Republican National Committee may pump several hundred thousand dollars more into voter-turnout operations by Election Day. Meanwhile, the Democrats' drive to identify 1 million voters will cost more than the $100,000 from the Democratic Senate committee.
"Let's face it, on every level, Democrats are outspent these days," said Del. Kenneth R. Plum (Fairfax), chairman of the state Democratic Party.
Jim Jordan, political director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, played down Virginia's significance as a national bellwether. "Virginia doesn't matter any more to us than any other state," he said.
Davis cited the redistricting as one reason he has used his position atop the national campaign committee to finance dozens of GOP candidates in the state but noted that he is also following the custom of the former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman, Rep. Martin Frost (Tex.).
"Chairmen have traditionally weighed in pretty heavily to look in after the interests of their state, and oftentimes have prevailed upon other party leaders to chip in," said Charles E. Cook, a political analyst for National Journal.
Republicans also benefit from the number of officials in key state jobs. The governor, lieutenant governor and the attorney general--all Republicans--are raising money for legislative candidates.
Gilmore's New Majority Project PAC already has given away $263,000 to help out GOP candidates in key races. Together with a second PAC, Gilmore still has $762,000 left to spend by Election Day.
Database editors Sarah Cohen and Dan Keating contributed to this report.