A new style of aggressive, year-round fundraising has poured more than $46 million into Virginia campaigns this election season, nearly double what was raised at this point four years ago.
Threats of retribution after the divisive tax fight in the 2004 General Assembly lighted a fire under everyone who raises money in Virginia, one of only two states with a major election this year. But the rapid increase in the amount of campaign cash has taken candidates and lobbyists by surprise.
Fundraising in Virginia, which had been an occasional chore for part-time legislators, is now a nonstop necessity.
"It's like the old Cold War days," said House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford), comparing the fundraising to an arms race. "If one side is raising a lot of money, the other side has to."
Money also is flowing into candidates' campaign funds in Maryland and the District more than a year ahead of elections. In Maryland, the leading candidates for governor have already raised about $6 million each and are on pace to double the $10 million that the candidates collected in 2002. In the District, observers say the mayor's race next year could be the most expensive in city history.
In Virginia, the surge indicates a new level of political participation but also raises questions about the cost of running for office, the distraction that nonstop fundraising can be for candidates, and the expectations that wealthy donors have of the politicians they back.
Unlike most states and the federal government, Virginia places no limits on the size of political contributions from individuals or corporations. So far this election, 16 individual donors have each given more than $100,000.
"You have to ask, what is being expected in return for all this money," said Larry Noble, the executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington. "I'm not someone who, knee-jerk, says all fundraising is bad. But there is a cost in societal terms in having races double in cost."
Lobbyists, who help funnel much of the campaign money from builders, car dealers, real estate agents and doctors for the 2005 elections, say candidates are virtually hanging them by their ankles and shaking the cash from their pockets.
"The price to play has increased dramatically," said Charlie Davis, a longtime Richmond lobbyist, who notes that lawmakers have gotten younger and more tenacious. "Twenty years ago, a $250 contribution was significant. Now, you might get one biscuit at the general reception for that."
The new approach to political money in Virginia mirrors a revolution in Washington, where both national parties have developed powerful tools to collect contributions despite efforts by some in Congress to limit campaign fundraising.
Democrats in Virginia's House of Delegates, spurred on by Gov. Mark R. Warner (D), have increased their campaign collections by almost 200 percent in four years. Meanwhile, Howell created a Republican fundraising committee in the House and has pushed his members to be more aggressive.
The speaker patterned his efforts after U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), who developed the Retain Our Majority Program, in which members not facing challenges raise money to help colleagues who are. Virginia's House GOP began copying that technique last year.
In a memo to the lawmakers, Howell wrote, "The more we learned about this initiative, the more interested we became in it. Our friends in Congress find it very effective."
Four years ago, candidates for statewide offices and the 100 House of Delegates seats had raised $25.6 million by midsummer, according to data compiled by the Virginia Public Access Project, which tracks fundraising and spending. By the same time this year, candidates had collected $46.5 million, with the likelihood that tens of millions more will roll in during the final three months before the Nov. 8 election.
Candidates for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general have raised about 60 percent more than at the same point in the 2001 campaign. The three candidates for governor this year have raised $22.4 million; their counterparts in 2001 had raised $14 million.
But the most dramatic increase has been among the candidates running for the House. Contributions to those candidates have increased nearly 170 percent in four years. The number of individual contributions to House candidates has increased to about 37,000 this year, nearly 10,000 more than at the same point in 2003.
"We know the volume of transactions has surged this year," said David M. Poole, who runs the public access project. "My initial reaction was that there had to be an error in the calculation. We checked and rechecked. It's true; there's a whole lot more money going on this year."
An analysis of campaign data shows that powerful interests have begun contributing more, earlier than ever before. Auto dealers are $84,000 ahead of their 2001 pace. Bankers have given almost $60,000 more than they had at this point in the last election. The AFL-CIO, Philip Morris and home builders are all about $30,000 ahead.
"The ask is getting bigger. It's happening more often," said one lobbyist who spoke on condition of anonymity because he represents an association with business before the General Assembly.
"In the past, people would take a break after the election," the lobbyist said. "Now, they hit you with the debt relief thing right after the election. Then they hit you again in May. Then they hit you before the session. You can see how quickly that develops into a constant fundraising cycle."
Some of the activity this season is fallout from the fight over taxes that consumed the 2004 General Assembly. After a two-month stalemate, 17 Republican delegates broke ranks with their party to support a compromise that included a $1.5 billion tax increase to help finance the state's two-year budget.
Anti-tax groups vowed revenge and promised to run primary candidates against the maverick lawmakers. Supporters of the tax deal pledged to back the incumbents. Six GOP delegates were challenged in primaries, and all but one won.
Del. Harry J. Parrish (R-Manassas) was one of those targeted. A 23-year veteran of the House, Parrish had been a lackadaisical fundraiser. In the previous four elections combined, he raised about $89,000 and spent about $20,000, records show. For this election, he raised $272,000.
But the phenomenon extends beyond candidates who felt threatened by their tax vote. Running unopposed for his third term in a conservative district that is considered safe, Del. L. Scott Lingamfelter (R-Prince William) has nonetheless raised more than $100,000. At an April fundraiser, the retired Army colonel invited donations of $1,000, $2,000 and $5,000. Those are amounts that candidates for governor used to command.
Lingamfelter said he raised the money in part to ward off potential challengers with a show of fundraising prowess. "You are able to project strength, and then people say, 'I'm not going to bother running against him,' " Lingamfelter said.
But he acknowledged that his efforts were also part of the House speaker's organized campaign to raise money for more at-risk Republicans.
"A good many of us try to help Bill help the caucus," Lingamfelter said. "Control of those committees and controlling the agenda is so, so important."
And candidates are not the only ones raising money.
Virginia's races increasingly are being financed by a new crop of political action committees. The new groups are run by professional fundraisers who collect millions from donors -- some of whom write $50,000 and $100,000 checks -- and then pass the money on to the candidates.
In addition to Howell's new PAC, called the House Republican Campaign Committee, Senate Republicans have two new PACs, one for the leadership and another for a band of conservative lawmakers. And there are independent PACs that formed last year to raise money in the wake of the tax fight.
"The notion of a part-time, citizen legislature is increasingly under assault," said Warner, whose own fundraising has helped accelerate the race between this year's candidates for governor. A fundraiser in May for Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, the Democratic nominee, raised $1 million in one night.
President Bush came to Northern Virginia for Republican nominee Jerry W. Kilgore last month and raised $2.1 million, a one-night record for Virginia.
But Warner, Howell and others in Virginia defend the state's campaign finance system, which allows contributions of any size but demands prompt disclosure of any contribution over $100.
"We don't have all these artificial limits. Disclosure is the important thing," Howell said, predicting that the lawmakers will continue to raise money early. "If the opposition sees you don't have any money in the bank, they may say this guy is ripe for plucking."
Staff writers Matthew Mosk and Lori Montgomery and staff researcher Derek Willis contributed to this report.