Randal J. Kirk gained a place among a tiny group of super-donors in Virginia politics by giving $50,000 to Republican gubernatorial candidate Jerry W. Kilgore. Then he changed his mind.
On Aug. 23, the drug company chief executive gave Democrat Timothy M. Kaine a single check for twice as much, and he says he now thinks Kaine is more broad-minded than Kilgore and would be a better governor.
"I certainly recognize that $100,000 is a lot of money," Kirk, 51, of Pulaski County in southwest Virginia, said in an interview last week. "That never changes -- the nature of how much $100,000 is."
Kirk's pocketbook affords him the luxury of changing his mind, and the state is accommodating. In Virginia, there are no rules against giving to a candidate in amounts that some would regard as the down payment for a house or a lifetime of savings for a child's education.
Most contributors make gifts of $100, $500 or $2,000, according to data compiled by the Virginia Public Access Project, which tracks campaign donations. Kilgore has raised $14 million and Kaine has amassed slightly more than $13 million from thousands of individuals, businesses and groups. Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr., a Republican state senator from Winchester who is running as an independent, has raised about $1 million.
But about 20 people have contributed more than $50,000 at a time to Kaine, Kilgore and Potts. Together, they account for more than $3 million in donations to the three candidates seeking the state's top elected position.
So who are these super-donors? And what do they want?
Phil Wendel, the founder of a Charlottesville-based chain of health clubs, ACAC Fitness and Wellness Centers, gained entry into the elite club of contributors by writing two checks to Kilgore totaling $187,500. His connection with the candidate? A love for the Wahoos, the University of Virginia's football team.
Lloyd Ross, founder of a retail chain in Middleburg, wrote two checks totaling $550,000 to Potts, a longtime friend.
The celebrity among the donors is author John Grisham, Kaine supporter from North Garden, Va., near Charlottesville, who wrote a check for $50,000 last month, in addition to $50,000 he had already given.
But most, while wealthy, are fairly obscure. They made money in the technology boom or in land, retail or investments. Many are longtime friends of the candidates to whom they contributed, though others were only recently introduced. Almost all live in Virginia, though they didn't necessarily make their money in the state.
And most want nothing to do with publicity on their giving. Calls to many of them were returned by publicists or aides who said their employers did not want to talk about their campaign contributions.
"Mr. Sharp considers his contribution to be a personal one, and he does not wish to discuss it," said Trina Lee, a spokesman for Richard L. Sharp, chairman of Richmond-based auto dealer CarMax, who made a $50,000 contribution to Kilgore in March.
Sheila C. Johnson of The Plains, Va., a part-owner of the Washington Mystics basketball team and co-founder of Black Entertainment Television, has given Kaine more than $404,000 in cash and services. John M. Gregory, a former pharmaceuticals executive who lives in Tennessee, has given Kilgore $250,000.
Calls to Gregory, Johnson, Grisham and several other top donors were not returned.
Others, however, are eager to explain their gifts.
Kirk, who runs New River Pharmaceuticals, gave $50,000 to Kilgore's campaign for attorney general four years ago and $150,000 to Republican Mark L. Earley, who lost the governor's race to Mark R. Warner (D) in 2001. But after being introduced to Kaine by U.S. Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), Kirk switched horses.
He said his switch occurred not because of any particular policy or position Kaine holds. It's an overall sense of how both candidates would perform in office, he said.
"I've been fortunate enough to get to know both of them pretty well," Kirk said. "At the end, it was a matter of conscience. I came to the view that Tim Kaine would be the better governor."
Kirk said either candidate would do a "plausible" job as governor. "I actually think that Tim Kaine is intellectually broader and deeper," he said. "I think he has more of an open mind. I think he does more research. He's not as doctrinaire."
Wendel, meanwhile, calls Kilgore "an absolutely terrific human being." Kilgore, he said, "shares a lot of my values -- political values as well as family values."
Wendel said he met Kilgore a couple of years ago at a luncheon for about 20 business executives. Since then, he has had dinner with the candidate and his wife in more intimate settings. He said he is impressed by the former attorney general. A Kilgore spokesman said the two see each other frequently at University of Virginia football games.
"I'm not looking for anything in return," Wendel said. But he added that if he had a governor's ear, he would talk about health care.
"If I could have a voice on anything personally, it would be on health care, wellness," he said. "I am a preventionist by nature."
Sandy Lerner, a co-founder of networking company Cisco Systems, now runs a 1,000-acre organic farm in western Loudoun County. She gave Kaine, whom she calls a "measured, balanced" candidate, $50,000 in March.
Lerner said she met Kaine at a small, bipartisan dinner party a few years ago.
The discussion, she recalled, was about fighting sprawl and saving farmland.
"He seemed very genuine. He seemed to have a very open mind, and was very, very measured," Lerner said. While Kaine is not a "raving environmentalist," Lerner said, she said she believes he would do more to protect family farms from subdivisions and strip malls.
"My big check is just a way of saying no -- to the extent that I can -- to the thoughtless sprawl," said Lerner, whose contributions to Kaine total $88,463.
For Potts, Ross has been a lifeline in a campaign struggling for cash against two opponents who are swimming in it.
Ross, founder of the Tuesday Morning chain of stores, has said that his support of Potts dates back years, to when they knew each other in Texas.
"I've known Russ for a long, long time -- pushing 30 years," Ross said in April. "He's a great, honest, decent person. He's done great things for Virginia. I believe that what he believes is correct."
At the time of his $250,000 contribution in the spring, Ross said he hoped others would follow suit. That has not happened. Ross accounts for more than half of Potts's $980,000 in campaign collections.
The striking generosity of the state's largest donors raises inevitable questions about what, if anything, they expect in return.
"The biggest concern is the quid pro quo," said Larry Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit group that monitors campaign donations. "When you do have a wealthy donor, there are numerous possibilities for the appearance of influence buying. What does this giver have to gain?"
"Absolutely nothing," answered Kirk, echoing comments from other donors who were interviewed for this article. "I don't have any kinds of business interests in Virginia that would benefit or be harmed one way or the other."
Representatives for the campaigns said their candidates are not beholden to donors, even the ones who give huge sums.
"These are people who have an interest in the future of Virginia," Kilgore spokesman J. Tucker Martin said.
Delacey Skinner, a spokeswoman for Kaine, said the high-dollar donors contribute for "the same reason that people give money at any level: They believe in the vision that the lieutenant governor has for the state."
The Kaine campaign has questioned Kilgore's connections to Gregory, whose former company, King Pharmaceuticals, is under federal investigation for alleged Medicaid fraud. Kaine aides say Kilgore is beholden to the pharmaceutical industry.
Martin rejected the criticism of Gregory, calling him "one of the most generous philanthropists in Southwest Virginia."
Noble said politicians always risk being linked to their biggest contributors.
"When you are dealing in a world of $2,000 contributions, taking a contribution carries some baggage," he said. "When someone is giving $500,000, it could be a real political liability."
Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt and research database editor Derek Willis contributed to this report.