RICHMOND — Ed Gillespie has raised considerably less money than other recent contenders for Virginia governor, despite his extraordinarily deep ties to the Republican donor class.
With a long history in national politics and a bond with an ex-president, Gillespie was expected to be the GOP version of Gov. Terry McAuliffe, the former Democratic National Committee chairman and Bill Clinton buddy who broke fundraising records with his bid four years ago.
Gillespie is a former Washington lobbyist, Republican National Committee chairman and counselor to President George W. Bush. And he’s the Republican Party’s only shot for flipping a governorship this year.
Yet Gillespie raised just $10 million through Aug. 31, well below the nearly $15 million haul of his Democratic rival, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam — and behind what every other gubernatorial hopeful has raised for the past three cycles when those figures are adjusted for inflation, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project.
The last gubernatorial candidate to raise less than Gillespie was Republican Mark Earley, who lost his 2001 bid to now-Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.).
In today’s dollars, Gillespie trails McAuliffe ($21 million) and Ken Cuccinelli ($14 million) in 2013, Robert F. McDonnell ($15 million) and R. Creigh Deeds ($11 million) in 2009, Tim Kaine ($14 million) and Jerry Kilgore ($15 million) in 2005, and Warner ($14 million) in 2001, according to VPAP, whose analysis includes money raised through the first eight months of the election year and the full year prior.
Gillespie spokesman David Abrams said the campaign will have the money it needs.
“We know that we will have the resources necessary to win in November so he can enact his policies to create jobs, improve schools and transportation, and make our communities safer,” he said.
Democrats say Gillespie's fundraising reflects a lack of excitement for the candidate, who looked weak after nearly losing the June 13 primary to a provocateur styled after President Trump.
“Ed Gillespie’s fundraising mirrors the enthusiasm for his campaign: lackluster,” said Northam campaign spokeswoman Ofirah Yheskel.
Republicans say the picture is more complicated, given that several previous contenders already held public office and were able to transfer large sums from campaign accounts launched years earlier.
Some also say that Gillespie's big money advantage coming out of the June GOP primary — he had about twice as much on hand as Northam, who spent far more heavily fighting off his challenger — might have caused donors to hold off. Northam flipped the cash advantage over the summer, with twice as much money on hand as Gillespie heading into September.
Many donors have been slow to tune in to Northam-Gillespie after last year’s tumultuous presidential elections, said Kilgore, a former state attorney general and the current finance chairman for the state GOP. He expects that to change, given polls showing a neck-and-neck contest.
“I just think people were checked out — they had protests, election fatigue,” Kilgore said. “They’re watching federal issues, and now all of a sudden they realize there’s a race. . . . I think the money will be there for Ed for sure, particularly since it’s a dead-even race. My God, everybody’s going to step up now.”
Still, even some Republicans say the lagging donations reflect doubt about Gillespie’s prospects amid the head winds of a deeply unpopular president and a GOP losing streak in statewide contests that began after McDonnell won the governor’s mansion in 2009.
“You look at the numbers, you’re going to say, ‘It’s blue. It’s New Jersey. It’s gone,’ ” conservative radio host John Fredericks said. “That’s one of the problems when you lose seven statewide races in a row. . . . That has nothing to do with Ed. It’s, ‘Why should I give money to Virginia?’ ”
Northam has been able to use his resources to spend nearly twice as much as Gillespie on broadcast television advertising in September, according to VPAP.
As one of just two governor’s races in the country, the Virginia contest is widely seen as a referendum on Trump and a hint of what’s to come in next year’s midterm congressional elections.
“Part of it’s because the Democratic base is just very incensed right now,” said former congressman Tom Davis, a moderate Northern Virginia Republican. “They’re angry and incensed and opening their wallets more than the despondent Republican base. . . . He’s running with an unpopular president and a popular Democratic governor — against a Democrat who doesn’t have any flies on him. This is not a scandal-prone Democrat, so we’ll see.”
Susan Kristol of McLean donated to the past two Republican gubernatorial nominees but said the party’s embrace of Trump inspired her to cut a $200 check for Northam.
“I’m very disappointed in the Republican Party in general and its inability to stand up to Donald Trump’s behavior and message,” said Kristol, who is married to Bill Kristol, founder of the Weekly Standard and a fierce Trump critic. “I don’t think we should keep feeding the Republican pipeline with new officeholders if all they are going to do is toe the line and agree with every one of [Trump’s] policies.”
About half of the top 20 donors for Cuccinelli and McDonnell had not donated to Gillespie as of Aug. 31, VPAP data shows. And nearly 70 percent of the 428 donors who gave at least $100 to both McDonnell and Cuccinelli by the same point in the campaign cycle have not given to Gillespie.
Fred Malek, a GOP mega-fundraiser who co-chaired Gillespie’s finance team for his unsuccessful 2014 Senate bid, said it was “stunning” that the majority of McDonnell and Cuccinelli donors have yet to give to Gillespie.
Still, he did not see it as a problem.
“He’s had a lot of good support, and he’s doing fine. I wouldn’t judge him by that one period,” said Malek, who is finance chair for the Republican Governors Association. “We have a gifted candidate here in Virginia that we think has every chance of winning. And if we can win that, it’s going to give us quite a bit more momentum going into the next year when we have all the congressional races, as well as 36 gubernatorial races.”
Gillespie has picked up six-figure donations from national conservative donors who sat out previous Virginia elections, including clean-energy advocate Jay Faison and casino magnate Stephen Wynn. Home builder Dwight Schar, who switched party allegiances to back McAuliffe over Cuccinelli in 2013, has returned to the GOP with a $100,000 donation to Gillespie.
There are no limits on the amount any individual can donate to candidates for state and local office in Virginia.
Faison, Wynn and Schar either declined or did not respond to requests for comment, along with more than a dozen other donors who had given big in the past — to previous Republicans running for Virginia governor or to Gillespie’s Senate bid — but have not contributed to his current race.
Elloine Clark, a philanthropist and conservative donor in Texas, gave Cuccinelli more than $12,000 in 2013. The next year, she gave the maximum $5,200 to Gillespie’s Senate bid. She is sitting out this contest.
Clark, 87, said there’s a simple reason: No one asked. Instead, she is focused on helping young conservatives running for reelection to Congress next year.
“I can’t do both on a large scale,” she said. “I can only give what I can give.”
Some Republican donors might not shell out this year because they are comfortable with both candidates — two familiar, low-key establishment figures, said Boyd Marcus, a GOP consultant. It was a different story in 2013 with McAuliffe and Cuccinelli, highly polarizing figures who were characterized by their opponents as ethically or ideologically unfit for the office.
“I don’t think the business community in Virginia right now cares a lot because they’re two guys they’re used to,” said Marcus, who crossed party lines to endorse McAuliffe four years ago but now backs Gillespie. “They know them. They’re not scared of either one.”
Fredericks and other Republicans still think Gillespie has enough money to be competitive, particularly since highly outspent Republicans have come within a whisker of winning recent races. Gillespie nearly unseated Warner in the 2014 Senate race, while spending half as much as the senator. McAuliffe spent nearly twice as much as Cuccinelli, but the win was a squeaker.
“Ed should have all the resources he needs because the national Republican groups have too much at stake in this election,” said Steve Mullins, a Republican businessman and fundraiser whose late father, Pat, was chairman of the state party.
The Republican Governors Association has so far spent $4 million in Virginia, while largely sitting out of the gubernatorial contest in New Jersey where the Democrat is favored to win.
Both candidates are bringing in heavy hitters for fundraisers later this month. Hillary Clinton will attend a New York event to benefit Northam while former president George W. Bush, who tapped Gillespie to lead the RNC and serve as his White House counselor, will headline fundraisers in Richmond and Alexandria. Bush already held a fundraiser for Gillespie in March.
Gillespie's financial position is better than it appears on his campaign finance reports because of spending on his behalf by outside groups. Americans for Prosperity, the heart of the billionaire Koch brothers' conservative advocacy network, has spent $1.8 million on anti-Northam TV ads and mailers and has field staff knocking on doors.
Northam is also benefiting from a constellation of groups spending millions on the race.
The Virginia Education Association has spent $237,000 on an anti-Gillespie ad, while Planned Parenthood, the Virginia League of Conservation Voters, billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer's NextGen America, BlackPAC and other groups have launched field operations supporting Democratic candidates.
PrioritiesUSA, the super PAC that supported Hillary Clinton, and several of these liberal groups are also pooling resources for a $2 million digital program supporting Northam.
“The other side has got a lot more money because they have all this left-wing, non-Virginia money that’s poured in,” said Haley Barbour, a Republican lobbyist and former governor of Mississippi, who gave Gillespie $20,000. “But the good news is one that raises the most money doesn’t necessarily win.”