RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia's hotly contested legislative races have drawn huge donations from out-of-state special interest groups hoping to send a message on guns, abortion and President Donald Trump ahead of the 2020 election cycle. But the biggest individual donor is a Charlottesville man unhappy with his electric company.
Since 2018, investor Michael Bills has given more than $2 million to dozens of Democratic candidates and political action committees in an effort to weaken the strength of Dominion Energy, long a dominant force in Virginia politics and a major source of corporate campaign donations. His wife, Sonjia Smith, has given more than $1.1 million. Much of the couple's money is going to Democrats in close races.
Dominion has responded with increased giving of its own, including large donations to outside groups that are heavily involved in Virginia elections.
Virginia is the only state holding legislative races this year where partisan control of the statehouse is up for grabs , and fundraising totals have far surpassed previous years, thanks in large part to spending by organizations allied with Democrats looking to flip the statehouse.
Groups backed by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg are set to spend more than $3 million, and Republican megadonor Richard Uihlein is almost single-handedly funding a write-in campaign for a GOP delegate who failed to submit his paperwork on time.
But the feud between Bills and Dominion is unlike anything in recent Virginia political history. It highlights both the growing political strength of wealthy liberal donors like Bills and the increasingly rocky relationship between Dominion and Democrats, said Stephen J. Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg.
"A new generation of more activist Democratic candidates, supported by a big money donor, have created the most challenging political environment for Dominion in quite some time," Farnsworth said.
Bills, who manages a $1.5 billion investment fund, wants the state to ban regulated monopolies like Dominion from being able to give donations to politicians and is only funding politicians who pledge not to accept Dominion's contributions. He's also been critical of Dominion's environmental record.
Swearing off Dominion money — once unthinkable for most Virginia politicians just a few years ago — is now the de facto position of most politically ambitious Democrats. Even the state party, long reliant on Dominion money, recently said it would no longer accept contributions from the company.
"The dual issues of corruption and the climate crisis have activated a strong voter base in Virginia," Bills said in a statement. "My support is amplifying the enthusiasm and support that is already there for inspiring candidates who have demonstrated a commitment to clean government and clean energy."
Dominion is regularly one of the biggest corporate donors to Virginia politicians and this election cycle is no exception. The company has given more than $2.5 million since 2018 to candidates and committees in both parties, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, a nonprofit money-in-politics tracker. Dominion CEO Tom Farrell has given more than $170,000.
And Dominion has recently stepped up its giving to national partisan groups that are playing a sizable role in Virginia's elections.
Dominion said it has given $640,000 to the Republican State Leadership Committee and $387,500 to the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee so far this year. They are by far the largest donations to either group the company has made in at least a decade.
Both the RSLC and DLCC give to candidates across the country but have been especially focused on Virginia this year. The RSLC, which is backed almost entirely by corporate interests, is Virginia Republicans' biggest donor and has spent more than $3 million in the state so far, according to VPAP. Farrell also gave the group $25,000 recently.
"Dominion Energy's political contributions are fully transparent and provided to candidates on both sides of the aisle to ensure our nearly 15,000 workers in Virginia have a voice in the political process," Dominion spokesman Rayhan Daudani said.
The heavy campaign spending comes ahead of next year's legislative session, where energy issues could take center stage.
Many of Dominion's large customers have expressed displeasure with the company's rates and are trying to buy energy elsewhere. A group representing Amazon, Google, Walmart and other large companies announced recently that overhauling Virginia's regulations related to buying renewable energy — regulations that Dominion helped write and has fiercely protected — was its top priority for 2020.
Regardless of which party wins on Election Day, Dominion will still have plenty of allies in the legislature. Many long-serving Democrats, particularly in the Senate, have scoffed at the idea of not taking the utility's money.
Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam also has been friendly to Dominion. In 2018, Northam backed an overhaul of energy regulations that regulators said would have allowed Dominion to charge its customers twice for pricey grid upgrades or other spending. In a rare setback for the company, that provision was killed by House Democrats and a handful of Republicans.