This post first appeared in Think Progress.
Tuesday, as he conceded defeat in the Virginia governor’s race, Ken Cuccinelli II (R) told supporters that he had come closer than polls had indicated “despite being outspent by an unprecedented $15 million.” While he and his conservative supporters now lament that money cost them the victory they felt they deserved, they have long been the defenders of the system of campaign finance non-regulation in Virginia and nationally.
Conservative groups like the Center for Competitive Politics have long argued that “money doesn’t buy elections.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), whose own political action committee gave $5,000 to Cuccinelli’s campaign, has for years advocated for an end to limits on campaign contributions, believing “money is speech.” While the 2010 Citizens United ruling weakened federal contribution limits, Virginia has long been one of a handful of states with no limits whatsoever. The only restriction Cuccinelli supported over his time in the state Senate was on contributions from foreign nationals.
Because of the Old Dominion’s anything goes system, candidates can accept millions of dollars from any individual or corporation seeking to ensure their victory. While Gov.-elect Terry McAuliffe raised over $32 million, Cuccinelli himself reported at least $19 million in donations — including hundreds of thousands from fossil fuel companies who preferred a climate-change denier to a candidate focused on green energy.
Leading up to the election, the Cuccinelli campaign repeatedly highlighted the money gap, attacking McAuliffe as being “bought and paid for,” “exclusively driven by big money,” and “willing to sell out Virginia families to the highest bidder.” When McAuliffe embraced campaign finance reform in an April interview, agreeing that “there’s just way too much money in politics,” Cuccinelli’s campaign pooh-poohed the idea as “hypocrisy.” “McAuliffe complaining about money in politics is the equivalent of Bobby Knight criticizing cursing among college basketball coaches,” they answered.
In campaign post-mortems, conservatives from Linda Chavez to Ralph Reed both echoed the candidate’s concession and blamed Cuccinelli’s loss on money. Jenny Beth Martin, national coordinator for Tea Party Patriots Inc., the nation’s biggest tea party group, lamented that the pro-corporate US Chamber of Commerce went from making seven-figure investments in the 2009 campaign for Gov. Bob McDonnell (R-VA) but spent nothing on Cuccinelli. “Just think what would have happened if the business and donor classes of the Republican Party would have helped.” Ben Domenech blamed the “donor class” as “sore losers” who threw a “temper tantrum” by not opening up their wallets for a more conservative nominee.
As Zack Beauchamp noted Thursday, Cuccinelli got “killed in the fundraising race,” in large part because business leaders did not care for his anti-corporatist stances against a tax increase to increase transportation funding and corporate welfare. Cuccinelli embraced anti-government populist ideas — as well as socially conservative ones — but not the priorities of some business interests. Had Cuccinelli embraced their agenda, as McDonnell did in 2009, others in the business community might well have supported him as enthusiastically as the energy sector did.
In an October press release called “Big Money,” the Cuccinelli campaign highlighted a fundraising appeal, sent by the chairman of the University of Virginia Council of Foundations to a hedge fund manager, explaining that he hoped to enlist a large number of UVA alums to support McAuliffe. “The more influential names we have associated with our shared voice the more likely we are going to have the future governor’s ear,” he wrote.
Therein lies the problem. If money really is the determining factor in who wins elections, candidates who agree with powerful moneyed interests like the Chamber will always have the upper hand over those who do not. And as Virginia saw with McDonnell’s Star Scientific scandal, those wealthy benefactors will be the ones with the freest access to the politicians they bankroll. And if states are the laboratories of democracy, as the late Justice Louis Brandeis suggested, the experiment of unlimited money in Virginia might be a warning sign to conservatives nationally that “anything goes” campaign finance laws may not always work out in their favor.