By Peter J. Smith | Old Dominion Watchdog
ALEXANDRIA — Republicans and Democrats are waging the 2011 election cycle’s most expensive state political battle in one of the poorest Virginia districts in a fight for control of the state Senate.
In the tight battle for the 20th District in Southside Virginia between Democratic incumbent Roscoe Reynolds, and Republican challenger Bill Stanley, data from the Virginia Public Access Projectshows money from outside political action committees dwarfs contributions from the district for the Nov. 8 election.
The Virginia Public Access Project, or VPAP, is a nonprofit group that tracks the role of campaign contributions in Virginia politics and disseminates information from the State Board of Elections.
By September, Reynolds raised more than $480,000 in campaign contributions with more than $317,000 coming from Democratic committees and politicians. Stanley has pulled in almost $640,000 in contributions with more than $571,000 coming from Republican political action committees, or PACs.
October saw even more money tossed into the race. By the Oct. 31 filing deadline, Stanley raked in another $225,000 in contributions from the state Republican Party alone, while Roscoe hauled in $240,000 from state Democrats.
It’s a microcosm of an intense political battle in Virginia.
Twenty-six of 40 Senate seats are up for grabs between Democrats and the GOP; the rest are uncontested. A shift of two seats would hand over the Senate, divided 22-18, into Republican hands, giving a green light to Gov. Bob McDonnell’s agenda.
Republicans and Democrats have big PACs pouring millions into state Senate races.
For Republicans, the big weapon is McDonnell’s Opportunity Virginia PAC, which has given $3.5 million to GOP candidates, and ended Sept. 30 with $1.4 million cash on hand, according to VPAP.
“There is no direct correlation between the number of donors and number of votes you get,” said Dan Palazzolo, a University of Richmond political science professor. “But if you want access and influence, you give.”
McDonnell’s PAC has funneled more than $2.6 million to the Republican Party of Virginia, or RPV, which in turn has spread the wealth to Republican candidates.
Phil Cox, director of the Opportunity Virginia PAC, said McDonnell has pushed much of his agenda through the Senate in his first two years on the job.
“But his plans for education reform, pension reform and other ideas have been blocked in the Senate,” Cox said.
Republicans are banking on McDonnell’s popularity in districts held by Democrats, which they say will carry them over in key races. McDonnell captured 60 percent of the vote in Reynold’s district. He enjoyed lopsided victories in four other districts held by Democrats — state Senate Districts 13 in the north, 17 and 22 in central Virginia, and 38 in the southwest — as he trounced Charlottesville Sen. Creigh Deeds.
“We are cautiously optimistic,” RPV spokesman J. Garren Shipley said of the GOP’s chances to take control of the state Senate. “We’re running on the same message in 2009 and 2010, and we believe voters are going to respond to that.”
The state election has taken on national overtones. The labels of “tea party extremists” and “Washington, D.C., Obama Democrat” are getting tossed around in local districts.
“The focus is all about getting out the party bases,” Palazzolo said, adding that President Barack Obama’s unpopularity in the state has struck a nerve with more conservative Democratic voters, who may either sit out this election or vote Republican.
“Ironically, this would have been the election for Democrats to hold the Senate,” Palazzolo said. “They were the ones who just rewrote the district lines.”
But the big guns for Democrats are the Democratic Party’s Virginia Senate Caucus with $2.6 million to hold onto the Senate.
“The big picture issue is divided government — having a governmental check on Gov. McDonnell, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli and the House of Delegates,” said David Mills, executive director of the Democratic Party of Virginia.
Mills said the Republicans’ strategy to nationalize the race in local districts will backfire with the voters.
“This race breaks down around kitchen table issues like transportation, public safety and education,” he said.
Mills said Democrats hope they retain control of the Senate. He said they have seen an uptick in Democratic support, especially the number of grassroots donors contributing less than $200. This is a significant sacrifice from voters considering the battered Southside economy, which has a 10.9 unemployment rate, compared with the state’s 6.5 percent average, according to August estimates.
Reynolds outpaces Stanley in low-dollar donations, according to October disclosures. He received $2,305 in $100 donations, while Stanley brought in 10 donations totaling $625. Before Oct. 1, Reynolds had raised more than $13,600 in 199 contributions of $100 or less, more than double Stanley’s $6,700 from 107 donors.
Palazzolo said the size of a candidate’s warchest shows the level of confidence in the campaign, its organizational ability, but not popularity or strength among the voters. But the low-dollar donations could show how much of a grassroots force a candidate has in a district.
“It’s a low turnout election, which is frustrating, but I think our Democratic incumbents will do better,” Mills predicted.