Outside groups are pouring money and resources into Virginia’s off-year elections as polls show a razor-thin race for the governor’s mansion.
On the Democratic side, outside groups like Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia PAC have launched six-figure ad campaigns to support Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe. Meanwhile, Women Speak Out Virginia, a partner of the anti-abortion rights Susan B. Anthony List, launched a $1.4 million effort to boost Republican nominee Glenn Youngkin.
Advocacy groups for other issue areas including racial justice, business and education have also backed a candidate in the race. The involvement of outside groups illustrates the nationalization of Virginia’s off-year elections, which are widely viewed as a bellwether for next year’s midterm elections, as well as the increasing presence of national culture war issues in state and local races.
The presence of outside money isn’t new. According to the Virginia Public Access Project, 2009 was the first year that Virginia residents didn’t make up the largest bucket of campaign donations, with outside groups outpacing them by $1 million. Outside spending then increased by $13 million between the 2009 and 2013 gubernatorial races, and again by $4 million in 2017.
There isn’t a dollar figure available yet for 2021, but insiders say they expect that trend to continue.
“It’s the main show,” said Virginia-based Republican strategist Zack Roday. “Everybody sees it as an opportunity to just talk about their issues and because you’ve got a range of interesting issues that advocacy groups care about in the race, it makes sense that they would be involved.”
Education, abortion, the coronavirus pandemic and the economy are the main issues that Republicans and Democrats are using to galvanize their bases and potentially lure independent voters.
Last week, Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia PAC launched a six-figure ad campaign as a part of the group’s $1.68 million national electoral program to elect the Democratic ticket in November.
“Abortion rights are on the ballot in Virginia right now,” said Jamie Lockhart, the PAC’s executive director. “This is a crisis moment nationally that the threat to the constitutional right to abortion have never been greater. And so it’s so critical that our supporters turn out.”
On the other side, Women Speak Out Virginia announced a $1.4 million campaign to defeat McAuliffe. The campaign includes digital ads and voter contact mail.
“Governors are going to be increasingly important in their leadership in identifying what consensus exists in their state when it comes to this issue,” said Susan B. Anthony List spokesperson Mallory Quigley. “We felt it was very important to get involved in this bellwether race, obviously for the implications that it has for 2022.”
“Perhaps most importantly, a pro-life governor could do so much in Virginia,” she added.
On the coronavirus front, 314 Action, which works to elect scientists to public office and backs McAuliffe, rolled out a digital ad campaign last week hitting Youngkin on what they call his ties to “dangerous, anti-science conspiracy theorists who are targeting school board members and students in Virginia.” The campaign is a part of a larger $10 million advocacy campaign for the 2021-2022 campaign cycle.
“It is a gradual erosion here,” said 314 Action’s executive director, Josh Morrow. “I think the mask mandates [are] the first battle, and then it’s what books can teachers teach. I think it’s all related.”
In education, conservatives have used the issues of mask mandates, critical race theory and concerns of sexually explicit content in learning materials to push back against school boards across the country and have taken particular aim at McAuliffe’s comments during last month’s gubernatorial debate, in which he said that he did not believe that parents should be telling teachers and schools what to teach.
While liberals have dismissed the issues as “dog whistles,” conservatives say education-related issues have created record levels of enthusiasm for Virginia Republicans in the weeks leading up to Election Day.
Last week, the conservative-backed Free to Learn Action rolled out a more than $1 million ad campaign targeting McAuliffe on the issue. The ad campaign will air on television stations across Virginia and on every major cable network. Additionally, a digital component of the ad is targeting specific counties in the commonwealth.
“This has become such a hot button issue nationwide, and specifically in the state of Virginia,” said Free to Learn Action President Alleigh Marré. “It’s my hope that the ad stands to educate the public about those policy positions as it relates to K-12 education.”
McAuliffe’s own allies on education have come to his defense. Earlier this month, the American Federation of Teachers rolled out their own ad in the Washington, D.C., media market praising McAuliffe’s education plan.
But it’s not just specific issues that outside groups have been focusing on. Groups have also zeroed in on important voter constituencies, including the Black and Hispanic populations in Virginia.
On Sunday, the Black Lives Matter PAC held a get-out-the-vote event in Hampton, Va., along with the Black Lives Matter Organization, the NAACP and the Mount Church. Additionally, the group has launched a major ad buy and a number of social media campaigns.
Angela Angel, a senior adviser to Black Lives Matter and the Black Lives Matter PAC, told The Hill that the recent protests and movements to remove Confederate monuments in Virginia, along with the protests following George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis in 2020, have played a role in starting to organize and galvanize the Black vote.
“One of the things that we do and we talk about is going from the protests to the polls because we’re wanting folks to make sure that they understand the bridge — that we call for change in the protest, and then we activate and we put people in office or we keep people in office that are going to ensure that that change happens,” Angel said.
While Black voters have proven to be the backbone of the Democratic Party in Virginia and beyond, recent polling has shown that Republicans appear to have made progress with Latino and Hispanic voters in Virginia — and they’ve had some help too.
Last week, the Libre Initiative, which promotes free-market ideas among U.S. Hispanics, endorsed Glenn Youngkin, touting his stances on the economy, education and health care. The group is a part of mega-donor Charles Koch’s political network.
“The Latino community is very diverse in its thoughts and in its experience, but economic opportunity is one of the big areas,” said Michael Monrroy, coalitions director for the Libre Initiative. “I think that Libre is one of the only organizations in Virginia that are educating and activating the Latino community for the free-market oriented ideas and policy outcomes.”
The race between McAuliffe and Youngkin is a nail-biter, with most polls showing a deadlocked contest. While more than 500,000 Virginia voters have voted early, groups are working until the very last minute ahead of Nov. 2 to turn out their base.
“Our community, our activists, people throughout Virginia are making these calls, are knocking on these doors, and that could make a difference on Election Day,” Monrroy said.