The late radio broadcaster Paul Harvey – whose full name, by the way, was Paul Harvey Aurandt – was famous for his segments that told “the rest of the story.”
This is the rest of the story.
Last September, the national news website Axios published a story headlined “Dems’ sneaky sabotage” that detailed how “a group tied to prominent Democratic strategists is posing as a conservative outfit to try to drive a wedge between the Republican candidate for Virginia governor and his core voters.”
Specifically, the newly formed Accountability Virginia PAC was buying ads in certain rural areas – mostly Southwest Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley – that raised questions about whether Republican Glenn Youngkin was sufficiently enthusiastic about gun rights. One of the ads declared: “While the NRA backs Donald Trump, they REFUSED to endorse Glenn Youngkin. We can’t trust Glenn Youngkin on guns.” Axios quoted University of Virginia political analyst Larry Sabato saying this appeared to be “an attempt to undermine Youngkin’s support in western rural areas, where gun ownership is sacred and the Republican has a big lead — as all Republicans do these days.”
Things got more interesting a few weeks later when the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported that Dominion Energy had donated $200,000 to Accountability Virginia PAC, which the paper called a “secretive PAC attacking Youngkin from the right.” This produced such a furor that two days later Dominion’s CEO sent employees an email saying the company had failed to vet the group and asked the PAC for its money back. “We will not be giving to organizations of this nature in the future,” said CEO Robert Blue.
Here is where I’m obligated by our rules to point out that Dominion is one of our donors but donations have no influence on our news coverage. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be writing this column because I doubt Dominion would like all this dredged up again.
I wrote at the time that this PAC was engaged in a form of voter suppression and asked why Democrats – the party that advocates greater ballot access – was supporting such a thing. Some Democrats did not like that question, and challenged my definition of voter suppression. This certainly wasn’t voter suppression in the sense of using the law to restrict ballot access. It’s not like closing precincts in Black neighborhoods or rigging a system so that lines are longer in Black neighborhoods than white ones or any of the other nefarious attempts to make it harder for people to vote, be they Black or white. But it is voter suppression in the sense that the clear intent here was to discourage conservative voters from voting for the Republican candidate. Given the nature of the ads, and the voters targeted, it sure wasn’t as if voters turned off by Youngkin’s supposedly lukewarm enthusiasm for gun rights were likely to vote for Democrat Terry McAuliffe. No, it sure seems clear that the PAC’s desire was for those voters to be so discouraged about Youngkin that they’d simply stay home.
That just doesn’t seem right to me. That seems trickery. I’d like to think we could all agree on that, though apparently we can’t. Still, it seems no different to me than if some Republican group pretended to be a Democratic one and ran ads targeting certain left-wing voters to make the case that a particular Democratic candidate wasn’t liberal enough. Maybe the underlying facts are correct – in this case, it’s true that Youngkin was not endorsed by the NRA – but the motives are impure. Maybe I’m setting too high a standard for politics but this just doesn’t seem cricket to me. If Party A wants to say their candidate is a shining example of civic virtue, have at it. If Party A wants to say Party B’s candidate is a morally bankrupt hack whose policies would lead us to ruin, well, have at that, too, if you think it’s true. But if some supporters of Party A pretend to be something they’re not, trying to persuade likely supporters of Party B that they’re one of them and that the Party B candidate isn’t worth supporting, that just doesn’t seem right to me.
Anyway, all that was then, and this is now. And that means it’s time, Paul Harvey-style, for the rest of the story.
The Dominion angle broke in October because Dominion reported its contributions. What we didn’t know then was who the other contributors to Accountability Virginia were. Now we do.
Accountability Virginia was set up as a federal political action committee, which means it didn’t have to report its activities until after the Virginia election was past – rather convenient. That report has now been filed with the Federal Election Commission. Here’s what it shows.
The PAC raised $578,600 and spent $578,706. (I can’t account for the $106 discrepancy.)
Of that $578,600, some $250,000 came from Dominion (not $200,000 as previously reported, because the final contribution hadn’t been posted when the Times-Dispatch broke the story) and another $27,500 from four Dominion executives, meaning $277,500 came from Dominion-related sources – 47.9% of the PAC’s total.
No one should be surprised to learn that the paperwork shows they didn’t get their money back, either.
No one should be surprised by these donations, either. McAuliffe had been on friendly terms with the utility during his governorship, and some of these executives have Democratic backgrounds. McAuliffe, trying to make himself more acceptable to his party’s left wing, had declared he wouldn’t accept Dominion money this time around but this surely seemed a good way to get around that. There are legitimate questions as to whether a state-regulated monopoly should be donating to politicians at all, but there’s no Virginia law (yet) that prohibits it. (There are bills pending before the General Assembly that would do this.) The controversy here wasn’t so much about who was giving money but about how the money was being used – the aforementioned trickery.
Dominion has already had its public whipping over giving to this group, but what about the other donors who constituted 52.1% of the PAC’s total contributions? Who were they? The FEC filing tells us. Do they, like Dominion, feel they were “had” and demanded their money back, however futile a gesture that was? We don’t know. Dominion says it “will not be giving to organizations of this nature in the future.” What about these donors? Again, we don’t know.
The FEC filing lists 13 non-Dominion donors who accounted for those other 52.1% of the contributions. Most are venture capitalists or associated with venture capital firms in Boston, New York, Chicago and San Francisco who are donors to Democratic politics. I tried contacting 11 of them – two I couldn’t find anything other than a street address for. Ten of them didn’t respond. One had a public relations representative respond to say her client didn’t like to talk about his political contributions.
The biggest of those non-Dominion donors – and the second biggest overall – was Bijan Sabet of Weston, Massachusetts, co-founder and general partner of Spark Capital. Bloomberg calls him a “legendary investor.” Forbes magazine, which lists him on the “Midas list,” calls him an “outspoken supporter of the ACLU [who] recently kicked off a flurry of fundraising out of Silicon Valley for the civil liberties organization.” He gave $150,000 to Accountability Virginia, with $100,000 of that coming after the Axios report about how the group was masquerading as a conservative outfit.
I don’t know how much stock to put in that. It’s not as if the Axios story immediately made headlines across the country. I follow Virginia politics for a living and I wasn’t aware of the Axios story until after the Richmond Times-Dispatch called attention to it when it reported the Dominion contributions. So I’m not inclined to make too much of that. I’m more interested in the unanswered questions: Did these donors know how their contributions would be used and are they OK with the way they were used?
The next biggest donor was Armor Correctional Health Services, a Miami company that provides health services in prisons. It gave $50,000 in July, the same month that the Virginia Department of Corrections notified the company it intended to end a $90 million contract for providing medical services at Virginia’s prisons. The donation was made July 9; I can’t immediately determine when the state delivered formal notification that it would end the contract, so the donation was either made when the company thought the contract would continue or when it knew that it wouldn’t.
Next on the list are Seth Klarman, listed as portfolio manager of the Boston-based Baupost Group, and Marsha Laufer, listed as a retiree in Manalapan, Florida. Both gave $25,000. The University of Maryland, her alma mater, describes her as a “renowned philanthropist” and speech pathologist.
After them is Alan Jones, senior managing director of the Intermediate Capital Group in New York. He gave $15,000.
Then there Michael Novogratz, CEO of Galaxy Digital in New York. He was in for $10,000.
After that were others who gave amounts from $7,500 down to $2,000.
All were out of state with the exception of Kenneth Johnson, CEO of Johnson Marketing in Richmond, who gave $5,000.
I would like to think that all these people are, at some level, outraged that their donation went to trying to trick rural voters in Virginia into staying home on Election Day. While some of these donors keep low profiles, others don’t. Alan Patricof, managing director of Greycroft investment firm in New York and a $3,600 donor, is on the board of overseers for the Columbia School of Business. I doubt the Columbia School of Business teaches this kind of marketing sleight-of-hand. Laufer, who gave $25,000, is quoted on the University of Maryland website saying, “I urge young people to pay attention to politics not just in federal government focusing only on presidential races. There is also a critical need for awareness and activism at state, county, town, and local levels as well. These elected individuals are all making decisions that affect each of us every day and all of us should have a say with our votes and our voices in who those representatives are.” Presumably “all of us” really does mean “all of us” and doesn’t include an exception for discouraging some voters – even those we might disagree with – from taking part.
Did the Accountability Virginia gambit work? Probably not. Voter turnout in rural Virginia was up by greater margins than it was elsewhere. In some Democratic bastions, it didn’t budge at all from the last gubernatorial election – Petersburg stayed absolutely flat at 38%. But in Wise County, one of the localities targeted for these ads, turnout surged from 38% to 48%. In Dickenson County, it jumped from 34% to 47%. In Russell County, from 37% to 52%, the highest growth rate of any locality in the state. Maybe without these ads, turnout would have been even higher. Maybe they made no difference at all. There’s no way to know.
But I’d like to think that we all know trying to discourage people from voting is wrong, no matter which side is trying to do it.