Hey, big spender

Virginia’s Senate race is drawing major outside spending—Bob Perry’s million bucks included. Reporters here have more to do

VIRGINIA — A millionaire homebuilder and frequent conservative political donor from Texas has contributed $1 million to the Virginia Senate race, in support of Republican George Allen, a Federal Election Commission report released Friday shows. This, you’d think, would catch the eyes of reporters in Virginia covering the tight, expensive race between Allen and Democrat Tim Kaine (a contest that’s drawn the most outside spending reported to the FEC of any Senate race in the country).

And it did catch reporters’ eyes here—after The Huffington Post reported it on Friday and the Virginia Public Access Project (an excellent resource for reporters, as I’ve noted before) produced a handy, detailed report Sunday on Perry, his contributions, his donation history, and the spending reported to date by the super PAC, Independence Virginia, to which Perry gave a cool million.

Here’s how HuffPost’s Paul Blumenthal broke the news Friday:

One of the nation’s biggest conservative donors has injected himself into the Senate race in Virginia by making a $1 million donation to a super PAC backing former Sen. George Allen’s campaign to win back his old seat.

Texas homebuilder Bob Perry made $1 million in contributions to Independence Virginia PAC over the past three months, according to a report filed Friday with the Federal Election Commission (FEC).

Perry, the third biggest donor to super PACs in this election, is part of the large network of deep-pocketed Texas donors who helped fund former President George W. Bush’s two presidential campaigns and was one of the primary donors to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, an independent political group that ran ads during the 2004 election attacking Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry’s military record.

The Virginia Senate race is currently the marquee contest for outside spending reported to the Federal Election Commission (the Ohio Senate race has seen more money spent through unreported “issue ads”) with $21.5 million spent so far. Nearly $10 million of that has been spent by groups like Independence Virginia attacking Allen’s Democratic opponent, former Gov. Tim Kaine. The super PAC has already spent more than $400,000 attacking Allen’s opponent, former Gov. Tim Kaine.

Reporters at The Virginian-Pilot, the Richmond Times-Dispatch, and The Roanoke Times picked up the news on Monday—the Pilot cited VPAP and HuffPost, the Times cited VPAP—and generally did a solid job (often aided by VPAP) telling readers the essentials.

But there’s more work to do on this story—the story of a wealthy Texan spending seven figures on the Virginia Senate race, and the larger stories of outside spending (and out-of-state donations) aimed to influence voters here.

For one line of pursuit, I would suggest a look (or another look, for some reporters) at VPAP’s Sunday release on the Perry donation. VPAP’s report went beyond the Perry donation to cite other third-quarter donors to the pro-Allen super PAC, and donors to New Virginia PAC, a super PAC supporting Kaine. That list shows that for the most recent fundraising quarter, three of seven donors to the pro-Allen PAC and two of three donors to the pro-Kaine PAC live outside Virginia. Reporters should follow-up and look at just how many folks from other states are seeking to influence Virginia elections, and why.

One obvious starting point is to reach out to Perry (and the other non-Virginians who donated to the pro-Allen and pro-Kaine super PACs) and ask him why he is so, ahem, invested in Virginia’s Senate race. Judging from the lack of the standard “so-and-so could not be reached for comment” in the reporting here to date, no one has made the effort as yet.

Also: how about some scrutiny of the ads on Virginia airwaves courtesy of this Perry-fueled super PAC (some $500,000 worth) and others like it? There’s been little such work going on here, unfortunately. The Commonwealth’s main factchecking outlet, PolitiFact Virginia, has been busy, but its efforts have been spread out to cover ads from candidates and outside groups ads in the presidential race and Congressional races, as well as debate performances.

Also, more background would be helpful on the pro-Allen and pro-Kaine super PACs—who founded them?—as was provided by the Washington Post on Monday.

And it would also be worth a look at overall investments in the Allen v. Kaine race by outside groups, as the Washington Examiner did briefly on Monday—headline: “Virginia Senate race tops in attracting outside money”—with data from the Center for Responsive Politics.

Virginia reporters have a leg up in following the money with the work of VPAP, but hopefully they are also digging on their own, keeping an eye on FEC reports as they’re filed, and exploring the FCC’s website for a look at political ad buy data (and potential story seeds) in the larger Virginia markets.

There’s still a bit of time before most Virginians cast votes—and more than a bit of a need—to tell the story of money in Virginia politics.

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Tharon Giddens logged more than two decades in newspapers in Georgia and South Carolina as a writer and editor. He is now living on an alpaca farm east of Richmond, Virginia.