A super resource on super PACs in Virginia

Early coverage puts VPAP database to good use, but there are opportunities to do more

VIRGINIA — Super PACs have been pouring money into Virginia for months, now, seeking to sway the presidential contest and the Senate race between Republican George Allen and Democrat Tim Kaine.

But they’ve also been filling their coffers with money from Virginians—well, at least the super PACs on the right have.

A new tool unveiled this week by the nonpartisan Virginian Public Access Project and the Center for Responsive Politics’s OpenSecrets.org makes it easier than ever to track that cash flowing from commonwealth residents to the super PACs, and several newsrooms—including The Washington Post, the Richmond Times-Dispatch, and The Roanoke Times—promptly made use of the data for some initial reporting. Here’s hoping (and expecting) that more thorough work will soon follow.

VPAP, whose commitment to campaign-finance transparency CJR has written about before, has taken Open Secrets’s data and made it simple to search for Virginia-specific information. There’s a list of top Virginia donors to super PACs, a list of how much different groups have raised in the state, and much more. It’s a remarkable resource that’s a breeze to click through.

The most obvious use for any newsroom is to take a quick look at the top “influencers” in your coverage area. That was the tack taken by the Richmond Times-Dispatch on Tuesday. The article, by Wesley P. Hester, starts with a good question:

It’s no secret that super PACs are funneling massive sums of money into this year’s presidential election, but who’s funneling the money to them?

Hundreds of Virginians are helping — some generously, according to new analysis by the Virginia Public Access Project, a nonpartisan tracker of money in state politics.

The state’s top donors include several from the Richmond area, all of whom have given to conservative causes. Prominent local entrepreneurs, including Bruce C. Gottwald and William H. Goodwin Jr., have contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars, and one Hanover County business owner, Robert W. Bailie, has started his own super PAC focused on individual rights.

That got the local angle covered up high. The Times-Dispatch also covered other stuff you want to know in a first-day report: two paragraphs on what super PACs are and their origins, a perspective graph from ubiquitous political scientist Larry Sabato on the groups’ impact in this election cycle, and a look at other top super PAC donors from across Virginia and which groups they gave to. The story was supplemented with a box on Virginians who gave $25,000 or more, and links to VPAP.

The Washington Post, in a Monday article by Laura Vozzella, emphasized the overall money flow from Virginia rather than individual donors—as you would expect from a national newspaper, even in local coverage. The emphasis was on the gaping partisan disparity in the state:

RICHMOND — The race for president in Virginia is neck and neck, but a crucial contest for political cash is a blowout.

Virginians have given nearly $4 million to conservative super PACs in the 2012 election cycle but just $76,000 to liberal versions of these political action committees, according to an analysis by the Virginia Public Access Project, a nonpartisan tracker of money in politics.

Donations to super PACs skew conservative nationally, partly for reasons of ideology, partly because Republicans had a long, hard-fought primary. But the ratio is more like 3 to 1, not 50-plus to 1.

And the Post used a clever example to put the difference into context:

A PAC devoted to preserving the Democratic majority in the Senate pulled in just $2,500 over that period — a mere $237 more than comedian Stephen Colbert’s tongue-in-cheek Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow PAC.

The super PAC data received blog post treatment on Tuesday at The Roanoke Times, in a “Blue Ridge Caucus” item by Michael Sluss. Nothing fancy, just a few paragraphs with links to VPAP:

Virginia is one of the most competitive political battlegrounds on the map in this presidential election year, which is why you can’t have your television on for long without seeing a campaign ad.

But the battle isn’t being waged by the candidates alone. Super PACs, which can raise unlimited funds from individual and corporate donors, also are playing heavily in Virginia and flooding the airwaves with ads. But when it comes to getting into the wallets of wealthy Virginia donors, conservative super PACs are clobbering their liberal counterparts.

Through the end of June, conservative super PACs are far surpassing liberal groups when it comes to raising money from Virginians, according to new data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics and the Virginia Public Access Project. All eight of the federal super PACs that have raised at least $100,000 from Virginia donors support conservative or Republican causes.

Those include American Crossroads, the group co-founded by Republican strategist Karl Rove, and Restore our Future, a super PAC supporting GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Each has raised more than $700,000 from Virginia donors.

The post closed out with graphs on a few of the more generous donors, and a quick mention of how a Democratic super PAC is lagging in raising money in Virginia.

To varying degrees the early coverage from the Post, the Times-Dispatch and The Roanoke Times showed that there’s some useful information out there—but there is more work to be done.

For starters, the data can be tweaked to provide additional insights. It’s interesting to note the big donors from your area, but it would also be helpful to look at which particular sectors of the commonwealth’s economy are giving to whom (VPAP breaks the donation numbers down by occupation and industry).

It also would be of service to show how much of it is flowing back into Virginia. VPAP notes on its website that it has a project coming in that vein, an interactive map to show which super PACs are making buys here and how much they are spending on political ads in each market.

Hopefully, that also will include a look at how non-profit 501(c)(4) groups—which, unlike super PACs, don’t have to say where their cash comes from—are driving political spending this election cycle. As ProPublica’s Kim Barker noted on Monday, a pair of these non-profits are now outspending all super PACs combined in the presidential cycle:

Two conservative nonprofits, Crossroads GPS and Americans for Prosperity, have poured almost $60 million into TV ads to influence the presidential race so far, outgunning all super PACs put together, new spending estimates show.

These nonprofits, also known as 501(c)(4)s or c4s for their section of the tax code, don’t have to disclose their donors to the public.

The two nonprofits had outspent each of the other types of outside spending groups in this election cycle, including political parties, unions, trade associations and political action committees, a ProPublica analysis of data provided by Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group, or CMAG, found.

The data collection and analysis that underpins this sort of work is nearly impossible for traditional newsrooms to do from scratch these days—but when the heavy lifting is done by watchdog organizations, reporters have a real opportunity to build upon and localize it. A couple commonwealth newsrooms have started that process here, but there’s a chance to offer more to Virginia readers.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

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.