A hyper-super PAC boosts McAuliffe in Virginia race

Democratic group's donations OK in gubernatorial race — but would be illegal at federal level

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 Updated:

August 21, 2013: This story has been corrected.

Virginia’s permissive campaign finance laws are allowing a super PAC to operate outside its usual boundaries and directly donate to and coordinate with a candidate in the state’s gubernatorial race.

DGA Action has given more than $3.3 million to the campaign of Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe, federal records show.

Of that, the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee has received $3.2 million in direct contributions from the Democratic Governors Association’s super PAC, along with a series of in-kind donations for research and online services totaling $142,000.

Such activity would be patently illegal at the federal level: super PACs are prohibited from contributing directly to congressional or presidential candidates. Instead, they may raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to independently advocate for or against them.

Virginia, however, does not impose any contribution or source restrictions on state and local candidates or political committees, meaning they may raise as much money as they want from virtually any individual or group — even federally registered super PACs.

“In a state that has no contribution limits, the entire concept [of a super PAC] is irrelevant,” Campaign Legal Center Senior Counsel Paul Ryan said. “In Virginia, every PAC has been a ‘super PAC’ because no PAC has ever had contribution limits.”

When DGA Action first registered with the FEC in 2011, it said — as most super PACs do — it intended to “make independent expenditures” and “raise funds in unlimited amounts,” but that it would not contribute to “federal candidates and committees.”

McAuliffe is the only candidate at any level of government to whom DGA Action has directly given money.

A DGA spokesman declined to comment on the super PAC’s contributions to McAuliffe.

Virginia’s election laws have also given nonprofit and 527 organizations, which at the federal level also must typically abide by stricter limitations, the ability to help fill the campaign coffers of gubernatorial candidates.

The Republican Governors Association has given a massive sum of money — nearly $5.7 million — to Virginia Attorney General and GOP gubernatorial nominee Ken Cuccinelli in the form of direct and in-kind campaign contributions.

The RGA also has a super PAC, but after raising $9.6 million in 2012, the RGA Right Direction PAC has been idle during first half of this year.

Jon Thompson, an RGA spokesman, said the group’s 527 committee is “usually the main vehicle of fundraising for the RGA.”

DGA Action and RGA are far and away the top donors to the campaigns of McAuliffe and Cuccinelli, respectively.

Meanwhile, Planned Parenthood Action Fund, a 501(c)(4) “social welfare” nonprofit group, has given nearly $107,000 worth of in-kind contributions to McAuliffe’s campaign.

The only other states that do not restrict how much candidates and groups may raise and who may they receive money from are Missouri, Oregon and Utah, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The RGA outraised the DGA $23.6 million to 13.4 million in the first half of 2012, according to recent Internal Revenue Service reports.

But as far as the groups’ super PACs are concerned, DGA Action brought in nearly $5 million on the year and spent more than $4 million from the beginning of the year through the end of July, new FEC filings show. RGA Right Direction did not receive any contributions in the first six months of 2013. 

Super PACs spawned from a federal appeals court ruling in the 2010 case SpeechNow v. Federal Election Commission that allowed federal-level groups to raise and spend unlimited funds as long as they used that money solely for independent expenditures. 

A Quinnipiac University poll released today shows McAuliffe with a six-point advantage over Cuccinelli among likely voters. The election will take place Nov. 5.

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that the Republican Governors Association donated $1 million to Ken Cuccinelli's attorney general campaign account. That money instead went to Cuccinelli's gubernatorial campaign account as part of nearly $5.7 million it's donated overall.