The issue of money and politics has always been there, especially following the Citizens United ruling in 2010. In Virginia though, this takes up a much different lane. You see, Virginia is one of the few states that does not have personal donation limits. That means any person or company can donate as much as they want as often as they want to candidates in Virginia.
This has led to many people and companies attempting to influence the legislature through those uncapped and unlimited donations. That way of doing business is now under heavy scrutiny, especially on the Democratic side of politics. But are things really changing, or have two Charlottesville billionaires just taken up the role of king and queen maker for Democrats?
The Dominion Problem
To get to the root of this story, I have to explain how the issue started. With Democrats taking the state assembly in 2019, the energy of the activists was at its highest in years. one of the issues that they wanted to see action on was campaign finance reform. And who they were really aiming for was Dominion Energy.
Dominion Energy supplies the state of Virginia with its electricity and has been known to be incredibly active in donating to Virginia politicians on both sides of the aisle. The majority of those donations usually go to the party in power in the state legislature, and currently that’s the Democrats. That’s not to say Republicans have been left out of the equation; Dominion has donated $126,000 to Republican legislative PACs or legislatures in 2021 alone. But, they’ve given $275,000 to Democrats this year already, and there in lies the proxy war happening behind the scenes.
Democratic legislators, especially from the House of Delegates, have recently started to pledge not to take money from Dominion. This is especially true in the progressive wing of the House caucus. Delegates such as Elizabeth Guzmán, Lashresce Aird, and Wendy Gooditis, have all signed this pledge. This is even as Dominion has still given $50,000 to the House Democrat PAC and to House Democratic Leader Charneile Herring in the last year. But delegates who signed the pledge are still getting large dollar donations. That’s because once those delegates sign the anti-Dominion pledge, they sign their fundraising over to another PAC.
Sonjia Smith, Michael Bills, and their PACs
That just happens to be the new Virginia Democratic new power couple Sonjia Smith and Michael Bills. Smith and Bills are a billionaire couple who donate 99% of the time to Democrats. Based in Charlottesville, the couple has two PACs under their control: the Clean Virginia Fund and Commonwealth Forward. These two PACs have become heavily involved since 2019, and 2021 seems to be the first cycle they are truly looking to make an impact. Smith personally has donated hundreds of thousands to individual Democratic house campaigns this cycle already. She is almost certainly going to spend millions personally on individual campaigns by the end of this election cycle.
Her husband has focused his efforts in building up the pockets of the Clean Virginia Fund, already filling the PAC with three million dollars this year. Clean Virginia has then proceeded to give $925,000 of that to Commonwealth Forward. Clean Virginia has also given candidate for Governor Jennifer Carroll-Foy $500,000 this year, and Attorney General candidate Jay Jones received $150,000.
With these two PACs and their own personal wealth behind them, this couple has decidedly increased their influence. Smith alone has given to 20 different individual campaigns this cycle, ranging from safe, to competitive, to very unlikely to win. These two have their fingerprints all over the key races in Virginia. And that has led to two clear proxy wars in House of Delegate primaries this cycle.
Battles in HD-02 and HD-79
This battle between Dominion and the two billionaires is on full display in two House of Delegate primaries on the Democratic side. With neither of the billionaires’ statewide choices doing particularly well, they’ve focused on upending two incumbents in the House. In Northern Virginia, with Candi King in House District 2 is their first target. King refused to sign the aforementioned pledge to not take money from Dominion. This turned the couple on King, with Smith refunding $1,000 in donations and then building up her primary rival. Pamela Montgomery raised $585,851 this past filing period to take on King. $545,200 of that came from either Smith directly, Clean Virginia Fund, or Commonwealth Forward. That’s 93% of Montgomery’s total haul this period, and that money will go a long way in a house of delegates race.
The other race is in House District 79. Incumbent Steve Heretick has also refused to sign the pledge against Dominion. Along with that, Heretick has voted against the caucus on issues like confederate statues. This opened up another prime target for the billionaire couple. Their money and focus went to Nadarius Clark, a 27-year-old black progressive. Clark raised just over $500,000 this past filing period. Of that, $445,000 came from the Commonwealth Forward PAC or Sonjia Smith personally. That adds up to 89% of Clark’s donations coming from the billionaire couple. That’s a huge amount of influence over another first time candidate.
The Beginning of a New Machine?
Now, it is yet unknown if this will work for Smith and Bills. As I stated, their preferred statewide candidates don’t seem to be headed to victory, and it’s not certain Montgomery and Clark will win their respective primaries either. I have them both as slight underdogs against the incumbents. However, it’s quite clear that the couple is preparing to have massive influence over the direction of the Democratic Party in Virginia.
It’s clearly one that is meant to be more progressive and more dependent on their money. For many House Democrats, the couple has made up a decent portion of their early fundraising. And as the general election gets closer, it seems more will be on the way.
What this all does seem to be building too is a new machine, dominated by Smith and Bills and their near unlimited cash flow. If Clark and Montgomery win their primaries, a clear message will be sent to the House Democratic Caucus: drop Dominion and kiss the ring of Clean Virginia and Commonwealth Forward. If you don’t, it’s a pathway to defeat in any primary. Whether the couple uses this influence to push campaign finance reform and then lose their influence is yet to be seen. But, for now, for Virginia politics, Sonjia Smith and Michael Bills are the perceived power builders.