Big spending gap could decide Virginia governor primary

Democrats’ upcoming primary for governor in Virginia is being painted as a litmus test for the party’s future and a trial of what progressive voters most prize in the Trump era. But there is also a more conventional story brewing: Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam has a commanding edge in campaign spending leading up to next week’s election, allowing him to spread his message further than former Rep. Tom Perriello.

Northam has spent almost twice as much money on TV ads as Perriello, his Democratic rival, in recent months — $3.7 million to $2 million, according to a source tracking media spending in Virginia. And Northam entered June with nearly twice as much money to spend over the last two weeks of the race, according to newly filed campaign finance reports.

It could add up to a decisive edge for Northam on June 13, when Virginia Democrats will pick their nominee to succeed Gov. Terry McAuliffe. Cash gaps don’t always doom underdog campaigns; Virginia Democrats’ 2009 gubernatorial nominee, Creigh Deeds, was outspent heavily that year but still pulled out a three-way primary win. But with Northam and Perriello both running as anti-Trump progressives, there are few big ideological gaps to separate the candidates — and voters are hearing more from Northam.

Northam is set to spend just shy of $1.2 million on TV ads in the final week, while Perriello has booked $367,000 of his own ads. (Perriello’s campaign said it will add to that total.)

“Heading into the final days, our campaign has the advantage of more resources to communicate to voters, and broad support from Virginians who are fueling this campaign,” Northam campaign manager Brad Komar said.

Perriello’s campaign claimed momentum in the final days of the primary and said he has made good use of low-cost tools to communicate with Virginia voters.

“In the primary’s closing days, the grassroots momentum is on Tom’s side,” Perriello campaign manager Julia Barnes said. “From the start, Tom has committed to an accessible, next-generation campaign of harnessing social media and digital tools to reach tens of thousands of voters directly across Virginia.”

Still, the just-filed campaign finance records reveal the disparity. Northam and Perriello raised similar amounts in the last two months: just more than $2 million for Northam, while Perriello pulled in just less than $1.9 million. But Northam spent $3.8 million overall to Perriello’s $2.8 million, and he had $1.3 million left over, compared to $734,000 for Perriello.

(Meanwhile, Republican Ed Gillespie, the likely GOP nominee, reported having $2.4 million on hand this month and looks set to enter the general election with an early financial advantage over his opponent.)

Perriello jumped into the campaign relatively late, in January, when Northam had already been gearing up for years. But Perriello’s immediate focus on challenging President Donald Trump looked like a better match for the moment, with the Democratic base animated by opposition to the White House, than the staid, moderate Northam.

Yet Perriello has not benefited from the same overwhelming online fundraising bonanza that has powered other anti-Trump Democratic campaigns in early 2017, like those of congressional candidates Jon Ossoff and Rob Quist. Unlike either of them, Perriello is in a primary, which do not typically attract as much online Democratic cash — especially when a candidate’s opponent, like Northam, is also stridently anti-Trump and also running on a progressive message.

While Ossoff and Quist brought in millions in April alone via ActBlue, the Democratic online fundraising platform, Perriello’s credit-card processing fees indicate that he raised roughly $750,000 through ActBlue in April and May combined.

Perriello’s campaign said it raised $255,000 online last week, its best week of the campaign so far, but he has still not hit the heights of the other Democrats running in high-profile federal races.

Perriello has relied on a few large donors for most of his cash: Over half of the $4 million Perriello has raised — nearly $2.8 million — has come from donations of $10,000 or more.

In the latest campaign finance filing, Perriello took in $300,000 from hedge fund manager and Democratic megadonor Donald Sussman and another $300,000 from members of George Soros’ family. The Avaaz Foundation, a nonprofit Perriello cofounded, donated another $150,000.

Northam, meanwhile, has continued to take in corporate donations despite calling for a ban on corporate giving in Virginia elections, including $10,000 from Altria and $5,000 from Dominion Power’s political action committee. Perriello has made Dominion Power’s influence a major talking point in the primary, arguing Northam and other elected Virginia Democrats are in hock to the powerful utility.

But that argument has not featured in the expensive advertising battles, which have remained positive even as the candidates criticized each other in debate appearances and on the trail.

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