The recent election in Virginia was a wave. Democrats swept the races for statewide office. Republicans, previously a supermajority in the House of Delegates, may wind up in the minority.
Many of the old guard in Richmond were defeated by new faces in politics. This was not an election where the usual Republican was replaced by his usual Democratic opponent. Virginia saw the election of its first two Latina delegates, its first female Asian-American delegate, its first openly lesbian delegate, and its first transgender delegate.
Voters in Virginia were clearly tired of what Republicans were selling.
That wave elections happen is welcome news for democracy. Incumbent legislators have many advantages over challengers, particularly those without a political pedigree. The only way many new faces get a chance in politics is on the back of a political groundswell.
But how many newcomers get to “ride the wave” depends greatly on how easy or hard it is to run a campaign. Luckily for candidates in Virginia, the state has some of the most pro-free speech campaign laws in the country.
Like just 10 other states, Virginia has no limit on how much individuals may donate to a candidate’s campaign. Unlike neighboring Maryland, for instance, where no one can give a candidate more than $6,000 (even their own political party), in Virginia, Americans can give as much as they want to support whichever campaigns they are passionate about. And that’s what happened in Virginia.
Take Danica Roem. Roem, the nation’s first transgender state legislator, received nearly a quarter of all her funding from a single donor, Chris Abele. Abele is a Wisconsinite, but also a prominent voice in support of LGBT rights nationwide. According to The Washington Post, Roem’s opponent, Robert Marshall, said he didn’t need such large donations because “he designs his own campaign brochures and relies on volunteers to help him get out the vote.”
Large donations are often unfairly viewed as a downside by voters and pundits. Marshall even attacked Roem for violating her early pledge to take only donations smaller than $500. But as Roem herself found out, for an outsider, relying solely on small donations is naïve. For those making their first foray into politics, large donations can be essential.
And Roem is not alone. In every seat that flipped parties in the election, the candidate who won received a contribution that would have been prohibited as too large under federal campaign finance rules.
It’s difficult to overstate the net benefit these larger contributions provide to candidates looking to venture into politics for the first time. Everything in campaigning costs money, from the office space to the pamphlets to the gas required to go knocking on doors. For an established incumbent with a reliable network of donors and a list of ready volunteers, these basic start-up costs are relatively easy to meet. But for an outsider, they really add up.
Often, the only way to overcome that hurdle is to find the political equivalent of an angel investor — someone who agrees passionately with the candidate and can help shoulder the financial burden of a nascent campaign.
And while large contributions can help a campaign get going, voters always make the final choice. Most of the time, the advantages of incumbency — the name recognition, the volunteers, the donor list, the political connections — are still more than enough to put incumbents over the top.
That is why easy-to-follow and pro-free speech rules can help build a wave when voters want change. The opportunity to oust an incumbent lawmaker is rare. With low barriers to political entry and few restrictions on fundraising, candidates and parties can strike while the iron is hot. They can quickly start campaigns, amass resources, and communicate to voters that now is the time to try something new.
In the relatively calm waters of the 2015 election, there were less than 40 contested seats for the Virginia House. In 2017, there were 67.
Ironically, now the wave of newcomers becomes the incumbents. From winning this election, they will have the advantages of name recognition and political connections and campaign experience.
More importantly, they will have the ability to reshape campaign rules for the future.
Let’s hope that they don’t tilt those rules in their own favor. That they are good stewards of democracy. That they remember that campaigning is hard, that campaigns are expensive, and that the goal of the law should be to make it as easy as possible for the future outsider to get into politics.
This post originally ran in The Richmond Times Dispatch on November 15th 2017.