Political experts have cited many reasons for Democrat Ralph Northam's huge win in Tuesday's elections. Credit has gone to the state's changing demographics. And to high voter turnout. And to loathing for Donald Trump, which helped drive turnout. Some on the right blamed Republican Ed Gillespie not being Trumpian enough.
One explanation was conspicuous by its absence, however: money.
In the closing weeks of the campaign, Northam enjoyed a 2-1 advantage in financing: He went into October with $5.7 million in his pocket, compared to Gillespie's $2.5 million. By the time the polls closed, Northam had spent $32 million to Gillespie's $23 million.
Northam also got a lot of help. The League of Conservation Voters spent more than $1 million to help him out. Planned Parenthood's Virginia affiliate kicked in $3 million. Environmentalist Tom Steyer threw in another $2 million, Michael Bloomberg's gun control group added more than $1 million, a group affiliated with Barack Obama added $1 million more, and so on. Why hasn't this "outside money" been cited as a factor in the race—or as proof that "money buys elections"?
One possible answer: Gillespie had plenty of help, too. The NRA bought more than $1 million in TV ads for him. Americans for Prosperity contributed more than $750,000. What's more, campaign financing for the lieutenant governor and attorney general races was far more symmetrical.
Besides: Northam's victory did not occur in isolation. Democrats practically ran the table in contests for the House of Delegates.
But money was a factor in some of those contests, too. In the high-profile contest between Democrat Danica Roem, who will become the state's first transgender legislator, and Republican Bob Marshall, who will go down in history as the state's last social-issues dinosaur, Roem outspent Marshall by almost 2-1.
This doesn't mean Roem won because she spent more. Some candidates won despite spending less. But imagine the counterfactual. If Marshall had beaten Roem after outspending her by nearly 2-1, wouldn't the financial factor come up? At least once or twice?
Sure it would. Because the establishment media are practically obsessed with campaign financing—at least when the money comes from the conservative or libertarian direction, anyway. Entire library shelves groan under the weight of coverage devoted, for instance, to the Koch Brothers (David Koch is a trustee of the Reason Foundation, which publishes Reason.com). The National Rifle Association is another favorite, er, target. "Have your representatives in Congress received donations from the NRA?" The Washington Post asks—and answers the question with a handy infographic showing you just how much every representative has taken from the gun-rights group. No such district-by-district scrutiny applies to, say, Planned Parenthood—which, although it does not outspend the NRA, is still "among the nation's top political contributors," according to that far-right dishrag, The New York Times.
The difference in scrutiny is revealing, in the same way that frequent references to "the gun lobby"—but never "the abortion lobby"—are revealing. When conservative or libertarian groups support a Republican candidate, it's proof that the candidate is "in the pocket of" powerful and nefarious interests who have "bought and paid for" her support. When liberal or progressive groups contribute to a Democratic candidate, it's proof that the candidate's principled stand on important issues has earned the support of ordinary people who share her values.
That's why you will frequently read about the huge sums Dominion, Virginia's biggest utility, gives to political candidates. The company is often noted for being Virginia's "top corporate donor"—which, according to The American Prospect, "makes for a lopsided battle for its opponents." Except that those opponents actually outspend Dominion in the aggregate.
Over the past decade environmental groups have outspent Dominion by a ratio of 5:3. Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) frequently gets blasted for supporting the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, and his critics rarely fail to note that Dominion, one of the pipeline's builders, gave him $75,000. He must have been bought, right? Well, no: Environmental groups gave him $3.8 million. That never seems to get mentioned. Maybe, in this case, he's actually doing what he thinks is right.
For liberals and progressives, Northam did the right thing on Tuesday: He won. Which means all the money he spent, and all the money spent by others to elect him, is nothing to get upset about. As Bradley Smith, a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission who now runs the Institute for Free Speech, wrote several years ago: "Nobody on the left really believes what they always say about campaign contributions and spending… The 'reformers' do not believe money is corrupting. Rather, they believe that their political opponents are corrupt."
And big money in politics poses no threat to democracy—so long as the right team wins.
This column originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.