RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — In Virginia's closely watched statewide political contests, so-called "dark money" comes with a few ironic twists.
Two Republican candidates being attacked by mysterious funds have their own ties to nonprofits that have spent millions of untraceable dollars attacking politicians, often with aggressive ads. And the insurgent candidate in the Democratic primary, a longtime advocate of more transparency in political funding, has received $230,000 in anonymous donations from a nonprofit he helped start, making it one of his single biggest donors.
Virginia's campaign finance system generally requires political giving and spending to be reported, but exceptions and loopholes allow nonprofits to invest in campaigns without having to reveal those details.
A series of federal court decisions, including the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling, loosened campaign finance laws and added more clout to political groups that aren't directly associated with a candidate. Some of those groups disclose donors and others don't. Virginia's statewide contests, seen nationally as an early referendum on President Donald Trump, are high stakes battles where anonymous money looks to make an impact.
"The amount of money that's been dumped into anonymous websites and social media is extraordinary, but I'll tell you this: I don't think people respond well to it," said state Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel.
In a heated GOP primary for lieutenant governor, an online campaign has compared Vogel unfavorably with Democrat Hillary Clinton. "What's Jill Vogel hiding?" one online ad asks, with a link to a website showing an unflattering picture of Vogel superimposed on Clinton's body. The source of the campaign's funds remains a mystery.
Vogel, an attorney, also happens to be a partner at the go-to legal firm for right-leaning groups that participate in elections without disclosing donors. Clients of Holtzman Vogel Josefiak Torchinsky include groups backed by conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch, and Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, one of the nation's best-known and best-funded politically active nonprofit organizations.
Meanwhile, Ed Gillespie, an early front-runner for the GOP gubernatorial nomination, faces attacks from a nonprofit that doesn't reveal its donors. In a widely viewed social media campaign, the group has falsely accused him of supporting the removal of Confederate statues. The issue is a flash point in the GOP primary, as firebrand conservative Trump backer Corey Stewart has made preserving Confederate history a top campaign priority.
Gillespie has his own ties to prominent politically active nonprofits. The ex-lobbyist who also worked in Congress and at the White House helped quarterback a 2010 wave of Republican victories in statehouses nationwide. Large donations from nonprofits that don't reveal their donors, like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Institute for Legal Reform, supported the effort.
Democrat Tom Perriello, who lost his Virginia congressional seat in 2010 thanks in part to anonymously funded groups, is running for governor with the help of $230,000 from a nonprofit called Avaaz that doesn't reveal its donors. The global progressive group, which Perriello helped form, says it relies almost entirely on small-dollar donors but declined to identify those whose money is helping Perriello. The group says it would violate donors' privacy.
Advocates for anonymously funded groups say they allow donors to express themselves without fear of repercussions. But critics say they enable unaccountable attacks that hurt the democratic process.
Former Democratic North Carolina state lawmaker Chris Heagarty said he was swamped in 2010 with racially-tinged attack ads by groups associated with Gillespie. He said the fact that Gillespie now faces similar anonymously funded attacks is the "natural result of the escalation of dark money politics."
"When you open Pandora's box on this nasty stuff, you can't control it," Heagarty said.
Craig Holman, a lobbyist for the good-government group Public Citizen, said Trump's election last year and his appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court likely means the Citizens United decision won't be overturned and anonymous money will continue to influence state and federal politics. Holman called the anonymously funded Virginia attacks the latest example of the "complete collapse of the campaign finance regime" after the Citizens United decision.
"Everyone seems to be playing by no rules whatsoever," he said.
The candidates aren't eager to highlight their ties to anonymously funded groups.
Gillespie, for example, says he had no active role with Crossroads GPS despite the fact that he wrote in a 2010 Washington Post op-ed that he and Republican strategist Karl Rove "support it, raise money for it and voluntarily offer advice" to its board and employees. Crossroads GPS also submitted a letter to the IRS in 2012 listing Gillespie as an adviser and fundraiser, according to a copy of the letter published by the Center for Responsive Politics.
Campaign spokesman David Abrams says Gillespie "must have mistakenly conflated" his involvement with Crossroads GPS with a similarly named super PAC, which does reveal its donors. The campaign also provided a statement from Crossroads GPS' president Steven Law saying the group's 2012 letter to the IRS was incorrect.
Vogel said she doesn't personally represent nonprofits that are active around elections, and although her law firm does legal work for them it isn't involved in any campaign-related activities.
When asked about the lack of transparency from Avaaz's donation, Perriello campaign spokesman Ian Sams said Perriello has promised to reject campaign donations from large corporations, like Dominion Energy, with business interests before the state while his opponent in the Democratic primary, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, has not.
"So when it comes to money influencing politics, we'll let Virginians decide which of these sources of contributions are more troubling," Sams said.