RICHMOND, Va. — President Donald Trump said he would “drain the swamp” in Washington. Progressives are hoping to make good on that vow, leveraging anti-Trump feeling to limit corporate influence in statehouses across the country.
They point to what just happened in Virginia, where Democrats rode a backlash against the president to sweeping victories. The surprise winners in House races include some first-time politicians who vowed never to take contributions from the state’s most powerful corporation.
Together with Gov.-elect Ralph Northam’s win over the GOP’s Ed Gillespie, a former corporate lobbyist and Washington insider, and key wins in other state legislatures, the victories have lifted Democratic hopes of even more success in next year’s critical midterm elections.
Opposition to Trump has inspired a new breed of independent-minded Democratic candidates, said Carolyn Fiddler, a longtime Democratic operative focused on state legislatures who now works at the liberal blog Daily Kos.
“They are going to bring a very public-interest vision to governing, and they don’t have the deep corporate ties that establishment politicians have,” she said. “It’s going to change the way business is done in some of these state capitals.”
Virginia’s CEOs, lobbyists, lawmakers and other powerbrokers are still scrambling to make sense of the election’s implications. Democrats won at least 15 seats in the House, all but erasing a business-friendly Republican majority that almost everyone assumed was safe. Democrats may even flip the chamber, depending on the outcome of three races that remained too close to call on Friday.
The newly elected Democrats — 11 women among them — include the House’s first openly transgender lawmaker, its first Latina members, and its first female Asian-American. Thirteen of them have taken a pledge to reject any donations from a regulated utility such as Dominion Energy, Virginia’s most influential corporation and largest corporate political donor.
The company has cultivated deep relationships with leaders in both parties, securing bipartisan support for laws boosting its bottom line. But critics have long complained that lawmakers are too cozy with the company.
“I certainly intend to directly challenge their power over the General Assembly,” said Lee Carter, an IT specialist, Marine veteran and member of the Democratic Socialists of America who won a surprise victory Tuesday. He said Dominion is one of several corporate interests that will “have to get used to a new way of doing things.”
Dominion spokesman David Botkins said the company is “looking forward to getting to know the new members and working together” on energy issues.
Virginia’s largely unregulated campaign finance system has fostered strong ties between lawmakers in both parties and the businesses they regulate. An examination by The Associated Press in 2016 found a handful of lawmakers, including senior members in both parties, rely almost entirely on business interests and their representatives for campaign contributions.
Virginia also doesn’t prohibit lawmakers from spending from their campaign accounts for personal use, and many lawmakers rely on corporate donations to subsidize their official office budgets.
Northam has said he wants to limit corporate money in elections and ban personal use of campaign funds.
Carter defeated Jackson Miller, a GOP House leader whose list of top donors reads like a who’s who of corporate influence, including Dominion, Realtor groups, bankers, hospitals and car dealers. Many of the other defeated Republicans got their campaign cash from similar sources.
Democratic state Sen. Chap Petersen, a fierce Dominion critic, sees a new era at the General Assembly.
“We have a new legislature that is reform minded, which is not beholden to the large corporate interests,” he said.
Whether that vision gets dashed after the opening of January’s session remains to be seen. Republicans still control the state Senate, and Democratic legislators have yet to resolve many of the tensions over corporate influence on their party that played out between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in last year’s presidential race.
Democratic Senate Minority Leader Dick Saslaw said the General Assembly will remain a place that supports industries of all kinds, regardless of the election outcome.
“That’s not going to change, because we’re a pro-business state,” he said.