- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 18, 2017

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam has a slight lead in the early money race in Virginia’s closely watched 2017 gubernatorial contest.

New campaign finance reports filed late Tuesday show Northam raising more than $1.6 million in the last half of 2016. Ed Gillespie, the former Republican National Committee chairman who is his party’s establishment favorite for the GOP nomination, raised nearly $1.5 million.

Northam reported having about $2.5 million cash on hand at the end of last year, while Gillespie, who hasn’t been raising money as long, has about $2 million.

Northam’s biggest donors include Charlottesville investor Michael D. Bills and G. Gilmer Minor III, the former chief executive of Owens & Minor Inc.

Gillespie received $100,000 from Washington Redskins’ part owner Dwight Schar and from members of the DeVos family, major Republican donors in Michigan who founded Amway. Betsy DeVos, who did not give to Gillespie, is President-elect Donald Trump’s pick to be U.S. education secretary.

The early totals will be dwarfed as the election heats up. Virginia is one of only two states with a gubernatorial election this year, and national groups looking to make the contest a referendum on Trump’s first year in office will invest heavily in the contest.

The Old Dominion also has one of the loosest campaign finance rules in the country, allowing for virtually unlimited giving. Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who is barred from seeking a consecutive term, raised about $40 million for his campaign account in 2013.

Northam had an easy and low-cost path to the Democratic primary until earlier this month, when former U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello announced he was running. Perriello wasn’t required to file a report because he just entered the race.

Gillespie is facing three GOP candidates for the nomination: Corey Stewart, a onetime chairman of Trump’s campaign in Virginia, and state Sen. Frank Wagner both reported about $500,000 in their gubernatorial accounts, though much of that money was transferred from other accounts. Distillery owner Denver Riggleman, who recently entered the race, has raised about $50,000.

Both parties are holding primaries in June.

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