Formed in 2006, Empower Texans is the largest taxpayer advocacy group in Texas. The organization is made up of three entities, including Empower Texans, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit (also known as Texans for Fiscal Responsibility), the Empower Texans Foundation, a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit, and the Empower Texans PAC, a general-purpose political action committee.
One of the biggest differences distinguishing Empower Texans from other advocacy groups is the fact that they do not lobby elected officials. They do not write bills or meet with lawmakers to ensure passage or failure of particular legislation. Instead, Empower Texans focuses on reporting information to voters about what’s happening at the Capitol and then aiding citizens in holding legislators accountable for their actions. As the most outspoken opponent of current Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, the group is often at odds with Straus’ inner circle, Democrats, and other more moderate Republican legislators. Empower Texans is also known for its promotion of conservative policies and for their scorecard, The Fiscal Responsibility Index, which scores legislators based on votes and positions taken on liberty and self-governance issues. Texas Monthly has called them “one of the most influential advocacy groups in Austin” and has described their scorecard as having the power “to make or break careers.”
1. Protecting Conservatives
Most PACs, either at the state or federal level, make a name for themselves by directing attacks at those politicians they view as unfit to serve in office. Running negative ads about a candidate has become the centerpiece of most PACs’ campaign strategies. The Empower Texas PAC takes a different approach.
Over the last three cycles, and particularly in the 2016 cycle, Empower Texans invested significant resources in protecting some of the most conservative members of the Texas legislature. It’s no secret that many in Austin wish conservatives legislators in the Texas House and Senate would go away. Empower Texans’ significant financial support of conservatives like State Representative Matt Rinaldi, State Representative Tony Tinderholt, and State Representative Jonathan Stickland speaks volumes. Standing up to lobbyists and bureaucrats who have millions of dollars to wield in campaigns can be intimidating for conservative legislators. Empower Texans’ financial backing for those who have spoken out the loudest against the status quo in Austin sends a strong message of support.
2. Funding Challengers
While the recipients of Empower Texans’ largest contributions were conservative incumbents, a number of challengers received financial support from the group as well. Empower Texans has a reputation for strongly opposing the status quo, in particular the leadership of Speaker Straus and his team, so no one is surprised when Empower Texans strongly supports challengers seeking to oust Straus-allied, moderate incumbents. Empower Texans PAC was the largest contributor to the campaigns of Bo French, Thomas McNutt, Bryan Slaton, Jim Landtroop, Keith Strahan, Valoree Swanson, Jess Fields, Kyle Biedermann, Terry Wilson, Briscoe Cain, and more.
3. Coalition Building
Empower Texans’ giving looks quite similar to other two other conservative advocacy organizations: Texas Right to Life and Texas Home School Coalition. While their giving doesn’t match exactly, their endorsements and financial support suggests these organizations are working towards the same goals. In the past, advocacy groups tended to focus on their particular areas of interest (pro-life, education reform, etc.) and left everything else to work itself out. It appears those days are over, with the most powerful taxpayer advocacy group, largest pro-life organization, and most ardent defender of parental rights in Texas all moving in the same direction.
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At its founding in 2006, Empower Texans’ original focus centered on what was happening at the state level. Since that time though, Empower Texans has aggressively pursued delivering news and information to voters about what’s happening at the local, county, and city level as well. Having opened local “bureaus” in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex, Houston, Central Texas, West Texas, and South Texas, they arguably have a wider bandwidth than any traditional newspaper to cover local politics.
Keeping with their model, Empower Texans not only delivers news on local governance, but also endorses in local races. Rarely though, do they commit significant financial resources to a local candidate. One prominent exception is Bill Waybourn who, in 2016, ran and won the race to become Sheriff of Tarrant County (home to Fort Worth). Empower Texans not only endorsed Mr. Waybourn, but also donated $5,000 to his campaign, a hefty contribution for a local race. Tarrant County is the only major urban county in Texas that remains solidly Republican. This fact, coupled with a strong conservative grassroots network in Tarrant County, likely played a key role in Empower Texans’ decision to invest resources in Mr. Waybourn’s race.
Our Capitol Crowd series outlines and highlights the politicians, advocacy groups, and donors that have the biggest impact during the 140-day legislative session. Check back throughout session for updates