We’ve all been thinking about nothing except coronavirus news. But whether we are paying attention or not, the 2020 election season is moving forward. Here’s a quick five minute explainer to bring you up-to-date about all things related to the money in Texas politics. Check out these top ten takeaways about what’s happening so far for 2020:
February 24 was the last time Texas politicians and political action committees (PACs) were required to report their financial information — several weeks before the economy went on lockdown. Although we don’t yet have official results of political fundraising under COVID-19, we have anecdotal reports from around the state that political giving has all but ceased as Texans focus instead on keeping themselves healthy and their businesses afloat.
The net effect of this slowdown in donations is to strengthen incumbents and weaken challengers. Incumbents are typically more flush with campaign cash — both from previous campaigns and from PACs and donors who give to curry favor with those in power. Incumbents are also able to get free media time as they make comments on the COVID-19 crisis and position themselves as experts. Challengers typically rely on in-person fundraisers, rallies, and door-to-door campaigning — all of which are off the table for at least another month, if not longer. Unless things change quickly and the economy comes roaring back, expect 2020 to be a great year for incumbent politicians.
Outgoing Speaker of the Texas House Dennis Bonnen and former Speaker Joe Straus both have active PACs: Texas Leads and Texas Forever Forward, respectively. Both made it on to the top ten list for PACs collecting the most money so far this election cycle. Texas Leads mostly supported politicians who were loyal to Bonnen through his recent scandal. And, not surprisingly given Straus’ ideology, Texas Forever Forward supported liberal Republicans. Expect Bonnen and Straus to continue to use their well-funded PACs to influence outcomes in November.
A few weeks after Beto O’Rourke dropped out of the Democratic presidential primary, he announced — despite his well-known aversion to PACs — that he was founding the Powered By People PAC. The stated purpose was to help Texas Democrats flip six U.S. Congressional seats and Senator John Cornyn’s Senate seat, in addition to and perhaps most importantly, the Texas House, to Democratic control. This PAC has collected a paltry $36,038 from 89 donors and spent nearly half of that on a San Francisco-based consulting firm.
In the 2018 cycle, two conservative powerhouses, Empower Texans and Texas Right to Life, both ranked among the top ten PACs for most money collected and most money spent to influence elections. So far this cycle neither has broken the top 200. Neither PAC appears to be fundraising this election cycle at all, even before the coronavirus-related slowdown. Conservatives made it known they were unhappy with the results coming out of the last legislative session, but it’s unlikely these long-time political players are abandoning their goals in Texas. Expect to see these conservative groups shift their focus to motivating their sizable grassroots followings around issues rather than candidates.
A single check for one million dollars made out to Texas Governor Greg Abbott (plus several other sizable donations) landed the Porters on the top of the 2020 political donors list. Although hefty donations are not uncommon in Texas politics, it seems this is only the third time someone has written a million-dollar check to a single Texas candidate. One of the other two seven-digit checks was from the Porters to Abbott in the 2018 election cycle when he was up for reelection. The first check of that kind came in 2016 from Dr. Carolyn OIiver to Democrat Wendy Davis. Check out the complete list of Texas political donors here.
TLR was founded in 1995 by Richard Weekly of Weekly Homes to advocate for pro-business tort reforms in the state legislature. So far this cycle, they have collected $7,647,794 — more money than any other PAC. TLR is considered a moderate Republican PAC, typically supporting moderate-to-liberal Republicans and the occasional Democrat.
ActBlue is a Democratic conduit PAC, which means they collect money and pass it along to Democratic candidates. They have collected an astounding 78,412 individual donations totaling $6,113,428. ActBlue has, in turn, spent $5,960,059 to influence the 2020 elections — more money than any other entity in Texas so far.
As of late February (i.e. before the coronavirus-related decline), Texas candidates and PACs had spent $230,873,866 to impact the 2020 election cycle (January 1, 2019 – current). That’s a lot of money. But context is everything. Twice that amount — $460,000,000 — was spent on Super Bowl ads this year alone. And to provide a more direct comparison, political spending by candidates and PACs was one one-hundredth of one percent (0.01 %) of Texas GDP (approximately 1.9 trillion) during the same time. Considering that this money is used to elect our leaders, influence our laws, and impact how a budget of more than $200 billion is spent, the amount of money being spent on the 2020 elections is a drop in the proverbial bucket.
Next week we unveil our new project dedicated to exposing the rest of the money in Texas politics. Join us. You don’t want to miss it.