As 2020 draws to a close, we’ve taken a look back at the year’s three biggest stories from the money in Texas politics. Here’s a quick look at those stories and what we can learn moving forward.
A top goal of Democrats this year was to gain control of state legislatures in several battleground states across the nation ahead of redistricting in 2021. Texas was the epicenter of that fight, as tens of millions of dollars poured into these battles from individuals as well as state and federal PACs. Get the details here and here.
With our Battleground 2020 series, we closely tracked the money in these targeted Texas House races. In the end, despite outsized attention and money spent to target or defend these seats, there was zero change to the balance of power in the Texas House.
Takeaway: Neither PACs nor special interest groups could ultimately sway the Texas electorate which continues to lean right.
The second theme that emerged from our analysis of the money in Texas politics is closely related to the first. Beginning earlier this year with the primary elections, race after race proved that money alone doesn’t guarantee a win.
On a national level, no campaign proved this point better than Michael Bloomberg’s. Despite record spending of more than $500 million, he was unable to win the primary in a single state.
The same proved true at the state level when Texas Railroad Commissioner Ryan Sitton was defeated by newcomer Jim Wright. Sitton spent 64 times the amount spent by Wright, but was defeated by Wright’s savvy campaign. The message continued through several high profile Texas House primaries.
When it came to the November general elections money was a strong indicator of success — but not the strongest. Ninety-one percent of Texas legislative seats that were up for grabs were won by the candidate who spent the most money. As strong as that correlation seems, a closer look shows an even stronger predictor of victory is incumbency. Several studies have shown that upwards of 97 percent of incumbents in state legislatures win reelection. In addition to name recognition, incumbents have access to lobbyists and other special interest groups who are willing to support and promote whoever is closer to power.
Takeaway: Money is necessary for a successful campaign, especially for newcomers and challengers, but it’s not determinative. The true advantage in any race belongs to the incumbent. Campaign finance reform measures that claim to “get the money out of politics,” even if well-intentioned, tend to erect barriers to entry and further advantage incumbents.
Earlier this year, Transparency USA released a new feature: Texas Lobbying. Using this tool, citizens can find information on who’s lobbying their representatives in Austin, who’s hiring those lobbyists, and whether they’re using tax dollars to do it. And whether you support or oppose the practice of taxpayer-funded lobbying, it is sure to be a contentious issue in the upcoming legislative session. Find the data here.
We learned that more money is spent on lobbying every election cycle than all donations to Texas candidates and PACs combined. As of the most recent reports, $574 million has been donated to Texas candidates and PACSs this election cycle, while as much as $653.5 million* has been spent to hire lobbyists. Lobbyists also enjoy greater access to politicians and more lax reporting requirements than private citizens.
Takeaway: To get a complete picture of the money and influence on Texas politicians, more attention must be paid to lobbyists and their built-in advantages in the political system.
Join us in the new year as we continue to bring you the answers you need about the money in Texas politics.
*Lobbyists are allowed to report their income in ranges.