A Two-Unit Election


Wealth among big-time philanthropists and political donors in Texas is measured in $100 million increments, which are sometimes referred to as “units.” As in “Tony’s good for half a unit.” Actually, Tony Sanchez is good for much more than that: He spent $57 million on his own campaign through early October. That’s already a record in Texas, but the remaining weeks are traditionally TV saturation time, so he could very well wind up topping New York mayor Michael Bloomberg’s self-funded total of $79 million. The best back-of-the envelope estimate for total spending among all Texas candidates in this cycle, according to Fred Lewis of Campaigns for People, is two-and-a-half units. Needless to say, that’s a new high.

On the Republican side, Lt. Governor candidate David Dewhurst is going the self-financed route as well. He gave his campaign $1.9 million during the last reporting period, and has now borrowed $10 million since the campaign began. Governor Rick Perry is raising money the old-fashioned way, from deep-pocketed donors. At $17 million so far, his spending levels would have been considered impressive at one time. Perry may still win, but the down-ballot effects of Sanchez’s millions may spoil Republican dreams of a clean sweep. As a result, the R’s may be searching for their own multi-unit man for the next cycle. (“We must not allow a millionaire gap!”) And won’t the Dems need another one next time, too, to duplicate the winning formula? When does it end?

Having candidates finance their own campaigns is one way to get special interest money out of politics. But if you have to have $100 million just to qualify for the race, do you still have a democracy? A little regulation of the process would be a better approach. Contribution limits is an obvious place to start; there are currently no limits, except in judicial races. Rep. Pete Gallego (D-Alpine) floated a bill last session to set some modest limits, but it did not make it out of committee. Senator Robert Duncan’s (R-Lubbock) bill to appoint appellate judges made it out of the Senate last session, only to die in the House. Gallego proposed public financing of non-partisan appellate judicial elections, but the bill did not make it out of committee. Austin reformers like Texans for Public Justice have kept the heat on in the interim, and polling by Campaigns for People indicates broad public support in Texas for non-partisan publicly-financed judicial elections. It can be done: North Carolina recently switched to such a system.

The only way to reign in self-financed campaigns like Sanchez’s is by imposing spending limits, which the U.S. Supreme Court has generally held to be unconstitutional. In a test case in Vermont this summer, however, spending limits were unexpectedly upheld by a U.S. circuit court. The case is now on its way to the Supreme Court. Other reforms we may see: Sanchez has made hay out of how much dough Rick Perry raised in the window between the end of the session and the last day to sign or veto bills (he killed a record number of them). Donations during that period should be banned, but let’s not stop there. There are also the nefarious “late train” donations–money that pours in to the winner immediately after the election, often from people or PACs who mistakenly endorsed the loser. Perry has turned this shakedown into an art form, such that lobbyists of all stripes might be willing to get behind a move to ban all donations between an election and the ensuing legislative session. – N.B.