Remember when you could contribute a mere six-figures to political campaigns and still be a major player in Texas? You know, $10,000 here, $20,000 there, and before you knew it you had given away a cool 200-grand, and pesky watchdog groups were issuing special reports about your efforts to buy democracy. Ah, those were the good old days, back when you only had to be a millionaire to influence elections, and when a paltry $400,000 in a state rep. race was considered an insurmountable campaign war chest. Of course, that was all before the recent machinations of one Dr. James Leininger, the San Antonio multi-millionaire and school voucher proponent. After the millions of dollars he spent in the 2006 Republican primary, we must now recalibrate what constitutes big money in Texas politics. Just look at Bob Perry, the old standard bearer. The guy splurged with hundreds of thousands on this primary too, but he can’t get a sniff of critical press anymore.
Leininger has long been a financial stalwart for Texas Republicans. But this year, he’s outdoing himself. Final totals aren’t in yet, but Leininger has already disclosed spending more than $3 million on the primary alone. He devoted most of that money to defeating five moderate Republican House members. Their offense? Last May they dared to vote against Leininger’s beloved proposal to offer publicly funded vouchers for poor kids to attend private schools. So he recruited five pro-voucher candidates and provided them with hundreds of thousands of dollars for their campaigns. The Leininger largesse accounted for 90 percent to 95 percent of the five challengers’ funds—single-donor campaigns the likes of which most political observers have never seen. His operation also paid directly for mailers and advertisements, resulting in five cloned campaigns. As we report in this issue, Leininger, in at least two races, even paid for out-of-state conservative Christian activists to staff his candidates’ ground operations.
Leininger’s money defeated two of those five GOP moderates. One was Carter Casteel (R-New Braunfels). Her opponent, an ad exec from San Antonio named Nathan Macias, received the most Leininger support out of the five challengers, about $1 million in all. (Casteel raised about $400,000, which would have been a nice sum in the old days.) Voter turnout being what it is in primary elections, Macias won with just 10,176 votes, which means Leininger spent about $100 per vote in the race. Behind by just 45 votes, Casteel has asked for a recount. If she does lose her seat, Casteel says she may begin advocating on an issue she never much thought about before: campaign finance reform. “They say you can’t talk about the ocean until you’ve seen the ocean,” Casteel says. “Well, I’ve seen the ocean.”
A lot of folks are seeing the ocean these days. Newspaper editorialists in such places as Marshall and New Braunfels have decried Leininger’s attempt to “buy the House,” as one put it, sounding a lot like, well, like The Texas Observer. Good reform ideas are out there. A hard limit on individual donations would be a nice start. Ultimately, we’d like to see full public financing of campaigns, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Perhaps, finally, the political climate is right to cleanse at least some of the money from state politics. Even Leininger seems to sense this. He told the San Antonio Express-News recently that, “The best thing that ever happened to people who are generous and who are known donors was when the federal government put limits on how much you could donate. I would certainly welcome that sort of thing on the state level.” Lord only knows if he means it. But it’s time to call his bluff.