With record-level turnout in the Democratic primaries and possibly the most favorable political conditions in decades, progressives in Texas feel the tug of a blue wave. But an underwhelming slate of statewide candidates, a draining defeat in 2014 and the death of the party’s biggest donor has left Democrats’ campaign accounts dry.
In the last gubernatorial cycle in 2014, statewide Democratic candidates, led by Wendy Davis and Leticia Van de Putte, had raised $11.5 million by the end of January. This year, a group of lesser-known candidates has raised $1.1 million over the same period, a 90 percent drop, according to a preliminary analysis of campaign finance data by Texans for Public Justice, a nonprofit watchdog group in Austin.
Andrew White, the Democratic candidate for governor with the most financial support through the end of January, raised only $139,000 from donations, in addition to a $1 million self-loan. By comparison, Davis had raised $10.2 million over the same period. White said some donors are holding off on giving to candidates until they’ve secured the nomination, but admits it’ll be a challenge to keep pace with deep-pocketed Republicans.
“They’ve built a base of support around a lot of the potential major donors because they’ve been appointed to boards,” White told the Observer. “I’ve phrased it as a David and Goliath-type scenario.”
In state legislative races, Democrats have an expansive slate of about 215 candidates, the most in modern history, but donors have dropped 16 percent less into their campaign coffers than at this point during the last mid-term. By the end of January 2014, Democratic state legislative candidates had raised $9.1 million, compared to $7.6 million this cycle.
Overall, Democratic candidates running for statewide or legislative offices in Texas have raised $8.7 million through January, compared to Republicans’ $56.2 million.
Mark P. Jones, a professor of political science at Rice University, said the low-dollar stakes in Democratic campaigns this primary season reflect the toll that 2014 took on the party’s morale and checkbook.
“In 2014, enough Democratic donors either drank the Wendy Davis Kool-Aid, or — I think more charitably — viewed 2014 as the first step toward turning Texas blue,” Jones told the Observer.
That blue dream was fueled by mega-donors like Steve and Amber Mostyn, a trial attorney power couple from Houston who put more than $10 million into the pockets of Davis and Van de Putte in 2014. For years, the Mostyns propped up the finances of the Texas Democratic Party and other Texas progressives groups. But after Steve Mostyn’s sudden death last year, another financial giant has yet to step up.
The funding contributed by his wife, Amber, during this primary season is 5 percent of what the couple had given by this time in 2014, campaign finance records show. Neither Amber Mostyn nor Davis responded to requests for comment.
“There is no solidly Democratic donor that has come close to the amount that the Mostyns have given over the past decade to political candidates,” Texans for Public Justice executive director Craig McDonald told the New York Times in November. “Does it look like someone is ready to fill the hole in political fundraising for Democrats? We don’t see it yet.”
That’s likely because no major donor sees a strong possibility of a statewide candidate winning this cycle, said Jones.
“Attempts to win statewide office in 2018 are futile, and therefore your money is much better spent supporting state House or congressional candidates,” Jones said. “In some ways it’s a vicious circle. That is, if you don’t run top-tier candidates in 2018, that means that you’re unlikely to do all that well and that just demoralizes people as they look to 2022.”
The exception to hamstrung Democratic fundraising this primary season has been El Paso Congressman Beto O’Rourke, who has outraised Republican U.S. Senator Ted Cruz — without taking money from political action committees, or PACs — in his bid to unseat the junior senator. He’s raised $8 million since last March from mostly small-scale donors, the most any Texas Democrat has raised in a U.S. Senate race in 16 years, according to the San Antonio Express-News.
But in statewide races, where there is no individual contribution limit and big money is necessary to canvass the state, Jones said the chances of success are slim without the help of big-dollar donors.
“You’re not going to get up into the $5 million range with 500 $20 donations,” he said.
In statewide and legislative races, Republicans have also taken a 17 percent funding drop compared to 2014 — an opening for Democrats to potentially seize. While Democrats aren’t expected to outraise Republican candidates — a seemingly impossible feat in a state that’s been blood red for more than two decades — they should be able to tap into a progressive movement fueled by backlash to Trump that’s already flipped about 40 seats across the country.
“If Wendy Davis were running in 2018 with the same amount of money, she still would lose, but she would do notably better than she did in 2014, if for no other reason than Republicans can’t campaign against Barack Obama, but Democrats can campaign against Donald Trump,” said Jones.
Manny Garcia, deputy director of the Texas Democratic Party, pointed to early vote turnout — which has doubled from 2014 through the first nine days of early voting in the 15 largest counties — as proof that there is enthusiasm for candidates. He anticipates more resources flowing into the campaigns after the primary and runoff elections. Garcia said the party takes a team approach to fundraising and highlighting “kitchen-table issues.”
— Michael Li (@mcpli) March 1, 2018
“Everybody’s gonna work together and push a straight-ticket Democratic message,” he said.
Mike Collier, a Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, said he’s been telling his audiences to donate to down-ballot races rather than his because he believes they can turn out voters.
“In my stump speaking I’ve told people in the audience, ‘If you feel compelled to write a check don’t write a check to me, write a check to your local candidate,’” Collier told the Observer. “I view it as a reverse coattail situation.”