Gus Bova

Can Beto Compete With Abbott’s Campaign Cash Machine?

The latest campaign filings show that the Democratic gubernatorial hopeful can still raise lots of money. But the powerful incumbent with a massive political war chest remains on another level.

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The final state campaign filings from last year are in, and they show that the marquee race in Texas in 2022—the likely faceoff between Governor Greg Abbott and Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke—will be showered in green.

Back on the ballot after a sensational Senate run in 2018 and a dismal foray into presidential politics in 2019, O’Rourke has proven that he is still the strongest fundraiser that Texas Democrats have had in a long time. In the first 45 days of fundraising—between his formal campaign launch in mid-November and the end of the year—O’Rourke raised $7.2 million, according to his campaign finance report.

“No Democratic campaign in the state’s history has raised more money during the opening days of their race,” his campaign said in a press release. No doubt that’s an impressive fundraising pace, well ahead of the formidable clip at which his rival raised funds last year. Still, he’ll have to keep or exceed that pace if he’s going to have a shot at taking down Abbott. For all of O’Rourke’s fundraising abilities, the governor is yet on another level.

Abbott raised just under $19 million in the second half of 2021, according to his latest report, bringing his total haul for the year to nearly $40 million. The pile of available campaign cash is now $65 million. Since first running for governor, he’s raised around $175 million, cementing his reputation as one of the most successful—some would say shameless—fundraising powerhouses in the money-drenched history of Texas politics. 

 “He’s the most accomplished fundraiser I’ve ever seen. Which means, he’s good at it,” Bill Miller, a longtime political observer and top lobbyist in Austin, told the Observer this past summer. “He’s a master. You don’t get that sort of money over that period of time without being an expert at the business.” 

The New York Times recently reported that Abbott is known to frequently carve out eight-hour blocs of time in his daily schedule so he can hit up his Rolodex of donors for more money. While he also has an impressive base of small grassroots donors, the state’s trove of GOP moguls forms the backbone of his machine. 

“The sizes of the checks he asks for, his relentlessness—he never stops fundraising,” George Seay, a GOP money man from Texas, told the Associated Press in 2019. “It’s a machine probably not duplicated, if at all, around the rest of the country. … If someone might be expecting a $50,000 ask, he’ll ask for $250,000.” 

The governor’s insatiable appetite for cash has opened him up to critics who claim he is beholden to big money. Over the summer, Abbott received a $1 million check from Kelcy Warren, the chairman of Energy Transfer Partners, the natural gas giant that made over $2 billion off the state’s energy crisis during last February’s deadly winter storm. That seven-figure contribution was four times more than Warren had ever previously given to Abbott in a single check.

That unseemly transaction is now a central part of O’Rourke’s attacks on the governor’s handling of the state’s grid failure—and light-touch reforms made afterward. 

“While Abbott is taking million-dollar checks from the CEOs who profited off of the grid collapse, we’re receiving support from people all over Texas who want to ensure that our state finally leads in great jobs, world-class schools, and the ability to see a doctor,” O’Rourke said in a statement announcing his fundraising numbers this week. 

While Abbott’s latest filing did not include any million-dollar contributions, his biggest contributor of the period—Javaid Anwar, a Midland oil executive—cut a total of $600,000 in checks, which brings his total patronage of Abbott’s campaign to over $3.5 million. 

One big question for O’Rourke—who is running his first state-level campaign—is whether he will take full advantage of Texas law that allows for unlimited political contributions from donors. His campaign finance report shows that roughly $1.5 million of his haul came from contributions over the federal cap of $5,000 for individual donors. O’Rourke received a few dozen for $20,000 or more, netting him about $1.1 million. His top contribution was $100,000 from Williams Hart, a Houston personal injury law firm that has supported Democratic campaigns in the past. 

The relative lack of eye-popping individual sums—at least compared to Abbott— isn’t surprising. Even if O’Rourke wanted the sort of mega-donors that finance his GOP opponent, they don’t exist in Texas. With Democrats locked out of power for nearly 20 years, the pool of deep-pocketed liberals willing to give big money to candidates running longshot statewide campaigns has all but dried up here. 

The last true mega-donor for Texas Democrats was Houston trial attorney Steve Mostyn, who passed away in 2017. In recent years, national Democratic groups in Washington have been the largest source of campaign funds for state Dems. But that spigot may slow this cycle after the national party and its affiliates pumped millions into Texas in 2020 and came up empty. 

But if O’Rourke is going to have any shot at taking down Abbott—who has maintained a comfortable lead over the Democrat in most public polls—it’s not going to depend on his ability to pull in big checks or on the whims of national party PACs. As a Senate candidate, O’Rourke famously swore off PAC money and support from the national party, instead building one of the most successful small-donor fundraising machines in modern politics. 

In the final full quarter ahead of Election Day, he raised $38 million—shattering the record for a U.S. Senate candidate—from about 800,000 individual contributions. O’Rourke is unlikely to reach such epic heights this time. But as Texas Democrats have repeatedly learned, money isn’t everything. In 2014, Wendy Davis spent about $35 million in her much-hyped gubernatorial bid, only to get steamrolled by Abbott. Way back in 2002, Laredo banker and oilman Tony Sanchez sunk more than $50 million of his own fortune into his campaign against Governor Rick Perry and lost by 10 points.

Even with $80 million and the ever-divisive Senator Ted Cruz as an opponent, O’Rourke came up just short. And the deck is stacked even higher against Beto and Texas Democrats in 2022. The one thing that could dramatically shift the scales in Beto’s favor is if the governor’s fortunes fade this spring. 

Facing his first contested primary, Abbott is up against a bevy of hard-right challengers who are collectively trying to force the incumbent into the runoff. In order to avoid a one—which can often be lethal for Texas incumbents—Abbott is going to have to dip into his coffers. The limited public polling shows that Abbott remains well out ahead of his primary opponents, but they’re coming for him hard. His political enemies apparently recruited a Parker County man by the name of Rick Perry (no, not that one) in a scheme to confuse voters to switch from Abbott to the guy who came before him.  

Save for an intra-party ouster, the worst-case scenario for Abbott—and best for O’Rourke—is for the governor to indeed get forced into an expensive and nasty runoff. He could emerge his party’s victor, though bloodied, bruised, and closer-to-broke than his campaign has ever been. 

If it gets to that point, we could very well see just how many more $1 million checks Abbott can shake loose from his benefactors.