For Texas Democrats, a Fundraising Tug-of-War

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Do you turn Texas blue from the inside out or the outside in? That’s the strategic question behind the money tug-of-war between the Texas Democratic Party and the national candidates who count on the Lone Star State to fill their campaign coffers. 

Local party officials have made their message loud and clear at this week's Democratic National Convention: They want the same generous campaign contributors who send their money to out-of-state candidates — including President Obama — to make a similar investment in Texas. They say that with a little help, they could pick off key local races and, slowly but surely, eat away at Republicans’ stranglehold on statewide posts in Texas.

Obama’s Texas bundlers say their support of the president has had a huge impact locally; they point to recent federal court rulings that have pushed back against Texas Republicans on GOP-led redistricting and voter ID. These top-dollar fundraisers are taking a slightly different approach — they're working hard to draw national attention and corresponding dollars to Texas races with an argument rooted in electoral math.

“I don’t criticize anyone for sending their money out of state, because there’s been very little chance to win here,” said Ben Barnes, a former Texas House speaker, former state lieutenant governor and a major Democratic fundraiser on the state and national level. “But I don’t think the state party has been funded enough to be a powerful, functional organization.”

Texas Democrats say it’s no secret they have a money problem. They’ve long been frustrated, they say, with wealthy Texas donors who contribute heavily to presidential candidates and competitive out-of-state races while underfunding underdog statewide Democrats up and down the ballot. 

Former Democratic state Rep. Rick Noriega, who ran an unsuccessful bid for U.S. Senate against Sen. John Cornyn in 2008, said he has offered the following words of warning to Paul Sadler, the Democrat running against Tea Party favorite Ted Cruz for retiring U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison’s seat: “If the national party does not commit to participating in Texas, you’re Don Quixote, flailing at windmills.”

Bob Slagle, a Sherman attorney who chaired the Texas Democratic Party from the 1980s to the early 1990s, said that when Bill Clinton was running for president, Slagle got so fed up he negotiated a deal with national fundraisers: They’d return 10 percent of what they raised in Texas to the state party.

“For years, people at the DNC have loved to come to Texas, to take our money and run off,” said Slagle, 77. “I had to tell them charity begins at home.”

Texas-based Obama bundlers say the president’s re-election campaign has had far from a negative impact on their home state. The campaign has maintained field offices across Texas that serve as breeding grounds for local campaign workers. The DNC contributed $250,000 to the state Democratic Party after Obama swung through Austin in 2010 and currently transfers $10,000 a month to the state party. And the Obama administration has fought legislation championed by Texas' Republican-dominated Legislature. 

Alexa Wesner, an Austin-based Obama bundler who said her primary commitment is turning Texas Democratic, said comparing local and national campaign giving is difficult because the costs of running the races vary widely. “It is my hunch that Texas donors give a pretty proportionate amount to viable state races [and] to national races,” she said.

But she said it’s important to remember that investing nationally affects Texas. “You need look no further than this week’s voter ID and redistricting rulings to understand that who is in charge in Washington has a huge impact on Texas," she said.

Michael Li, an attorney, Dallas-based Obama bundler and executive director of Be One Texas, a voter turnout initiative, said there’s palpable excitement about turning Texas blue — much of it, ironically, from outside the state.

“Some of the major donors in Texas are still depressed; they think we can’t win anything,” he said. “Right now, nationally, people are focused on re-electing the president. But after November, what I’m hearing is a big discussion about Texas.”

This discussion is partly about demographics, but largely about electoral math. If Texas ever became a swing state, Democrats argue, it would put Republicans in a dire pinch. They’d have to spend loads of money battling for the Lone Star State, depleting their resources to use elsewhere.

“The problem with this is, it’s a longer-term view, and very few people in Washington or in the party structure take the long view,” said Austin-based Democratic consultant Harold Cook. “If everybody ever thought it through, the best investment would be Texas.”

But Li said the sense he gets is that the national party is finally thinking it through.

"The thing people have to understand about the people who write big checks is that they look strategically," he said. "They look for a return on investment."

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