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For Many Candidates, a Chicken-and-Egg Problem

Political contributors are ready and willing to give to candidates who can show them some reason — in a very competitive season — why they ought to contribute. But that's not as easy as it looks.

Senator Ken Paxton speaks to supporters in Plano on Thursday, August 1, 2013, to announcement his campaign for Attorney General.

For down-ballot statewide candidates, the first challenge is financial traction.

Candidates have to find a way — through polls, headlines or whatever — to show that they are worth investing in.

The money they attract could determine whether they have a chance in next year’s primaries. It buys advertising, pays staff salaries and covers travel expenses. People can win elections on shoestring budgets, but that’s rare, especially for a statewide election in a state as big as Texas.

This is a classic chicken-and-egg situation. Show enough strength, and donors will pour money into your campaign. That support becomes a sign of strength, encouraging other donors to give while adding incrementally to a perception that opposition is futile. Every dollar can strengthen one candidate while potentially weakening an opponent. In a primary race, that is especially true: Donors are often choosing between small variations in ideology.

Product differentiation — how to tell one bar of soap from another — can be tricky in politics. Four Republicans are running for lieutenant governor. Three are running for attorney general. Four are running for comptroller.

As you slide down the ballot, the races get cheaper. A race for comptroller doesn’t attract the same money or attention as a race for governor. It is hard to get voters interested enough to actually choose someone.

This is the finance primary, with candidates competing for the dollars and the organization that will come into play later, when it’s time to compete for votes. And donors are looking for some sign that a particular candidate will be competitive.

Some candidates have it easy. Attorney General Greg Abbott turned out to be a prodigious fundraiser. His strength can be measured by the size of his campaign bank balance. It’s enough to persuade most politicians to skip the Republican primary for governor, to shop elsewhere.

Tom Pauken, the former state Republican Party chairman, is challenging Abbott and acting as the poster boy for the campaign conundrum: It is not easy to get people to invest in a candidate whose opponent already has more than $20 million. Pauken has to exploit any philosophical differences or focus on characteristics in Abbott to offset the financial disadvantage. It’s possible, but it’s a slog.

Name recognition works, too. Ask George Prescott Bush, who entered his first political race this year and successfully hopscotched though fundraisers in Texas, Florida and Georgia, to name just a few. The 37-year-old son of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and grandson of former President George H.W. Bush had raised $2.6 million by mid-year for a land commission seat that has had only four occupants in the last 40 years. It is hardly a competitive hotbed.

Money can buy you a name. A name can attract money. Either is a means of attracting attention and support by the time voters start making their decisions.

Ted Cruz was nobody a couple of years ago, politically speaking. But he ran for the U.S. Senate in the primary last year against David Dewhurst, a rich incumbent lieutenant governor who has never managed to build a strong bond with Republican voters. Dewhurst also had the disadvantage of smelling like a traditional Republican at a time when Tea was the preferred fragrance of primary voters. Cruz sold a couple of anti-establishment political action committees on his insurgent campaign, raised enough money and attracted enough voter attention to upset Dewhurst in a runoff before winning the general election.

He did what others are trying to do now, asking potential donors to invest while generating voter interest through news stories, polls, rallies, Internet chats, you name it.

It ends when voters walk into a booth and try to figure out the difference between a Dewhurst and a Patrick and a Patterson and a Staples, or a Branch and a Paxton and a Smitherman, or a Hegar and a Hilderbran and a Medina and a Torres.

It’s just a list of names until the candidates get going, and getting started can be the hardest part.

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Politics 2014 elections David Dewhurst Ted Cruz