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For Candidates, the End of the Year is a Deadline

Dec. 31 is not a political deadline voters care about — but candidates sure do. It's the last day they can bring in money for a report that will demonstrate their strength to supporters.

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You might be thinking about the remaining shopping days, shipping dates and plans for your holiday gatherings. In order: yikes, too late and remember to have fun.

Political candidates are thinking they have a little over a week of fundraising left before an important deadline: Dec. 31 is the last day of contributions that can be reported on a required Jan. 15 campaign finance report.

On its face, the deadline is not a big deal. Money collected after the first of the year spends just like money collected in 2013. Most people outside of politics do not look at campaign finance numbers in any kind of detail, unless something in the reports rises to the level of news.

The political class, on the other hand, obsessively examines the reports to find signs of strength and weakness, to study alliances that are forming, to try to figure out who is ahead and who is behind — and what, if anything, can be done to change that. It’s an important snapshot of the races just seven weeks before the primary election results are posted.

Candidates with a comfortable amount in the bank — comfortable, in this context, means enough socked away to pay for staffing, advertising, traveling and such through the March 4 primary — have no need to sweat during these final days of 2013.

Others need to show some evidence of support to improve their chances of winning even more support after the reports come out in January.

Some races are crowded with candidates, especially in Republican races at the top of next year’s primary ballot. Four Republicans are running for lieutenant governor, three for attorney general, four for comptroller of public accounts and so on.

Each of those campaigns is asking the same people for money. Lobbyists in the capital have had a steady regimen of fund-raisers for weeks. The most generous donors in Texas — the people whose names regularly top the lists of big donations when the reports come out — don’t have to go to events. Candidates come to them, by mail, by phone and in person.

All of those contributors would prefer to invest in winners. It has been six months, in most cases, since the candidates last reported on their finances. The midyear reports gave political financiers and the rest of us a peek at how the candidates were doing. January, which comes after a much more intense six months of politicking, offers a window into the races at the beginning of the sprint to Election Day.

Candidates who don’t yet have the money they need to get to the finish line — and to get there first — have to show enough promise to persuade donors to keep investing, or to invest for the first time.

It’s the quintessential political horse race. If the other horse looks like Secretariat, nobody will fill your feed bag or bet on you to win.

Running statewide in Texas is expensive. A back-of-the-envelope business plan would start with $2 million for each week of TV advertising — assuming a candidate wants to advertise at the frequency needed to reach every voter in the state. Voting lasts for two weeks, and you would want to be known to voters as it begins, so you would want the commercials to run for more than a week. That is just an example: It’s a rare campaign that has more money than it wants to spend.

Time is short, and not just between now and the Dec. 31 fundraising deadline. Only nine weeks separate that date from the primary election. Ideally, candidates spend the time when voters are not paying much attention — that would be November and December — raising the money to spend when voters start paying attention. And in the new year, they will be working on the voters, banging on doors, talking to civic clubs, debating their foes. They will have less time available then to raise money, even as their need for it increases.

The best evidence of success is success. Show the donors big numbers in January — bigger numbers than the competition. Show them polls — if there is enough money to do polls — that show the competition in the rearview mirror.

That’s what the candidates hope to accomplish before the end of the year: Each wants to look like Secretariat.

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