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Numbers Are Nice, but It's the Money That Matters

Looking for income disparity? Look at the Texas campaign finance reports, where contributions from big donors outstrip the contributions from thousands of small ones.

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Candidates at the top of the ticket get most of the money — usually in large amounts. In this version of income disparity, small donations are eclipsed by giant ones, and partisanship sometimes comes in second to power.

Texas is notable for low election turnouts, which allows candidates to run niche campaigns for small numbers of voters instead of mass campaigns for all. Unlimited campaign contributions can have the same effect on the fundraising side, with relatively small number of donors able to make or break campaigns by deciding where to send five-, six- and even seven-figure checks.

The candidates like to tout the showings of support, bragging especially loud about the little guys who offered small contributions, counting the number of open wallets rather than the dollars falling out of them.

Having thousands of donors ready to spend even a little money is terrific. But do not be fooled. The millionaires’ and billionaires’ club is thriving in Texas politics.

In her year-end reports, state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, noted seven contributions of $100,000 or more, including one for $1 million. Davis, a candidate for governor, got a lot contributions of “under $50” — amounts so low that state law does not require the donors’ name to be listed. And Davis’s campaign boasted about the number of people who gave, saying it had about 71,000 different contributors over that six-month period.

Attorney General Greg Abbott, the leading Republican in the governor’s race, reported 25 donors giving at least $100,000. He itemized the little donations — Davis did not — saying he had more than 11,000 contributors. Less than half of each campaign’s money, however, came from people who gave less than $10,000, according to an analysis by The Texas Tribune.

This is just one report, and the numbers could change before November. The first reports, covering the second half of 2013, came in last month. Monday is another deadline for campaign finance reports, marking the last 30 days of the primary elections. But the numbers reported by campaigns so far follow a long-established pattern in politics — small donors are great, but the big donations really power the statewide campaigns.

In federal elections, there is some relationship between the number of people giving to campaigns and the amount collected, because federal law limits how much a donor can give to a candidate in a single election cycle.

The difference between the big financial animals and the little ones is apparent in other ways — third-party committees and campaign bundlers, for instance — but not so much in each candidate’s reports.

Texas is different. There are no limits to what a donor can give to a candidate, or to any number of candidates, in the same election cycle.

The numbers at the top are so big that wealthy individuals can make $25,000 donations in statewide races and never see their names in the news. Contributions of that heft are deeply appreciated by candidates but still small enough to disappear in the shadows of the mega-donors who hog the limelight, intentionally or not.

The money often transcends party lines, working as a caste system within the political world.

Consider the case of David Alameel, a Dallas Democrat running for the U.S. Senate seat held by John Cornyn, a Republican. Alameel has been a generous political donor over the years, and his primary opponents are deriding him for contributions to prominent Texas Republicans.

The Republicans are after him, too: Some of them are needling Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst for accepting contributions from Alameel. Cornyn is having fun with all this. Alameel, who contributed $8,000 to Cornyn in 2004, is hoping to win the Democratic nomination to challenge him. Cornyn made light of the irony in a recent letter, thanking his opponent and donor in a way that cannot possibly help the Alameel campaign.

However his election comes out, Alameel is likely to keep getting calls from fundraisers for candidates from both parties.

Whatever his personal politics, he has money, which separates the people trying to win the attention of politicians from the people whose attention the politicians themselves seek. He will have some influence after the elections, win or lose.

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