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Analysis: Campaign Money as a Show of Political Health

Candidates are about to hit a deadline for financial reporting — money in, out, borrowed and on hand — that will offer a glimpse into the political health of their campaigns.

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It is somewhat crass to talk about money when you are supposed to be talking about good old American democracy, but the list of statewide campaigns that have succeeded without cash is short.

It costs money to introduce candidates to voters, explain their views and point out the personality and ideological flaws that opponents forgot to mention.

The end of June is a deadline for the political class — the midyear mark for fundraising and the last time until October that the campaigns will have to tell the public what they have raised, spent and kept in the bank.

The reports themselves, which have to be filed by mid-July, are an acid test of the campaigns, a sign of who is and who is not catching on, who is organized and who is competitive. A display of weakness gives the opposition razzing rights but it can also make it more difficult to raise money from political investors who, ideologies aside, do not like to bet on losers. An empty bank account is harder to sell to financial supporters than an early show of potential.

Money can be a proxy for support, like when Wendy Davis, a state senator and the Democratic nominee for governor, boasts about the number of people who have contributed to her campaign — whether they gave a little or a lot.

Money can represent competitive strength, exemplified by the impressive campaign treasury of Greg Abbott, the state’s attorney general and the Republican nominee for governor. That money was assembled over several years of fundraising, and it served, among other things, to frighten other Republicans out of this year’s race. Conservatives who wanted to move up, who waited through 20 years with George W. Bush and Rick Perry at the top of state government, took a look at Abbott’s war chest and his lineup of patrons and scurried off to run in other races. Without that formidable obstacle in place, the four Republican officeholders who ran for lieutenant governor — a group that included a sitting lieutenant governor, a land commissioner, an agriculture commissioner and a state senator — might instead have been in the top race.

Money matters more at the top of the ballot. Bill White, a Democrat who had been mayor of Houston, lost to Perry in the 2010 race for governor, but money was not the proximate cause of his defeat. Chris Bell, the Democrat who ran for the job in 2006, had a bigger problem. His campaign manager, Jason Stanford, said last week that they found themselves competing for money with Carole Keeton Strayhorn, the Republican-turned-independent comptroller, and for attention with Kinky Friedman, the comedian and musician. Bell’s fundraising was an early sign of trouble in a year when Perry appeared vulnerable. All told, Perry held onto his office with 39 percent to Bell’s 29.8 percent, with the rest of the vote split between the other two candidates.

Cash is not everything. Tony Sanchez Jr., the Democrat who ran against Perry in 2002, spent freely from his own millions — more than anyone before or since in a Texas political race. He was walloped anyhow, gathering 40 percent of the vote. Statewide Democrats did a little better than usual that year, but the money was not enough.

A candidate can lose with plenty of money — Sanchez is not the first millionaire to bump his head this way. But at least the voters knew his name, why he was running and what he thought about Perry. He spent money. He ran ads. He got the word out. The voters had all they needed to make a decision.

That was arguably the case four years ago, when White lost to Perry — at least for White. At least he had the means to let voters know he was running and why. Anyone who was watching television that year knew about the governor’s race.

If, on the other hand, you do not recall Linda Chavez-Thompson, Barbara Ann Radnofsky, Hector Uribe, Hank Gilbert or Jeff Weems, it might be because you only saw their names once, in a voting booth, in November 2010. Money might not have been their only problem, but it was a big one.

State political conventions have dominated news this month, giving candidates a chance at attention they crave and require. The finance reports will serve as their midyear report cards.

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