Already blessed with an earlier-than-usual primary date and several candidates it can call its own, Texas is quickly settling into a more traditional role for the next presidential race: a seemingly bottomless piggy bank of campaign cash.
Of all the ways in which Texas intersects with the 2016 election — from providing top-flight political talent to playing host to high-profile appearances — none has emerged as more ubiquitous than giving the prospective candidates a deep pool of donor dollars to harvest. The time-honored dash for cash in the Lone Star State has been underway for months, but with several White House hopefuls descending upon Texas this month, its scale — and competition — is coming into focus earlier than in past cycles.
"Texas has a very savvy donor base that understands what it takes to run a national campaign, and they are willing to put their money behind candidates that are substantive, pragmatic and stand a chance at winning," said Jenifer Sarver, an Austin-based communications consultant who worked in George W. Bush's presidential administration. However, she offered an important disclaimer: "There is a lot of money, and at some point it might seem like an endless well, but there is a limited number of people."
Given its sheer size and array of big population centers, Texas has long been regarded as an "ATM state" for Republican presidential candidates, along with California, Florida and New York. In the 2012 presidential race, donors in Texas gave more to GOP nominee Mitt Romney's campaign than contributors did in any other state beside California, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
2016 is expected to be the priciest presidential cycle in American history, and Texans are being counted on again to pony up. One of the first major indications of that could come in two weeks, when many of the groups paving the way for 2016 presidential runs are required to disclose their finances for the first quarter of the year. The last day of the reporting period is Tuesday.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, whose father and brother call Texas home, has emerged as a fundraising juggernaut, and he recently got a helping hand from his presidential relatives during receptions in Dallas and Houston. In Texas and elsewhere, Bush's potential rivals appear to be vying for runner-up in the money race, carefully managing expectations for their own fundraising hauls.
Cruz himself has been no slouch in the money race, raising more than $2 million during the first three days of his presidential campaign last week. (His campaign had hoped to hit the $1 million mark within a week.) He is currently completing a 10-city fundraising tour, and he returns home Tuesday for a Houston reception hosted by dozens of the city's movers and shakers.
Cruz's campaign believes it needs $40 million to $50 million to run a winning primary bid. Cruz has promised to surprise people with a healthy balance of both the small-dollar donors who propelled his come-from-behind Senate victory in 2012 and the wealthier individuals who weren't as gung-ho about his insurgent bid back then.
"The question is, does that grassroots network have the fundraising ability [for a presidential campaign], and I don't think it does," Sarver said, adding that Bush "kind of steps on" Cruz's chances of reaching donors at higher levels, at least in Texas.
Hal Lambert, the Fort Worth money manager who has signed on to Cruz's campaign, disputed the idea.
“It is correct that there’s a lot of enthusiasm in the grassroots, and I think they will contribute, but from what I've seen, there's enthusiasm at the larger donor level as well," Lambert said. "It’s been a week, and everything’s well above expectations.”
In Texas, going after the big fish means eventually bumping up against the Bush fundraising machine, which has strong ties to the Dallas and Houston areas as well as oil-rich West Texas. The super PAC for the former Florida governor has assembled a Texas Leadership Committee that includes more than 70 of some of the state's most prominent GOP donors, including Houston beer distributor John Nau, Midland oilman Javaid Anwar, Dallas oil executive Trevor Rees-Jones and multiple members of the well-connected Hunt family.
The committee also features a who's who of the Bush family's political allies, including former U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, former Commerce Secretary Don Evans, former ambassador to the United Nations Warren Tichenor, former U.S. Rep. Tom Loeffler and former state Rep. Dan Branch.
Former Gov. Rick Perry, meanwhile, has lined up his own panel of dozens of wealthy supporters as his team considers a price tag for a winning primary campaign that ranges from $50 million to $100 million. Well aware of how much he leaned on Texas during his first presidential run, Perry's allies took pride in the geographic diversity shown by the list of so-called RickPAC Advisory Board members.
"I think he's got a very formidable base of support," said Scott Cain, the Cleburne mayor who helped host a fundraiser for Perry on Monday in Fort Worth.
When it comes to fundraising, Cain suggested Perry benefits from being more of a known entity to Texas donors than the other candidates.
“For Texans, we know what we get with Governor Perry," Cain said. "For Texans, I don’t know if we know much about what we get with Governor Bush, except for his family connections.”
The fundraising scramble in Texas is already leading to some awkward questions about who is supporting whom. The name of Graham Whaling has shown up on both a list of Perry's supporters and the invitation for Cruz's fundraiser Tuesday in Houston. And both the Perry and Scott Walker camps have identified California real estate developer "Papa" Doug Manchester as a backer. Insiders say the overlap is not entirely surprising at this stage given the unusually high number of potential candidates.
Cruz's camp sought to get a jump on the likely crowded field with his announcement last week he was running for president, making him the first major candidate to declare his intentions. He has moved quickly to capitalize on his head start in the race, holding a high-dollar fundraiser in New York the night after his announcement. After hitting Houston on Tuesday, Cruz's fundraising spree heads in the coming weeks heads to Austin, San Diego, San Antonio, Illinois, Dallas, Midland and Ohio.
Perry also is in the middle of a fundraising spree, a Texas tour that began Wednesday in Austin and stopped Monday in Fort Worth and San Antonio. In the coming days, he's hosting another six fundraisers — including two happy hours for "emerging leaders" — in Houston, Dallas, Midland and East Texas.
The hosts of the fundraisers include some of Texas' top Republican bundlers and donors, including Dan Friedkin, owner and CEO of Gulf States Toyota; Mickey Long, chairman of the Texas Tech University System Board of Regents; and Gene Powell, a San Antonio real estate developer. The receptions are also drawing hosts such as U.S. Rep. Joe Barton and state Rep. Bill Zedler of Arlington.
Though they call Texas home, Cruz and Perry are not the only candidates — declared or otherwise — who have been swinging through the state looking for campaign cash.
Bush visited the state last week to raise money for his Right to Rise super PAC, attending fundraisers Wednesday in Dallas and Thursday in Fort Worth and Houston. George W. Bush, Jeb's brother, was on hand for the Dallas event, while George H.W. Bush, Jeb's father, came to the Houston reception, according to representatives for the former presidents. Invitations for the receptions asked attendees to raise as much as $100,000 a couple.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie also dropped in on Texas last week to shake the state's money tree, according to his Leadership Matters for America PAC. Christie had fundraisers Thursday in Houston and Dallas, the home of Ray Washburne, the former finance chairman of the Republican National Committee who has been tapped to serve as a top fundraiser for Christie's likely campaign.
In addition to Christie, Walker, the governor of Wisconsin, swung through Texas last week, touring the border with Gov. Greg Abbott and headlining the Harris County GOP's Lincoln-Reagan Dinner. His trip was expected to include outreach to Texas' GOP moneymen, some of whom opened their checkbooks for his 2012 recall campaign, a proxy war with labor unions that drew national interest. Walker has recruited Austin-based fundraiser Susan Lilly for his expected 2016 campaign.
Two other potential candidates were scheduled to be in Texas this month. U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., is due in Austin on Tuesday for a town hall meeting with union workers and Wednesday for the Travis County Democratic Party's Johnson Bentsen Richards Dinner. Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, a Republican who was born in Austin, had speaking engagements last week in Irving and San Antonio.
The influx of White House hopefuls into the Lone Star State is setting the stage for a crowded GOP primary complete with several candidates with ties to Texas — and their sights set on its deep-pocketed donors. It's not exactly a bad problem to have, Sarver said.
"It's such an unusual situation we find ourselves in," she said. "I think it's a positive overall for the Republican Party."
Disclosure: Javaid Anwar is a major donor to The Texas Tribune. John Nau is a donor to the Tribune. Donald Evans was a donor to the Tribune in 2011, 2012 and 2013. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.