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In Final Weeks, Millions Spent in Handful of Texas House Races

As Texas primary races head into the final stretch, the latest campaign finance reports show House Speaker Joe Straus and a handful of his allies are spending big to fight off their Tea Party-backed challengers.

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* Correction appended.

As the Texas primaries head into the final stretch, campaign finance reports show Republican House Speaker Joe Straus and a handful of his allies spending big to fight off their Tea Party-backed challengers.

Straus himself is among the biggest spenders in this year's legislative primaries. In this last round of reports, which track fundraising and spending from Jan. 22 through Feb. 20, Straus reported spending nearly $1.3 million on his re-election bid for San Antonio’s House District 121.

Despite spending millions of dollars on his race since last year, Straus has consistently raised enough to keep at least $8 million in the bank, dwarfing his two primary opponents’ cash flow. Grassroots activist Jeff Judson had $40,696 cash on hand after raising $427,777 and spending $237,982. Straus’ other opponent, former school teacher Sheila Bean, lagged behind with only $8,870 in the bank. She raised $27,744 during the last reporting period, spending $24,156. 

In five other House races, Straus-backed incumbents collectively spent more than $1.6 million over the past month, according to campaign finance reports.

In House District 8, Republican state Rep. Byron Cook of Corsicana — among the Tea Party’s top targets — spent $708,458, leaving him with $262,027 in the bank after raising $353,238. Cook, chairman of the powerful House Committee on State Affairs is facing a challenge from 25-year-old business owner Thomas McNutt, who had only $11,994 on hand. McNutt, who is running to the right of Cook, raised $94,501 and spent $308,333.

In House District 99, incumbent Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, significantly outraised opponent Bo French. Geren, who chairs the powerful House Administration Committee, brought in more than $314,000 from dozens of donors during the reporting period. He reported $461,286 in the bank even after spending $510,337. French, who argues that Geren isn't conservative enough, collected $176,224, spent $294,404 and had $51,044 on hand with eight days to go.

In the race for House District 84, state Rep. John Frullo, R-Lubbock, raised about $240,000 and spent just as much during the reporting period. His opponent, former state Rep. Jim Landtroop, largely benefited from a $40,000 infusion from the anti-Straus Empower Texans PAC. That contribution made up most of the $60,000 he raised.

In House District 2, where toll roads has emerged as one of the issues in the race, state Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Canton, spent and raised about twice as much as his primary challenger, Bryan Slaton. Flynn spent $103,064 and raised $163,292, leaving him with $126,277 on hand. Slaton, who raised $59,378, spent $51,735 and was left with $30,846 in the bank.

In House District 20, state Rep. Marsha Farney picked up $150,997 during the last reporting period, including a $25,000 donation from the Texas House Leadership Fund. Farney spent $171,252 but still has $69,751 cash on hand. Her challenger, Terry Wilson, picked up a $46,000 donation from Empower Texans after Farney earlier this month sent out a mailer criticizing the group's support of him. The donation contributed to Wilson's total haul of $78,745 over the reporting period. He’s left with $11,083 in the bank after spending $62,611.

Meanwhile, Tea Party-backed incumbents who have publicly opposed Straus' leadership are seeing mixed results, with some facing financial challenges as early voting gets underway.

In House District 55, state Rep. Molly White’s opponent Hugh Shine both outraised and outspent the Tea Party-backed freshman in the previous reporting period, raising just short of $55,000 and spending $136,172. That left him with about $44,000 on hand and $30,000 in outstanding loans. White, meanwhile, raised $43,508 and spent $99,061. She finished the reporting period with just under $64,000 on hand. Among her contributions was $10,000 from Empower Texans.

In the House District 115, incumbent Matt Rinaldi, R-Irving, was outraised and outspent by challenger Bennett Ratliff, who is forcing a rematch for the Dallas-area seat he held for a term and then lost by just 92 votes in the 2014 GOP primary. Ratliff collected $152,557 in donations and spent $214,410. Rinaldi had roughly $32,000 in contributions and spent $114,490.

In nearby Tarrant County, two House members popular with local Tea Party activists far outspent their challengers. 

In House District 92, challenger Scott Fisher — bolstered by a $50,000 from San Antonio grocery mogul Charles Butt — raised about $30,000 more than incumbent Jonathan Stickland, a Bedford Republican. Stickland, however, outspent Fisher, doling out about $353,000 to Fisher's $191,433. Stickland was left with $106,644 in the bank, while Fisher reported only $9,851 on hand. 

In House District 94, incumbent Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington, benefitted from two separate donations from Empower Texans and $15,000 from Texans for Education Reform. Those three donations made up more than two-thirds of the $90,496 he raised during the reporting period. He ended the reporting period with $137,054 in the bank. Tinderholt's opponent, Andrew Piel, raised $17,195 during that time and reported $34,521 on hand.

Across the Capitol, the rematch for Senate District 26 has emerged as both one of the hottest Democratic primary races in the state and one of the most expensive. In the latest reports, incumbent state Sen. José Menéndez outraised his challenger, state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, both San Antonio Democrats.

Even after spending almost $293,000, Menéndez reported $267,443 in the bank after raising $250,752. Martinez Fischer — who raised $185,271 — reported $73,457 cash on hand after spending $575,771 on his campaign.

Early voting ends Feb. 26. Election Day is March 1.

Correction: An earlier version of this story cited the wrong campaign finance report for Bo French. The numbers have been updated to include those from his 8-day report.

Morgan Smith, Matthew Watkins, Edgar Walters, Jamie Lovegrove and Johnathan Silver contributed to this report.

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Politics State government 2016 elections Campaign finance Joe Straus Texas Legislature