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Early this election cycle, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn publicly worried about complacency within the Texas Republican political class — even after Democratic gains made in 2018.
So in early 2019, the state’s senior senator encouraged Texas Republicans in the U.S. House to bolster their fundraising and think twice about sending money out of the state.
“There’s an attempt by the leadership to extract as much money as possible out of the state as they can and use that wherever they need it, and I understand that," he told The Texas Tribune in June 2019. “But we need to make sure our Texas races — from the president and all the way down to the courthouse — are adequately financed and resourced. And that’s going to require us to raise a significant amount of money."
More than a year later, a Texas Tribune analysis of recent campaign finance reports shows that Cornyn's fears of a funding problem have come to life. Democratic U.S. House candidates in Texas have millions more aggregate cash on hand than their Republican counterparts. It marks an extraordinary six-year shift within the Texas delegation.
In 2016, U.S. House Republican candidates in Texas had $32.3 million on hand in July of that year. Their Democratic counterparts reported $11.4 million.
The next cycle, boosted by a backlash to President Donald Trump, Democrats saw a jump in fundraising. In 2018, Texas Republican U.S. House candidates had $34.8 million in cash on hand, compared with $21.8 million on the Democratic side.
Newly filed campaign finance reports show a complete shift this year. Republicans running for the U.S. House in Texas reported $19.2 million. Democrats had $26.7 million.
In some races, the outsized financial reserves will amount to little, thanks to precisely drawn congressional lines intended to reinforce Republican incumbent protection. But for a Texas Democratic ecosystem that was effectively moribund only six years ago, the ways in which these Democratic candidates are raising and spending their campaign funds point to a more sophisticated — and optimistic — approach to the fall general election campaign.
The data for this analysis was pulled from July campaign finance reports from the second quarter of each election year that congressional seats are on the ballot. Those reports are among the most critical in the cycle. Unless candidates have to compete in a primary, most spend the first 18 months of a campaign cycle raising and stockpiling money. The second quarter reports often mark a high point in cash-on-hand sums before candidates drain it all during the fall television advertising season.
This new Democratic cash sloshing around the state is being spent on staff payroll, printing shops and even direct mail and polling — all of which could well make a Democratic presence known in otherwise ignored deeply GOP pockets of the state.
Impact down the ballot
The heart of the disparity exists in five U.S. House district races: The 7th, 21st, 22nd, 23rd and the 32nd.
Two are races with Democratic incumbents, U.S. Reps. Colin Allred of Dallas and Lizzie Pannill Fletcher of Houston. Each faces a serious Republican opponent — businesswoman Genevieve Collins is challenging Allred and veteran Wesley Hunt is against Pannill Fletcher. Both Republican candidates have about $1 million in cash on hand, indicating they are taking fundraising seriously. Collins has self-funded her campaign in part.
But the Democratic candidates spent their first terms fully leveraging their incumbencies: Allred reported $3 million, and Fletcher posted $3.5 million in cash on hand.
Elsewhere, Democratic candidates Sri Preston Kulkarni and Gina Ortiz Jones of the 22nd and 23rd districts, respectively, outperformed expectations when they ran for the same offices in 2018. That gave them a strong case to make to donors heading into 2020. They locked down their nominations in March and spent the spring and summer raising money while Republicans litigated expensive runoff contests.
In the 21st District, Democrat and former state Sen. Wendy Davis outraised freshman U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, R-Austin, by a nearly 3-1 margin.
There are also outliers in the cash on hand on both sides.
For instance, freshman U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Houston, has a growing national profile and reported $4 million on hand at the end of June.
Another freshman Republican, U.S. Rep. Michael Cloud of Victoria, represents a mostly noncompetitive conservative district in southeast Texas. He reported $344,000 in cash on hand, a sum that is on par with many incumbents of both parties. His Democratic rival, Ricardo De La Fuente, reported $1.1 million, almost all thanks to a candidate loan.
There is almost no chance Republican candidates in top-tier competitive races will be significantly short on money. And a Republican billionaire could still cut a seven-figure check to a GOP super PAC and reset the table in a U.S. House race overnight.
The conservative group Club for Growth indicated recently that it plans to spend at least $2.5 million supporting Roy in his race, for instance. Another super PAC, the Congressional Leadership Fund, named Fletcher in the spring as one of their top targets and put $3 million in television spending behind that announcement.
Even so, candidate fundraising is still a foundational block to campaigns. Candidates secure lower ad rates than outside groups, which is particularly crucial in expensive media markets like the ones where these races are being litigated: Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Austin and San Antonio.
And the money affects more than just the seven or so competitive U.S. House races on the ballot.
Take the state's 3rd Congressional District. Situated entirely in North Texas' Collin County, it has been a longtime undisputed GOP stronghold. Mitt Romney won the district in 2012 with 64% of the vote to Barack Obama’s 34%. But in 2018, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, carried the county by only six percentage points, and U.S. Rep. Van Taylor of Plano saw the district’s margin narrow from 27 points in 2016 to 10 points during his first run for the seat in 2018.
Taylor took that race seriously, advertising on broadcast television, and he has over $1 million in cash on hand this year. His opponent, attorney Lulu Seikaly, only had about $40,000 on her last financial report, but the way she is spending that money is noteworthy. That same report revealed she had hired a national direct mail consultant. Additionally, her campaign said in a news release that it had raised $100,000 since the mid-July runoff and has had a well-regarded polling firm conduct an internal poll of the race.
Should a Democratic wave hit the state in the fall, Seikaly will already have poll-tested messaging and located vendors to potentially take advantage of the environment. If not, her efforts to bring Democrats in her district to the polls could still help others in her party above and below her on ballot. Taylor's district overlaps considerably with that of state Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, who is one of more than a dozen GOP incumbents Democrats are targeting in an effort to flip the state House.
Beyond the candidate fundraising, millions more in Democratic dollars will pound the state. The national parties and aligned super PACs are postured to dump tens of millions of dollars into the targeted U.S. House races, the fight for the state House and, potentially, the Senate race. Republicans are expected to respond in kind but the difference is, before 2018, these Democratic groups mostly ignored the state, save for the Texas 23rd Congressional District in west Texas.
This year, the spending will be in every major media market.
The reasons for the deficit are more complicated than mere complacency on the Republican side.
A handful of Republican members who hold top committee positions or are running for those slots — U.S. Reps. Kevin Brady of the Woodlands, Michael Burgess of Lewisville and Kay Granger of Fort Worth — have transferred significant portions of their campaign funds to the House GOP campaign arm to bolster their support among House members.
And about a year ago, some of the biggest Republican fundraisers in the delegation announced their retirements. There was U.S. Rep. Will Hurd of Helotes, who raised millions each year for his inevitably difficult reelection campaign each fall. There were also U.S. Reps. Mac Thornberry of Clarendon, Bill Flores of Bryan, Pete Olson of Sugar Land, Kenny Marchant of Coppell and Mike Conaway of Midland. All had leadership roles or choice committee assignments and with that, obligations to raise money for colleagues.
In most retirements, incumbents spend their last year or so in office cutting back on fundraising and political activity. The candidates who replace them on the ballot raised and spent big money in their primaries and are only now turning to the general election. Some of those Republican candidates are all but certain to come to Congress, but others will face formidable Democrats in the fall.
There are also currently three fewer Republican members than there were in the past two cycles at this point. Two Republican members lost re-election last cycle and another seat, the 4th District, is in the process of choosing nominees for a special election to succeed former U.S. Rep. John Ratcliffe, who is now serving as the director of National Intelligence.
Also, the biggest difference between 2018 and 2020 is that the GOP no longer holds a majority in the U.S. House, and it is a law of political gravity that the party with the gavel has a much easier time raising money.
Additionally, numerous Texas Republicans noted, several of the primary races to replace retiring GOP members were only decided two weeks ago in a later-than-usual runoff. It makes sense, they argue, that so many of their candidates are broke. But now that the general election here, they will benefit from a burst of fundraising. Democrats counter that logic by noting that several of their own House candidates, too, faced financially exhausting runoffs.
Even so, the disparity bothers some national Republicans who are increasingly worried about resources across the map and particularly in Texas.
For his part, Cornyn is a source of stability within the Republican slate. He reported $14.5 million in cash on hand on June 30 and has raised $22.4 million over the course of this cycle. By comparison, his Democratic competitor, MJ Hegar, had about $900,000 and likely depleted that sum in the final weeks of her runoff against state Sen. Royce West of Dallas.
Since Hegar clinched the nomination, her campaign touted raising $1 million in the first week after the runoff. Republicans who care about this race are closely watching her progress with worry, as they see Democratic Senate candidates in other states catch national fundraising interest and bank tens of millions of dollars a quarter.
Cornyn is a former chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, a post in which he oversaw the raising and spending of hundreds of millions of dollars to elect Republicans to the Senate in the 2010 and 2012 cycles.
And that makes his 2019 comments about raising and keeping money back home all the more remarkable. Cornyn, like most Texans dating back to Lyndon B. Johnson, climbed the ranks of Capitol Hill by directing Texas money to colleagues elsewhere in the country.
But this cycle, he is telegraphing that the best service he and other Texas Republicans can be to his party is to take care of business back home.
“We are, I think, no longer the reliably red state we have been,” he said in 2019. “We are at risk of turning purple; and if we don’t do our job, then we could well turn blue in the coming years.”