AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Political pundits were stunned last month when Democrat gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis reported raising more money than Republican rival Greg Abbott. But as the campaigns prepare to release another round of campaign finance reports Monday, Davis’ success has done little to unseat the GOP as the fundraising champion in Texas.
The GOP’s slate of statewide candidates raised nearly double the amount of funds than the Democrats in the last half of 2013, due in large part to the Democrats’ inability to raise significant money outside the governor’s race.
Davis’ campaign raised $12.2 million compared to Abbott’s $11.5 million, but the GOP outraised Democrats in the other statewide races $15.43 million to $1.42 million.
Party primaries take place on March 4 for the eight top statewide races with the winners competing in the Nov. 4 general election. Each race gives candidates a chance to build their name recognition and promote their party and among an electorate that probably can’t name the currently serving railroad commissioners.
Democrats have bragged about the tens of thousands of individual donors who gave to Davis’ campaign, and that certainly indicates early enthusiasm for the candidate. But 10,000 people giving $10 each is only $100,000, not much when purchasing air time on cable television stations to attract more supporters.
Democratic operatives find solace in knowing that most of their candidates don’t need money now because they’re not facing competitive primary races. They say the fierce Republican races for lieutenant governor, attorney general, comptroller and agriculture commissioner will hurt the GOP as candidates take ever-more hard-right positions to win over tea party activists. But the hundreds of commercials airing across the state could actually help the party in the long run.
Republican candidates differ little on the issues, so they spend most of their broadcast commercials bashing President Barack Obama and his policies. They’re competing to convince Republican voters that they’re best suited to challenge the Democratic president and his agenda.
Those attacks on Obama can cause long-term damage to Texas Democrats, because they go largely unanswered. Texas Democrats don’t have the money to fight back this early in the election cycle.
The Democrats’ absence from the debate also reinforces the biggest problem that Democrats must overcome: their perceived weakness. They have not won a statewide office since 1994, and despite some well-funded campaigns for governor, they can’t seem to break the 42 percent mark among the small percentage of eligible voters who cast ballots.
The poor track record discourages donors, who wonder if their money might be best spent in more competitive states where Democrats risk losing a seat in the U.S. Senate. That weakness also hurts Democrats among middle-of-the-road voters who don’t like to vote for losers.
Party branding and identification is important in Texas, since voters can vote for all the candidates from a single party by checking a single box at the top of the ballot.
In 2010, about 59 percent of voters chose the straight-ticket option, according to research by Larry Willoughby at Austin Community College. Of those straight-ticket voters, 58 percent chose the Republican option.
Democrats hope that this year they can rebrand as a party of the people and one that can win. When pressed on the lopsided overall fundraising, Democrats will point out that many of their candidates didn’t announce their campaigns until late in 2013.
Every campaign will find bright spots to report when they release their latest numbers on Monday, and the campaigns will try to diminish each other’s accomplishments. But for the time being, Republican donors remain the dominant force in Texas politics, giving tens of millions more than Democrats across all the statewide races.
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Chris Tomlinson is the AP’s supervisory correspondent in Austin, responsible for state government and political reporting.