A Closer Look: Top 10 PACs of the 2018 Election Season
Discover the top 10 Political Action Committees (PACs) that spent the most on the 2018 Texas elections.
1. Texas Association of REALTORS PAC ($35,867,910): The Realtors are the powerhouse of money in Texas politics. Yes, you might be surprised to find that your realtor’s professional dues support one of the most powerful — and certainly the most well-funded — PACs in Texas. What might be even more surprising is that the Texas Association of Realtors PAC (TREPAC) frequently uses its political heft to support liberal Republicans and the occasional Democrat. Apparently, this cycle, they believed their PAC account was too flush with cash, as they purchased more than $29 million of money market instrument mutual funds at Frost Bank. As for TREPAC’s donations directly to candidates, they appear to be motivated primarily by the desire to curry favor with those in power in Austin. They supported incumbents of every stripe in 2018, from the most conservative Republicans ($101,042 to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and $60,000 to State Sen. Don Huffines) to liberal Republicans and Democrats ($55,000 to State Rep. Charlie Geren and $50,000 to State Sen. John Whitmire). During the all-important and ideologically-revealing primary season, the Realtors tended to support the more moderate to liberal candidate in each race, including State Reps. Jason Villalba and Wayne Faircloth and State Sen. Kel Seliger this election season. TREPAC’s largest donation to a candidate this cycle was $140,000 to Cody Harris, a realtor himself, who won one of the most watched elections of the primary season to take the seat of retiring State Rep. Byron Cook. With more than $29 million in the bank, $6.7 million dollars cash-on-hand in their PAC account, and the proven willingness to spend it, the Realtors will be a formidable force in Texas politics for the foreseeable future.
2. ActBlue Texas ($8,239,487): This Democrat PAC, coming in second for most money spent, comes in first for money raised this election season, bringing in $8,155,743. Political insiders regularly object to the notion that ActBlue is a PAC, claiming the organization is merely an online donation platform. But contrary to that narrative, ActBlue is, in fact, registered as a PAC at both the state and federal levels. In addition to using funds raised to support candidates, ActBlue also utilizes its platform to support non-profit 501(c)(4) organizations — also known as “dark money” groups because they do not have to reveal the names of their donors. (The Supreme Court has ruled these sort of organizations are protected by the First Amendment from having to disclose their supporters.) With Democrats regularly decrying the use of PACs and 501(c)(4) entities to influence elections and legislation, it’s interesting to note how many willingly took funds from ActBlue this cycle. Recipients of funds from this PAC include Democrat challengers for statewide office Andrew White ($396,720), Justin Nelson ($805,668), Mike Collier ($663,671) and Lupe Valdez ($1,079,742), as well as candidates who successfully knocked off incumbents including Beverly Powell ($200,655), Julie Johnson ($30,595), and Nathan Johnson ($18,888). In addition to their support of individual Democrat candidates, ActBlue gave donations to Democratic county parties across the state. ActBlue’s noteworthy accomplishment of raising the most money, combined with their generous expenditures on behalf of Texas Democrats, made them one of the most powerful players in 2018 Texas politics. It may prove interesting to watch the actions taken by Democrats regarding PACs and 501(c)(4) organizations during the upcoming legislative session, given their willingness to accept large campaign infusions from ActBlue.
3. Texans for Lawsuit Reform ($7,075,912): This PAC’s giving places them squarely in the moderate Republican tribe. During the primary season, Texans for Lawsuit Reform (TLR) supported more moderate-to-liberal Republicans, including State Reps. Ernest Bailes, Wayne Faircloth, Sarah Davis, and Jason Villalba. During the November general election, however, TLR consistently threw their financial support behind Republicans, regardless of where they fall on the ideological spectrum. In fact, in an apparent last minute push to help vulnerable Republicans, during October, TLR pumped significant money into the campaigns of State Sen. Don Huffines and State Reps. Ron Simmons, Tony Dale, Paul Workman, and Sarah Davis. Of these, only Davis won.
4. Empower Texans ($5,598,348): Once again, Empower Texans brought strong support for the most conservative candidates, incumbents and challengers alike. While 16 candidates received $100,000 or more from Empower Texans, their top recipient, with gifts totaling $349,780, was former Midland Mayor Mike Canon who tried unsuccessfully to unseat State Sen. Kel Seliger. Seliger is ranked by Dr. Mark Jones of Rice University as the most liberal Republican in the State Senate. Other hefty contributions included $325,000 to State Sen. Bob Hall and $290,000 and $262,400 to candidates Jonathan Boos and Thomas McNutt, respectively. Of these four, only Hall will be headed to the Capitol in January.
5. Republican Party of Texas ($4,635,727): Compared to the 2016 election cycle, the state’s majority party significantly increased both their fundraising and expenditures during 2018. The two largest individual donors to the Republican Party of Texas (RPT) are no strangers to Texas political observers. Outgoing State Sen. Don Huffines contributed $527,486, and Houstonian Holloway Frost invested $482,035. A considerable amount of money from the RPT flowed to political consulting groups and advertising firms such as the Dudley Group, LLC ($1,364,879), Mammoth Marketing Group ($595,470), and Axiom Strategies ($352,281). RPT’s largest individual campaign contribution went to Justice Harvey Brown, a Republican judge on the Houston-based First District Court of Appeals. Despite RPT’s $95,000 donation, Justice Brown’s reelection bid was ultimately unsuccessful.
6. Associated Republicans of Texas Campaign Fund ($4,168,280): Also falling into the moderate Republican tribe, the stated purpose of Associated Republicans of Texas (ART) is to maintain the Republican majority in the Texas legislature by “allocating resources to the right candidates, in the right districts, at the right time.” According to their contributions, the “right candidates” are the more moderate and liberal Republicans. ART received generous contributions from Woody and Gayle Hunt ($450,000) as well as the campaign account of retiring Speaker of the Texas House Joe Straus ($350,000). The bulk of ART’s money was spent this cycle on consulting firms including Murphy Nasica & Associates ($1,207,687) and Olsen & Company, LP ($307,385). The candidates who received the most support from ART were moderate-liberal Republican State Reps. Steve Allison ($50,000), Charlie Geren ($37,000), and Sarah Davis ($30,000).
7. Republican State Leadership Committee ($3,506,807): This PAC is devoted to helping elect Republicans to down-ballot state offices. The largest contributor to this PAC was Virginian William B. Holtzman with contributions of $375,000. Ninety-nine percent of the Republican State Leadership Committee’s expenditures went to support candidates and causes outside Texas.
8. Texas Justice & Public Safety ($3,379,250): This advocacy group is part of a network of state and federal Super PACs, all using the moniker “Justice & Public Safety” and all funded by hedge fund billionaire George Soros. A priority of these groups is criminal justice reform and ending deportations. Texas Justice & Public Safety gave $2,181,872 to Berlin Rosen, Ltd., a public relations firm for liberal/progressive candidates and causes. This PAC also gave $502,000 of Soros’s money to the Texas Democratic Party A third significant donation by this PAC went to the Texas Organizing Project whose stated mission is to organize “black and Latino communities in Dallas, Harris and Bexar counties with the goal of transforming Texas into a state where working people of color have the power and representation they deserve.”
9. Texas Right to Life ($3,330,085): The last two spots on the top 10 list are held by groups on opposite sides of the abortion debate. The largest contributors to Texas Right to Life (TRTL) this election season were fracking billionaires Farris and Jo Ann Wilks, along with Dan and Staci Wilks, contributing a total of $1.9 million. The top individual campaign contribution ($145,000) went to Emily Kebodeaux Cook, the group’s general counsel and long-time lobbyist. Cook lost to incumbent State Rep. Ernest Bailes in the Republican primary. The next three recipients of cash from TRTL were candidates for the Texas House Thomas McNutt ($144,000), Jill Wolfskill ($90,000), and Susanna Dokupil ($85,000). All lost in the March primaries.
10. Annie’s List ($2,545,710): Annie’s List is dedicated to electing progressive, pro-choice women throughout Texas at the state and local level. Oil executive Lee Fikes, along with his wife, Amy, who are frequent donors to pro-choice causes, topped Annie’s List of supporters with contributions of $142,500. The top individual recipient of funds from Annie’s List was Beverly Powell, who received $95,000 in support of her successful challenge to conservative State Sen. Konni Burton. In addition to supporting other female candidates up and down the ballot, Annie’s List spent big on hotels and catering, including the Fairmont Dallas ($65,760), the Hilton-Anatole Dallas ($56,750), the Marriott Marquis ($52,544.91), the Hyatt Regency San Antonio ($36,177), the JW Marriott San Antonio ($25,196), as well as Sterling Events and Catering ($25,027).
(Numbers are based on the most recent reports on file with the Texas Ethics Commission.)
Our Closer Look series takes an in-depth look at the giving habits of Texas’s top political contributors. Be the first to receive the latest updates about the money in Texas politics by subscribing here.