08/21/19

Conservative Dollars Conspicuously Missing From Latest Campaign Finance Reports

When Texas’ last legislative session gaveled to a close in late May, conservatives from across the state were not shy about expressing their disappointment with the results. Leaders of large and powerful grassroots organizations like Julie McCarty of True Texas Project, JoAnn Fleming of Grassroots America We The People, Michael Quinn Sullivan of Empower Texans and Elizabeth Graham of Texas Right to Life described the results of the session as “purple,” “loser,” and “nothing,” making ominous, albeit veiled, threats to withhold funding. 

According to these conservative leaders, with Republicans in control of the Texas House, Senate, and Governor’s office, lawmakers should have had an open road to enact strong conservative policies. They argued this approach would offer two benefits — the policies would be good for Texans and the Texas economy while simultaneously exciting the conservative base ahead of the 2020 elections. 

Instead, by all accounts, Republican leaders chose to avoid red-meat conservative issues and instead tackled the less divisive issues of property tax and school finance reform. Although Republicans were able to deliver on those two issues, conservatives described the results as tepid at best, and decried the lack of other conservative reforms. 

All this right-wing discontent led political observers to wonder whether conservatives might put away their checkbooks for the next election cycle. So far, they have. Although only the first report for the 2020 election cycle has been released, conservative PACs and donors are conspicuously missing.

How Serious Is It?

PACs:

The two most prominent conservative PACs in Texas are Empower Texans and Texas Right to Life, both ranking on the top ten lists in the last election cycle for most contributions and most money spent. So far, neither PAC has donated one dime to any candidate or campaign for 2020.

Donors:

The number one donor in the last election cycle was conservative oilman Tim Dunn. So far, Mr. Dunn has given zero dollars to any candidates, campaigns or PACs for 2020. Likewise, well-known conservative billionaires and brothers, Farris and Dan Wilks, who both appeared on the list of top ten donors for 2018, have given comparatively little this cycle. Farris Wilks has made one donation of $12,500 to Empower Texans. Dan Wilks has made no political contributions.  At this point in the last election cycle, these three conservatives had collectively donated $738,000, more than 59 times their collective donations this cycle.

What’s Their Game Plan?

Have the most conservative donors and PACs in Texas abandoned ship? Are they so angry that they’re ready to cede the state to Democrats? Don’t count on it. Just as they often invoke the Alamo in their messaging and images, these groups and donors are more likely to go down fighting than write off their views as a lost cause. So what might they be planning?

  1. Time heals all wounds. Well, at least some. The first reports came out only weeks after the session ended. By the time the next reports are released in January 2020, we will likely see at least some money from these groups. Possible future donations from conservatives may be impacted by the outcome of the highly-publicized controversy between Michael Quinn Sullivan, CEO of Empower Texans, and Speaker of the House Dennis Bonnen. Sullivan has credibly accused Bonnen of offering to give long-sought media credentials to Texas Scorecard, a news outlet affiliated with Empower Texans, in exchange for Sullivan using ET’s PAC money to target a list of Bonnen-selected Republican House members. The case is currently under investigation by the Texas Rangers. 
  2. A rifle instead of a shotgun. Rather than competing widely in a large number of House and Senate races as they did in 2018, they may choose to focus their money on a few key races, contributing to candidates they consider trustworthy. 
  3. Educating citizens rather than electing politicians. Rather than giving to political PACs and campaigns, these donors may instead focus their giving on 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) groups which can, in turn, educate citizens and advocate for issues. Conservatives may believe an educated and motivated citizenry will be more effective at holding elected officials accountable than the promise of a campaign contribution. For example, during the last session, an outcry from grassroots conservatives defeated a proposed sales tax increase even when most Republicans, including Governor Greg Abbott, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, and Speaker Dennis Bonnen, supported it. 

Stay tuned. Every time there is new information we’ll update you on who’s giving and who’s getting in Texas politics.

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