PACs Have Political Tribes Too

Texas legislators fall into four political tribes – Democrats, Liberal Republicans, Moderate Republicans, and Conservative Republicans. Interestingly, we found that the big money in Texas politics can also be categorized into the same four tribes. We examined the giving of the most prominent PACs in Texas and found that they consistently gave their largest gifts to members of the same tribe. We also looked at “character votes” of the top ten recipients of these PACs and found that their voting behavior belied their PAC membership as well.

Prominent Texas PACs by Expenditures – 2016 Cycle
Texas Association of Realtors $44,247,527 Liberal Republican
Texans for Lawsuit Reform $4,810,893 Moderate Republican
Empower Texans $2,615,823 Conservative Republican
Border Health $2,554,041 Democrat
Associated Republicans of Texas $2,537,031 Moderate Republican
Texas Medical Association $1,305,669 Liberal Republican
Texas Trial Lawyers Association $1,155,156 Democrat
Texas Right to Life $1,057,320 Conservative Republican
Total $60,283,460
All Other Texas PACs $160,826,244.90

Transparency Texas has chosen to study these PACs because they are ideological, highly politically motivated, and well funded, but it is important to keep these numbers in context. Altogether these PACs gave $60,283,460 in the last cycle, but that is only 15% of the total amount of campaign expenditures, $400,819,967. And that amount, less than one half of one billion, pales in comparison to the money spent by lawmakers during the same time. According to Ballotpedia, during the same time frame, the Texas 2015 and 2016 fiscal year budgets were more than 246 billion. Given that much money at stake, it’s not surprising to see a well-funded fight over who will get to decide how it’s spent.

Moreover, while these PACs certainly “spend big” in each election cycle, it is worth noting that effectiveness is not a direct correlation to dollars spent. Some smaller PACs often have outsized influence due to efficiency and alliances.


We have grouped these prominent Texas PACs by their political affiliation:

Democrat PACs:

Clearly the most liberal PACs, these organizations support Democrat candidates and occasionally team up with Liberal Republican PACs to oppose a conservative challenger. Even though Texas is a “red” state, Democrats wield significant power, particularly in the House, in large part due to generous funding by these PACs. Of course, there are openly Democrat PACs, such as the Texas Democratic Party PAC, the Turn Texas Blue PAC, and Battleground Texas, but we have chosen to examine Democrat PACs with less obvious names but more evident influence.

  • Texas Trial Lawyers AssociationSupported largely by plaintiff’s attorneys, this PAC is often on the opposite side of issues from Texans for Lawsuit Reform. For example, in the last legislative session, these two PACs squared off over whether there should be limits on hailstorm litigation. Texas Trial Lawyers Association is known to give big money to Democrats and occasionally to Liberal Republicans.
  • Border Health – Spending more than $2.5 million in the last election cycle, Border Health is certainly one of the heavy hitters in the Texas political scene. Their stated purposed is to promote the issues of the medical profession along the Texas – Mexico border, but they did not espouse any specific policy issues last cycle. When you look past their statewide giving to power players like the Governor and Lieutenant Governor, their giving suggests that they are primarily about electing Democrats.


Liberal Republican PACs:

The hallmark of these PACs is their support for liberal House Speaker Joe Straus, his leadership team, and his allies. These PACs will not defend Conservative Republicans when challenged in a primary, as they often side with the more moderate-to-liberal candidate. These PACs are usually the most well-funded in the state and use that money to maintain and expand power.

  • Texas Medical Association – One of the stated goals of the Texas Medical Association PAC is to elect physician-friendly candidates, but their giving suggests they are interested primarily in liberal candidates. The roster of recipients of TMA’s money reads like a who’s who of liberal Republicans, including a hefty donation to the most liberal Republican in the House, State Rep. Sarah Davis.
  • Texas Association of Realtors – The realtors’ PACs are a financial powerhouse, arguably THE financial powerhouse in Texas politics. The realtors actually have two politically active PACs, the Texas Association of Realtors and the Texas Association of Realtors Issues Mobilization, ranking one and two on the list of most well-funded and biggest spenders in the state. More money flowed through the Realtors’ PACs than through any other political entity in Texas. While they do get involved in real-estate related issues, such as SB2, a bill to limit local property taxes, they most often throw their considerable heft behind House Speaker Joe Straus’ leadership team and other moderate-to-liberal candidates in order to maintain their seat at the governing table.


Moderate Republican PACs:

These PACs tend to support candidates that make up what is often referred to as the “mushy middle” of the Republican caucus in the Texas House. These are the members that most often claim to be “conservatives who can get things done.” This messaging is used to appeal to both primary voters (conservatives) and Austin lobbyists (getting things done).

Members of this tribe don’t often cross the Speaker of the House or those in power, unless siding wth the leadership would require them to take significant heat in their districts. Primary opponents are what these legislators fear most, which is why, at times, some of them appear to play both sides — voting conservative on major bills that make headlines, while walking in step with Liberal Republican leadership on a majority of bills their constituents will never know about.

Typically, their loyalty isn’t to the Speaker or any particular politician, but to continuing to be elected so they can serve in office. This means they are susceptible to siding with the Conservative Republican tribe in high-visibility situations, but they default to listening to the existing power structure. The fact is, leadership in the Texas House is categorically more liberal than the average member of the Republican caucus. If that leadership were to change and become more conservative, it is likely legislators in this tribe would suddenly become more conservative as well.

  • Associated Republicans of Texans – The stated purpose of ART is “to keep Texas a conservative, Republican-led state.” With a mission statement like that, you would assume ART invests in all Republican candidates. In fact, their giving shows they donate only to moderate-to-liberal Republican candidates and maintain a cozy relationship with Liberal Republican Speaker Joe Straus. In the last election cycle ART gave zero dollars to support conservative House members who had primary challenges or tough general elections.
  • Texans for Lawsuit ReformIn the early 2000’s Texans for Lawsuit Reform was considered a conservative champion, winning major legislative victories against the Trial Lawyers to limit what they deemed “frivolous lawsuits.” In recent years as those fights have faded, TLR has tacked more to the middle, heavily supporting the existing House Leadership. In fact, although TLR donates to many candidates, their most generous gifts are consistently awarded to liberal and moderate House members.


Conservative Republican PACs:

These PACs consistently support the most conservative members of the Texas House as well as challengers to the more moderate and liberal Republican members. These PACs are often on the opposing side from the Liberal Republican PACs and Democrat PACs or a coalition of the two. Conservative PACs are clearly motivated by ideology as they prove time and again their willingness to fight the much more well-funded and well-connected liberal leaning PACs.

  • Empower TexansKnown as the powerhouse on the right, Empower Texans puts its dollars to work to defend the most conservative members of the Texas House and to support citizens willing to challenge moderate and liberal incumbent Republicans. Empower Texans is the most outspoken critic of Speaker Straus and his liberal leadership team.
  • Texas Right to LifeTexas Right to Life is not only the largest and most effective pro-life organization in the state, but also, notably, one of the most conservative PACs. While TRTL typically prefers to spend their PAC dollars on in-kind donations to campaigns, such as direct mailers and advertising purchases, rather than direct campaign contributions,  they consistently help Conservative and Moderate Republicans who are consistently pro-life.


The Bottom Line:

We found that PACs fall into political tribes too. How do we know? First, we examined tough, character-defining votes where legislators were forced to choose a side – votes where legislators had to reveal which political faction is indeed their tribe. We looked at votes like these, across varying issue sets, to determine which tribes to place legislators in. Next, we looked at which PACs support these legislators. The results were consistent. Legislators vote consistently. Certain PACs give the most money to certain legislators. The logic isn’t hard. Legislators fall into political tribes and so do PACs.


Up Next:

Texas Trial Lawyers Association PAC: Democrat Tribe


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