Why Conservatives May Put Away the Checkbook for 2020

After the 140-day legislative session drew to a close on Monday, it appears there may be a lot less money in Texas politics this upcoming election season.

No, lawmakers didn’t pass limits on campaign contributions. No, they didn’t prohibit corporate or union donations. What did they do? They infuriated many of Texas’ biggest donors.

House Speaker Dennis Bonnen bragged that the passage of Senate Bill 2 and House Bill 3 were “the most monumental overhaul of the school finance and property tax systems in 100 years.” Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick praised this “Super Bowl of legislative sessions,” and proclaimed that teamwork was the most apt word for their efforts.

Many legislators, both Republicans and Democrats, praised themselves for their accomplishments this session, generally emphasizing how well they got along. Indeed the two premier pieces of legislation emerged from both Houses with overwhelming bipartisan support. Senate Bill 2, the property tax reform bill, passed in the House with a 88-50 vote and the Senate 21-9. House Bill 3, the school finance reform and property tax relief bill, passed both chambers unanimously.

The 86th legislative session was definitely the most collegial in recent memory. Instead of ending like the last session, with a shoving match on the House floor, this one ended with Democrats and Republicans giving bear hugs and posing for pictures together.

Notably absent from this kumbaya-fest? The most well-known conservative advocates from around the state are not cheering along.

Why are conservatives so upset?

They point out that lawmakers grew the budget faster than inflation plus population growth, failed to ban taxpayer-funded lobbying, enacted only one pro-life measure, failed to pass election integrity measures, did not expand gun rights, and passed a weak bill in response to Chick-Fil-A being banned from the San Antonio airport. According to these leaders from the right, with Republicans in control of both houses and the governor’s office, they should have accomplished much more.

Julie McCarty, President of the Northeast Tarrant Tea Party, widely considered one of the most powerful conservative grassroots organizations in Texas, announced she will raise zero dollars for Republican incumbents in the next election cycle, nor will she or her group help with any incumbents’ campaigns. McCarty also plans to end the so-called Shark Tank, an event where candidates pitch their conservative bona fides to like-minded donors. In the last election cycle, candidates received more than a half million dollars from the “sharks.” In a particularly negative moment, she went as far as to say, “The handwriting is on the wall, we’re going to lose Texas.”

Jo Ann Fleming, President of Grassroots America: We the People, another high-profile conservative organization posted a purple-tinged picture of the Texas Capitol with the word “NOTHING” stamped across it. She declared, “Since the Freedom Caucus has obviously abandoned their stated mission to be a voice for the grassroots, they might as well disband.”

Elizabeth Graham, Director of Texas Right to Life, remarked, “Recent history of the Texas House proves that once a House member is tapped for leadership, principles are negotiable.” Graham was smarting, no doubt, from Bonnen’s public criticism of Texas Right to Life. “They aren’t worth responding to,” Bonnen stated. “If we passed every pro-life bill filed in the history of the state, they would say we had not done enough. You will never please or appease those folks and I’m sure as hell not going to waste my time trying.”

Michael Openshaw, a well-known conservative activist, made waves this session for wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with “Not A Damn Lobbyist” while testifying in favor of the ban on tax-funded lobbyists. But Openshaw is no newcomer to Austin. He has been working on conservative campaigns and walking the halls of the Capitol trying to persuade lawmakers to his point of view for 57 years. He recently explained in an open letter in Texas Legislative Watch that he’s so disgusted with the state of affairs in Austin he’s throwing in the towel on political activism.

Michael Quinn Sullivan, CEO of the powerful conservative group Empower Texans, wrote, “Newsflash: the grassroots are under no obligation to unify around the stale table scraps.” Sulliivan also tweeted, “Amazing LOSER #txlege session” and rather ominously posted the number of days until the 2020 primary.

Just How Much Money is Involved?

The Empower Texans and Texas Right to Life PACs spent over $9 million in just the last election cycle. Numerous like-minded conservative mega-donors also donated millions last cycle. While neither group has publicly said they won’t donate to incumbents, they have made their disapproval clear. Whether these individuals and groups will continue to pump millions of dollars into the campaigns of lawmakers they believe to have betrayed conservative principles remains to be seen.

Perhaps even more important than the donations are the mailing lists. If these grassroots leaders and their supporters sit out the next election cycle, it will certainly change the financial and volunteer landscape of Texas politics.

But will these activists who have put so much of their time and money into Texas politics really walk away now? By all accounts, Democrats are preparing to spend more money in Texas than ever before. Are these conservative activists likely to quit the fight altogether? Don’t count on it.

A more likely scenario involves these groups and donors cutting back on direct donations to politicians they believe have become part of “the swamp” and instead increasing spending on education and activism. In other words, the theory is to skip the middleman. Don’t spend money on a politician who’s likely to cave to pressure from lobbyists and other politicians; spend it on equipping citizens to pick up their proverbial pitchforks.

After all, one of the most notable victories for conservatives this session came when a groundswell of public protests convinced lawmakers to abandon an increase in the state sales tax just hours after Republican leadership promoted it.

With the end of the 86th legislative session, the 2020 election season has begun. Expect to see unparalleled money from the left, and perhaps less money from the disenchanted right. Whatever the case, Transparency Texas will be watching closely and making it easy for you to follow the money in Texas politics.

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