Texas Democrats have no qualms about whipping out their checkbooks to support political candidates. Just don’t ask them to fund a Texas Democrat.
The Houston Chronicle ’s Richard S. Dunham and Emily Wilkins analyzed Federal Election Commission records and found that “more than three-fourths of Democratic political money raised in Texas has left the state.” These fundraising numbers suggest that Texas Democrats prefer backing winners in other parts of the country over also-rans in Texas.
A Democrat has not won statewide office since 1994, when Bob Bullock was reelected as lieutenant governor. This eighteen-year losing streak led the Texas Tribune ’s Ross Ramsey to quip in January that “If this were high school football, we’d move the Texas Democrats into a lower league with smaller schools where they might be more competitive.”
Dunham and Wilkins found this fundraising gap to be particularly pronounced in U.S. Senate donations:
Nowhere is the money exodus more obvious than in U.S. Senate donations. Texas Democrats have given out-of-state Democrats about 30 times as much money as they have to their own party’s Texas Senate candidates. They have supplied more than $3.7 million to Democrats such as at-risk incumbents Missouri’s Claire McCaskill, Florida’s Bill Nelson and Michigan’s Debbie Stabenow - but they have contributed only $135,000 to the underdog Democrats seeking for the seat being vacated by longtime Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Dallas.
Democrat Paul Sadler raised $72,800 of that money in the first three months of this year, a number he dubbed “absolutely shocking” to the Texas Tribune ’s Jay Root in April. “It’s shocking. It’s absolutely shocking to me,” Sadler said. “We’re in uncharted waters. I don’t think we’ve seen a primary where there was basically no money given. And that’s basically where we are.”
National Democratic fundraisers, however, know about the “deep well of Democratic wealth in Texas,” and so make the state a regular stopping point on the national fundraising circuit. Dunham and Wilkins point out that Barack Obama recently held fundraisers in River Oaks and Minute Maid Park, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and New York Senator Chuck Schumer attended a “$30,800-per-plate dinner” at a mansion in Highland Park. So far this election cycle, Texas Democrats have donated $5,807,935 to Barack Obama, according to FEC reports. (Texas Democrats did whip out their checkbooks for Bill White’s 2010 gubernatorial race against Rick Perry. White ultimately raised more $16 million, the Associated Press reported.)
Dunham and Wilkins asked three experts to weigh in on the reason Texas Democrats don’t fund local candidates:
Austin lobbyist Bill Miller: “You have people of wealth who are aligned with the Democrats, but there is no one to give it to in Texas,” Miller said. “There are no winning Democratic candidates (statewide) in this state. If you really want to be a player, you need to give to Democrats in other states.”
Democratic political consultant Harold Cook: “People with big money go where the excitement is,” Cook said.”In an unexciting election year at home, they’ll give to the presidential effort or to increase Democratic numbers in Congress.”
Sean Theriault, associate professor of political science at the University of Texas at Austin: “Basically, Democrats in Texas are just being smart,” Theriault said. “A dollar given in Texas is likely to go to a sure winner or a sure loser. A dollar given to a candidate in Ohio or Michigan could make all the difference in the world.”
Democratic political consultant Jason Stanford penned a column in the Huffington Post column last week on the “pervasive pessimism that has infected the Texas Democrats’ donor and activist bases when it comes to statewide campaigns:”
We can get our guns up for a congressional or legislative race, but there’s no enthusiasm or faith in our statewide efforts anymore.
Somehow, Texas Democrats have to overcome the learned helplessness born of our perceived lack of control over the outcomes of statewide elections. Martin Seligman, a psychologist from the University of Pennsylvania, came up with the theory of learned helplessness when he shocked dogs without giving them a way to escape it. Eventually, the dogs gave up.
Texas Democrats are those dogs. No matter how many times donors fund campaigns, volunteers knock on doors or Democrats vote, we lose. Somewhere along the line, we learned our votes, checks and efforts did not matter. Like those poor dogs, we gave up.
“That’s the hardest one,” said [the DNC’s Ed] Espinoza. “How do you alter psychology?”
The right things to do aren’t rocket science. Adopt best practices, run our best candidates, train local talent, build up the party and defend unions. But the biggest hurdle is to get the veterans of the last two decades to believe that doing things correctly will matter.
“What we’re doing’s not working. If we keep doing what we’ve been doing, we’re going to keep getting what we’ve been getting,” said Espinoza, echoing a message that didn’t work in El Paso in 2008 but is no less true today.