WASHINGTON – There are few bigger warning signs for a member of Congress that their re-election may be in doubt than when a challenger outraises them. In Texas, it just happened to seven incumbents, all Republicans.
Since last week, when U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso, revealed that he had raised a stunning $10.4 million between April and June in his bid to unseat Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, a wave of Texas Democrats running for U.S. House seats similarly blasted out their own unusually strong fundraising numbers.
The numbers only became more striking when compared to their rivals: Some Democratic challengers raised two, three or even four times what their Republican incumbent rivals posted. All congressional candidates were required to file their second-quarter fundraising reports with the Federal Elections Commission by Sunday.
Along with Cruz, the six congressional incumbents who were outraised are delegation fixtures: U.S. Reps. John Carter of Round Rock, John Culberson of Houston, Will Hurd of Helotes, Pete Olson of Sugar Land, Pete Sessions of Dallas and Roger Williams of Austin.
In the 21st Congressional District, where Republican U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith is retiring, GOP nominee Chip Roy trailed his Democratic rival, Joseph Kopser. Several other Democratic candidates running in Republican strongholds across the state also posted abnormally large six-figure fundraising hauls.
One of the biggest red flags for Republicans came from Carter’s once-safe 31st District. Thanks to a successful viral video, veteran M.J. Hegar raised more than four times Carter’s second-quarter sum – the biggest split among the races where Democrats outraised GOP incumbents.
Since last year, Democrats have been eyeing the seats held by Culberson, Hurd and Sessions. Despite each winning re-election in 2016, Hillary Clinton drew more votes than Donald Trump in their districts. The mood around Culberson and Sessions has markedly darkened in the past week, thanks in part to the fundraising of their rivals, attorneys Lizzie Pannill Fletcher of Houston and Colin Allred of Dallas, respectively. Even Hurd, who’s built a reputation on his fundraising prowess, saw veteran Gina Ortiz Jones outpace him nearly two-to-one. But like Culberson and Sessions, Hurd has a distinct cash-on-hand advantage over his Democratic rival.
Hardly anyone in Texas will suggest that incumbents like Olson and Williams are in any significant electoral trouble because they were outraised. But the cumulative effect of so much strong Democratic fundraising is unnerving to many Texas Republican insiders.
One anxious Texas operative, however, suggested these fundraising numbers are merely a first alarm bell. The second may come once incumbents go into the field en masse and poll. But two GOP sources say many incumbents have been reluctant to poll their districts amid what feels like a chaotic political environment and are waiting for a more stable period to get an accurate read of the electorate.
For most of the election cycle, Republican operatives have brushed off strong Democratic fundraising. Republican Super PACs have been on a healthy fundraising streak. And in Texas specifically, Gov. Greg Abbott offers a massive financial and organization umbrella to down-ballot candidates. He recently reported he had a $30 million war chest and $16 million in television advertising. Democratic nominee Lupe Valdez has yet to release her latest fundraising figures, but few Democrats are counting on her to provide strong coattails in the fall.
Yet unsolicited, GOP insiders are beginning to chime in with the same refrain: As much as Abbott’s money and organization will offer cover, there is a growing concern about the fact that O’Rourke has so frequently outraised Cruz.
Some Republicans remain confident the center will hold in Texas.
“The net effect is safe Republican members will have to spend more on their races as as prophylactic measure,” said Dan Conston, a national GOP strategist who works on U.S. House races. “But assuming they run serious campaigns and focus on turning out their voters, these safe Republican seats will remain so in November.”
Yet those victories will come at a cost. In Texas, often viewed as a “donor state” in Republican politics, incumbents having to spend big to protect their own seats could wreak havoc with the money race in other parts of the country.
GOP members of Congress here are expected to raise millions of dollars for the House campaign arm and for vulnerable members elsewhere in the country. For this reason, the state expects and succeeds in holding positions of leadership within the party and chairmanships on Capitol Hill.
Now, many of these members with choice committee assignments and positions of influence in the party may end up spending more of their money protectively back home to reinforce their own seats. Collectively, that could wind up to be a pile of money not being sent to hotly contested races in places like Tucson, Denver and southern California.
An even more dire situation for the GOP would be if national Republicans feel compelled to buy television ads for Texas members they’ve never had to worry about before, like Sessions, Culberson and Carter.
It may all be a fluke or misdirected Democratic enthusiasm, but long-time operatives are hopeful that Democrats can lasso anti-Trump enthusiasm to, at the very least, do what scores of national strategists have previously come to Texas and failed to do: build the party.
The logic goes, even if most of these congressional candidates come up short, the money and organization they bring to the table is a major opportunity for party building at the local level.
In Harris County, Culberson’s 2016 Democratic rival had only raised a few thousand dollars at this point in the cycle. This time around, Fletcher more than doubled Culberson’s quarterly haul.
In the nearby 2nd Congressional District, veteran Dan Crenshaw, who is running for an open seat currently held by U.S. Rep. Ted Poe, was one of the few bright spots of Republican fundraising. He doubled the fundraising of his own rival, Democrat Todd Litton. Yet that follows multiple quarters where Litton posted six-figure hauls, far exceeding past Democratic nominees’ fundraising.
No matter how those races turn out, Harris County Democratic Chairwoman Lillie Schechter said these hauls help the larger Democratic goal of carrying the county in a midterm and winning more local races, including their goal of unseating state Rep. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place.
“Every bit of fundraising in Harris County, for every single Democratic committee, club, organization and candidate, helps us all with the fall,” she said.
Disclosure: Joseph Kopser has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.