By Patrick Svitek, The Texas Tribune
“Money flows into Texas House GOP primary battles this season” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
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Money is flowing in from both allies and enemies of Texas House Republicans that could fuel a brutal primary season, campaign finance reports filed this week show.
Earlier this week, elected officials, candidates and political action committees had to reveal their finances for the past six months. For some of them, it was the first time they had to disclose anything since July.
A lot of new political grudges have formed over that period. The Senate acquitted Attorney General Ken Paxton in his impeachment trial in September, and Gov. Greg Abbott’s yearlong crusade for school vouchers crashed and burned in November.
Now Paxton and Abbott are on a warpath in the primary, determined to unseat House Republicans who crossed them.
Here’s what the latest campaign finance reports tells us about the GOP civil war:
Voucher advocates amass a war chest
Abbott has already amassed an impressive war chest to build a more pro-voucher GOP majority in the House. Twenty-one House Republicans joined Democrats in November to strip a school voucher program out of an education bill, and 16 of those Republicans are seeking reelection.
Abbott has already endorsed half of the primary challengers to those 16 Republicans and is also prioritizing some open seats.
Abbott himself raised $19 million in the second half of 2023, including $6 million from Jeff Yass, a Pennsylvania billionaire who is passionate about vouchers. Abbott’s campaign called it the “largest single donation in Texas history.”
“With this substantial financial backing, Governor Abbott will ensure that the conservative candidates who support his bold agenda to expand school choice, secure our southern border, and lower property taxes have what they need to keep Texas red,” Abbott’s campaign manager, Kim Snyder, said in a statement.
Other groups focused on the issue also showed hefty hauls. The AFC Victory Fund, a national political arm of the American Federation for Children, reported $3.3 million cash on hand as of Dec. 25, boosted by a $500,000 donation from Yass.
Meanwhile, the Texas-based Family Empowerment Coalition PAC raised $443,000 over the last six months and did not wait to start spending it. The PAC made over a dozen House candidate contributions of $10,000 or $25,000, with the higher amount going to primary challengers.
Paxton allies holding back
Paxton is crusading to replace the dozens of House Republicans who voted to impeach him, though it remains to be seen where — and when — he will get his financial firepower.
Paxton raised $2.2 million and spent $3.3 million over the past six months, though most of his expenditures were for legal bills for his impeachment trial — and some are still pending. He had $1.9 million left over as of Dec. 31.
Further complicating things for him, his top fundraising ally on the far right has been Defend Texas Liberty PAC, with its millions from West Texas oil barons Tim Dunn and the Wilks family. But the group faced widespread GOP condemnation in October after The Texas Tribune reported its leader at the time hosted prominent white supremacist Nick Fuentes.
The PAC’s latest report shows it laid low in the aftermath of the controversy, raising only small-dollar contributions and donating to just one of its allied lawmakers.
That begs at least two questions: Where will the funding for primary challenges come from — and when will it show up?
To be sure, Defend Texas Liberty could have just waited until after the latest reporting period — which ended Dec. 31 — to start significantly raising and spending again. It is not uncommon for any group with political liabilities to hold off on getting publicly involved in a race until closer to Election Day, minimizing headaches for the candidates it supports.
There could also be new entities lying in wait to fill the void. For example, a new PAC called Texans United for a Conservative Majority was formed last month, with a onetime Defend Texas Liberty operative as its treasurer. That group has since lent its name to TV advertising against Phelan in his primary.
Phelan works to protect his incumbents
There is plenty of money swirling around to help defend House Republicans who are in the crosshairs of Abbott and Paxton. House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, and his allies — like the Associated Republicans of Texas and Texans for Lawsuit Reform — have potentially tens of millions of dollars at their disposal, according to the reports.
Phelan himself spent $2.8 million over the last six months, with much of it going toward ramping up to defend House Republicans. He spent over $900,000 on polling for House candidates and made contributions to 16 GOP incumbents. He ended the year with $5.3 million cash on hand.
The other pro-incumbent groups also got to work spreading around their largesse to House Republicans with competitive primaries. Texans for Lawsuit Reform gave as much as $150,000 to one lawmaker, state Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, who was on the team that handled Paxton’s impeachment.
Texans for Lawsuit Reform ended the period with a staggering $36.3 million cash on hand — not far off from Abbott’s combined reserves.
The incumbent-aligned groups also continued to prove their ability to land the biggest checks in Texas politics, with Associated Republicans of Texas disclosing a $1 million donation from Houston beer distributor John Nau in November.
When it comes to specifically defending the anti-voucher House Republicans, one group to watch is the pro-public education group funded by HEB CEO Charles Butt. Butt pumped $1.3 million more into the group on the latest report, it ended 2023 with nearly $11 million cash on hand and last month it donated $10,000 each to the 16 House Republicans.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2024/01/18/texas-house-greg-abbott-ken-paxton-republicans/.
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