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Local Government

Early Campaign Donations Show A Major Fight For Texas Legislative Seats in 2020

Let's break down these financial reports.
Sean McCabe

The kumbayah of the 86th legislative session’s comity and bipartisanship led to the passage of historic and costly school finance legislation. It was one without fist fights or bill-killing massacres. But the gloves are off: 2020 is upon us.

For the first since 2009, when Republicans only held a two seat majority, both parties are on defense.

Texas House seats in Dallas County—and even neighboring Collin, Denton and Tarrant counties—are in play. Both parties need to defend what they have, including the six Democratic Dallas pickups and the two remaining Republicans in the local delegation. With the first major campaign finance reports of the season now available, a glimpse of what is to come predicts a wild ride.

Here’s where we stand:

Of the 12 seats Democrats flipped in 2018, six are in Dallas County. Democratic Reps. John Turner of Dallas and Rhetta Bowers of Rowlett flipped open seats by sizable margins, as did incumbent killing Reps. Terry Meza of Grand Prairie and Julie Johnson of Farmers Branch. Rep. Ana Maria Ramos of Richardson won by a narrower but safer margin of 52 to 48 percent. Only one vulnerable incumbent, Rep. Victoria Neave of Dallas, handedly won a second term.

(Democratic U.S. Rep. Colin Allred, who defeated longtime House Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions, is also up for reelection. Democratic state Sen. Nathan Johnson defeated Don Huffines, but is not up for reelection.)

The two surviving Republican members squeaked by last cycle and remain targets. Rep. Morgan Meyer of Highland Park (and the General Investigating Committee chairman) defeated Joanna Cattanach by 200 votes. Rep. Angie Chen Button of Garland (the Urban Affairs Committee chairwoman) beat Brandy Chambers, also of Garland, by 1,000 votes. Both Democrats want rematches.

The numbers:

Speaker of the House Dennis Bonnen, an Angleton Republican, launched the Texas Leads PAC with a $3 million investment from his campaign account. The PAC is aimed at helping Republican incumbents. At first glimpse, the PAC is spending on polling for vulnerable incumbents who won their seats by 10 percent or less. All but one incumbent, Rep. Sarah Davis, a Republican of  Houston’s West University Place, received $20,000 in-kind polling donations.

The Republican slate has materialized slower in Dallas County than in Harris, Fort Bend, and other counties. That’s not for a lack of trying. Former Rep. Rodney Anderson, who Meza defeated, only took the reins of the party in May after former chairwoman Missy Shorey died.

Plus, filing closes in December.

Only Turner, who won coveted spots on the Appropriations and Public Education committees, faces a serious opponent. Luisa del Rosal, the executive director of the Tower Center at Southern Methodist University, hauled in $161,000 and has $152,000 cash on hand. She has already received the backing of Republican power player Texans for Lawsuit Reform

But Turner still has the edge of cash on hand. He raised $35,000, spent $27,000, and has $210,000 cash on hand. He also has a $7,000 loan.

But in terms of the money game, it’s uncanny that the candidates for Highland Park-anchored House District 108, represented by Meyer, posted the largest haul of incumbents from either party in the county. He raised $156,000 and has $192,000 cash on hand.

Three Democrats, including Cattanach, want to take on Meyer next November. The educator raised $65,000 and has $64,000 cash on hand. Tom Ervin, an investor, raised $42,000 and has $26,000 cash on hand.

But Shawn Terry, also an investor, raised a whopping $236,000 and has $193,000 cash on hand. That’s the largest haul of any challenger in the state.

In 1998, Terry ran against former Congressman Martin Frost as a Republican. Yet some of his most prominent backers are Frost acolytes, including Democratic U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey of Fort Worth and political consultant J.D. Angle.

Frost acolytes, especially Angle and his brother Matt, who runs the Lone Star Project in Washington, D.C., are as cutthroat as they are Democratic. (See, for example, their 2016 campaign against former Rep. Kenneth Sheets, who Neave defeated. The ally of Sessions was caught in the crosshairs after Sessions beat Frost during mid-decade redistricting.)

In eastern Dallas County, Button has the money advantage. She raised $30,000 and has $541,000 cash on hand.

Chambers raised $29,000 and has $32,000 cash on hand. The Eagles’ Don Henley, who lives in Dallas, gave $7,500 to Chambers.

But Chambers’ donation isn’t his first political gift. Since 2012, the singer-songwriter has given $172,000 to Texas PACs and candidates from both parties. He gave $2,500 to John Carona in 2012 and $10,000 to Nathan Johnson in 2018. Other recipients include Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Robert Nichols, a Republican of Jacksonville and former Kim Olson, the Democratic nominee for Agriculture Commissioner who is now running for Congressional District 24 held by Kenny Marchant.

Freshman Rep. Julie Johnson may not have a challenger yet, but her fundraising shows she is not waiting around. She raised a sizable $79,000 and has $109,000 cash on hand.

One rumor is former Rep. Matt Rinaldi wants to return to the Pink Dome, after losing to her in 2018. He spent $1,000 and has $45,000 cash on hand. Rinaldi, however, ruled out a run on Wednesday afternoon after this story was published.

Another rumor flying around is that former Rep. Ron Simmons of Carrollton is exploring a rematch against Rep. Michelle Beckley, also of Carrollton. The author of the so-called bathroom bill (which would’ve restricted access to public bathrooms and other intimate spaces for transgender individuals) is also mulling a race to succeed Senate Finance Committee Chairwoman Jane Nelson, a Republican of Flower Mound. Nelson has not announced her plans. He has a healthy $129,000 cash on hand advantage. But a lot more money is required to run in the gerrymandered seat.

As the Dallas Morning News reported, former Sen. Huffines raised $160,000 in two weeks. “Senator Huffines is keeping all of his political options open and once a decision is made he will announce it publicly,” the NewsLauren McGaughy tweeted. One opportunity may be running for Meyer’s seat. Meyer may be fundraising for a race against Allred. That would leave the seat wide open.

But Huffines and Meyer do not exactly have fond feelings for one another. Huffines helped fund his 2014 challenger. Huffines is not exactly remembered fondly either; he pissed off longtime business-friendly Republicans after narrowly defeating Carona in 2014.

Republicans and even some Democrats think incumbents like Ramos and Beckley were flukes, winning only because of animosity toward President Donald Trump and the popularity of former Congressman Beto O’Rourke of El Paso, who nearly knocked off the unpopular Sen. Ted Cruz. Whether anti-Trump or Beto-mania were in play, 2018 saw a slightly visible dent in Texas voting and fundraising patterns. Small donors dropped $5, $10 and $100 into the campaigns of candidates across the state and people actually voted. The Beto bump hypothesis will be tested next year.

And for once in a decade, the prowess of both parties will too.

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