AUSTIN – Running for re-election with no announced formidable challenger in a state known for its no-limit political contributions, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott now has a war chest as big as Texas itself.
Abbott, who announced Friday he will seek a second term in 2018, on Monday filed paperwork showing he now has nearly $41 million in his campaign account – a massive amount even by Texas standards – including $10 million raised during the last 12 days of June.
That compares to the $34 million in the bank that the 59-year-old former attorney general and judge had in the bank last January, after raising $9 million in his most-lucrative six-month fundraising period since he took office two years earlier.
In a statement issued by his office, Abbott seemed to signal that the huge haul would ensure a GOP victory in a state that already is the reddest of the red, in a race where Democrats so far have failed to find a well-known challenger. Such a large campaign account will almost certainly discourage any Republicans from thinking about challenging him, as well.
“My campaign is building the largest grass-roots army ever assembled in the Lone Star State, with the goal of keeping Texas the brightest beacon of freedom in the country,” Abbott said. “In the upcoming election, our campaign will be relentless in our efforts to identify and turn out conservatives to keep Texas red.”
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A special legislative session called by Abbott is set to begin on Tuesday with an ultra-conservative agenda. That agenda has drawn denunciations from Democrats and moderate Republicans. It’s being taken up as the national GOP faces steep political challenges with Donald Trump and a stumbling effort to repeal Obamacare.
Opponents of that conservative agenda have said they hope the 2018 elections will curb Texas’ continuing veer to the right.
But Abbott’s report appears to show that his brand of conservative politics retains some momentum.
Abbott’s campaign on Monday reported that nearly 45 percent of his donations came from first-time donors, with more than 91 percent of all donations being less than $200 – showing that his campaign is not just being financed by a few millionaire supporters and friends.
Abbott’s campaign also reported that 92 percent of his donors are Texans. His last gubernatorial opponent, Democrat Wendy Davis, raised a significant amount of her campaign donations from outside the state.
In the past two years, campaign finance reports show Abbott has raised a total of $43.1 million – with 90 percent of those contributions for less than $200, 89 percent from Texans and 75 percent from first-time contributors.
Patrick has $17 million
Monday’s campaign filings by Abbott seemed to set the stage for a repeat of 2014, when he crushed former state Sen. Davis, even though she raised more than $38 million – more than any other Democratic candidate has in Texas – and cemented the continued Republican dominance of state politics for two decades.
Abbott raised more than $46 million for that race, reports at the time showed.
Democrats last held the Texas governor’s office when Ann Richards won in 1990.
To put the size of Abbott’s war chest in perspective, consider that Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who has Democrat Mike Collier running against him, announced last week that he more than $17 million in the bank – including $4 million that he raised in June.
Patrick, who had repeatedly been mentioned as a possible challenger to Abbott, announced earlier this year that he has no intention of seeking to move up in 2018.
On Friday, Dallas business executive Jeffrey Payne said he is exploring a run against Abbott as a Democrat. He said he plans to loan his campaign $2.5 million to get started.
“Forty-one million dollars means Greg Abbott has a tremendous amount of financial energy going into this campaign … and that he can be the kingmaker in many races around the stater if he wants to,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a University of Houston political science professor who has examined political contribution patterns in Texas. “That amount of money will keep a lot of people from even thinking about running against him and, if he should start contributing to other campaigns that would make him a very strong governor – in the mold of Rick Perry.”
Giving may change
In the past, campaign finance reports show that Abbott has given mostly to the Republican Party, not to individual down-ballot and legislative candidates. But while speaking to a group at the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation on Monday, Abbott suggested that could change.
“I’m going to be establishing a list,” he said. “We all need to establish lists that we publish on a daily basis to call people out – who is for this, who is against this, who has not taken a position yet. No one gets to hide.”
Cal Jillson, a Southern Methodist University political science professor who has watched Texas politics for decades, said he expects Abbott could raise as much as $80 million before the current election cycle ends with the general election in November 2018. For comparison, Jillson noted that Democrat Tony Sanchez spent an estimated $70 million – most of his own money – to run against Perry in 2002, and lost.
“This much money does sort out the field,” Jillson said, echoing several Austin political consultants. “Rick Perry never had that much money to start any of his races.”
Two years ago, campaign finance reports show Abbott started his gubernatorial race with about $30 million in the bank.
“For any serious candidate with any experience who’s thinking about running against Abbott, this amount of money will make them say ‘I can’t do that,’ and they won’t run,” he said. “If they’re not a serious candidate, they’ll say ‘What the heck’ and run and get beat.”