As Texans start heading to the polls for early voting Tuesday, they’ll get to name their choice for their party’s presidential nominee. Some of them will also be choosing sides in fierce battles over seats in the state legislature, races where millions of dollars are being spent to convince Republicans in North Texas how to vote.
“There’s a battle taking place across the entire state of Texas from out in Lubbock over to Tyler and Longview, down into Houston, between the two different wings of the Texas Republican Party: its more centrist conservative wing and its movement wing,” says Mark Jones from Rice University.
Nowhere is this division more on display than in North Texas, where a handful races may prove pivotal in shaping the focus of the state house. In a race expected to top a million dollars in spending, newcomer Bo French is trying to run to the right of Charlie Geren, who represents Northwest Tarrant County.
“Charlie Geren has been in office for 15 years. It’s time for a change,” one French ad says, touting him as a conservative who will “defend our constitutional rights, protect the second amendment and secure our border.”
French’s biggest donations come from a couple of West Texas billionaires funneling money into campaigns to push the legislature further to the right and take out allies of House Speaker Joe Straus. French grew up in Midland. Geren is one of Straus’ closest lieutenants, and he’s fired back with six figure ad buys, complete with Alamo-era cannons.
“Washington raised taxes, killed jobs, and ignored the constitution. So Texas cut taxes by $4 billion, created jobs, and defunded Planned Parenthood. When Washington fails to defend your rights, Texas steps in,” says Geren in his ad.
In the mid-cities, three one-time Tea Party insurgents are defending their seats against challengers more in line with the establishment wing of the party. All sides are spending big on TV ads and mailers, and they’re raising hundreds of thousands of dollars from political action committees, lobbyists and individual donors.
“If you go back 20 years, people ran for the state legislature with shoe leather, and maybe enough money to run a few adds in the newspaper,” says Jim Riddlesperger, a political scientist at Texas Christian University. “So it would not be uncommon for somebody to run for the state legislature with $5,000.”
Riddlesperger says six and even seven figure races for seats in state legislatures are the new normal, and there are a host of reasons for that. In state houses across the country, political parties are not the power brokers they used to be.
“We have moved away from politics dominated by party organizations to politics dominated by party organizations to parties dominated by individuals now, and so individuals running for public office are their own free agents in terms of raising money,” Riddlesperger says.
Fundraising can be defensive, too: Incumbents build up large campaign war chests to deter primary challengers. More than anything, though, running campaigns is just more expensive, according to Brandon Rottinghaus at the University of Houston. Polling is more difficult, advertising is more targeted, and consultants are more important.
“Getting your message in front of people requires more creative tools, that requires better data, and then that requires a lot of money,” Rottinghaus says. “The kind of know-how you’re buying now is a lot different than it was 20 years ago.”
In the end, though, Rottinghaus says all of this money is being used to draw contrasts between candidates whose politics aren’t really that different.
“Are you going to smoke your brisket on pecan or are you going to smoke it on oak? It’s more or less the same thing,” Rottinghaus says, “slightly different in terms of flavor, but in the end of the day you’re going to have smoked meat.”
Still, he says, if you’ve got a flavor preference for Austin politics, the primary is the time to vote. Only a few statehouse races will be truly competitive this fall.