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Analysis: Winning An Election Without Money Is Hard; It’s Hard To Win With Money, Too

Democrats challenging Republican incumbents are doing pretty well this year on the campaign finance front. It’s very hard to win a big political race without that kind of success. But money alone is not the key to victory.


Graphic by Todd Wiseman/Via The Texas Tribune

Dollars don't vote.

Just ask David Dewhurst. Or Wendy Davis. They're just two recent names on a very, very long list of big spenders who lost.

That said, we're in the financial phase of the 2018 midterm elections. The state's primaries and political conventions are over. The candidates have been nominated. Sometime around Labor Day, they'll start their earnest seasonal efforts to lure the state's recalcitrant registered voters from their comfortable sofas to the polls.

Right now, it's all about the money.

Democrats, some of them, are racking up remarkable fundraising totals in races in a red state where incumbent Republicans ought to be comfortable. It doesn't mean those Democrats are going to win. But it increases the likelihood that voters will know more about who's on the ballot, and voters with real choices are a lot more interesting to watch than voters who are unable to frighten the people in power.

Democrat Beto O’Rourke is the poster child of the moment, raising $10.4 million during the last three months while Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz raised $4.6 million. He reached the month of July with $3.6 million more in his bank account than Cruz had in his.

It doesn't mean O’Rourke is winning; the polls say he's still behind. It just means he has more money.

That's the most prominent example, but it's not the only one. Six other Republican incumbents in the Texas congressional delegation were outraised by their Democratic challengers in the second quarter of 2018: 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. Three of them — Culberson, Hurd, and Sessions — represent districts where Donald Trump lost to Hillary Clinton two years ago.

That's the sort of news that raises the hopes of challengers and makes incumbents shudder.

It's a trouble sign: Money raised by people in politics is a significant measure of the frustrations and enthusiasms of political donors, large and small. It is not, however, a reliable harbinger of a win.

It's true that a candidate with no money — in a big race — is generally a candidate on the road to defeat. Success requires putting together a campaign and putting together a campaign costs money. It takes money to win, but having money isn't all there is to winning in politics.

The richest bank in Texas politics belongs to Gov. Greg Abbott, who reported having $29 million in the bank — after pre-purchasing $16 million in television advertising time for his fall campaign. He's the definition of a political juggernaut at the moment, a ridiculously well-financed incumbent seeking his seventh statewide election victory in a row (two elections to the Texas Supreme Court, three as attorney general, one as governor). His Democratic opponent, former Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez, got to the midyear point with just $222,000 in the bank — raising practical questions about whether she will have enough money to truly compete in a statewide election.

If this was a political science fair, the top two races set up an interesting experiment. Each features a Republican incumbent in a state that hasn't elected a statewide Democrat since 1994. Each features a Democratic challenger who has never run statewide — people who have won elections only on their home turf.

O'Rourke has money. Valdez doesn't. Abbott and Cruz both have money.

When the focus moves from donors to voters, we'll see what the campaigns do with their resources. If there's a big difference in the results in the top two statewide races, we'll have two significant variables to credit or blame: The quality of the candidates in each race, and the amount of money in their political bank accounts.

But the votes are all that will really count.