With a few exceptions, Texas candidates who were top fundraisers were also some of the biggest losers in Tuesday night’s primaries.
In Democrats’ three biggest House races, the Seventh, 23rd, and 32nd congressional districts, a number of candidates with establishment backing and big fundraising power didn’t advance to the May 22 runoff.
And it wasn’t just Democrats. The biggest fundraising flop of the evening actually came in the Republican race for the Second Congressional District in Houston, where candidate Kathaleen Wall spent $6 million of her own money in an attempt to win the seat and didn’t make it into the runoff.
There’s an obvious explanation for this: The three key Democrat House races all had huge fields of candidates. There were seven candidates in the Seventh District and 32nd District and five in the 23rd District.
“I think in a lot of these races, it was a very crowded field,” said University of Texas Austin political science professor and pollster Jim Henson. “It’s hard to predict who’s going to break through.”
But it also suggests that the Washington insider conventional wisdom about candidates — that those with the most money have the best shot at winning — is flawed.
“Having some money to spend is a factor, but it’s not always determinative,” Henson said. “Occasionally, it will blow up in your face.”
Where the big fundraisers fell short
On the Democratic side, former Hillary Clinton campaign staffer Ed Meier in the 32nd Congressional District and former federal prosecutor Jay Hulings in the 23rd Congressional District didn’t make it to their respective runoffs, which came as a big surprise to party insiders. The same went for Houston nonprofit executive Alex Triantaphyllis, the top Democratic fundraiser in the Seventh Congressional District.
All three men had money and establishment backing. Hulings was endorsed by powerful Texas Democrats including Rep. Joaquín Castro and his brother, former US Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, as well as House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer and the Blue Dog PAC.
But it’s also worth pointing out Hulings actually wasn’t the top fundraiser in his race; top vote-getter Gina Ortiz Jones ultimately raised about $100,000 more and won the backing of veterans and LGBTQ groups.
Meier, a former State Department official under Obama and a Clinton campaign staffer, spent the primary out-fundraising all his opponents and airing television ads. Based on this, Washington Democratic operatives believed he had a good shot of getting into the runoff. But Meier trailed in the polls in fourth place, while former NFL player and civil rights attorney Colin Allred got the most votes (despite not airing any TV ads in the process).
In the Seventh Congressional District, Triantaphyllis raised more than $1 million — by far the most of any of the seven Democratic candidates in his primary field. Despite having local connections and fundraising strength, he finished fourth.
Texas politicos like Henson say this doesn’t automatically translate into a money in politics backlash. Looking at past polls his university has done with the Texas Tribune, Henson hasn’t found campaign finance reform to be a huge issue in the Lone Star State.
“Honestly, that issue is never quite as salient with voters as reformers would like it to be,” he said.
Washington Democrats desperately want to win in Texas. They didn’t get off to a great start.
For the most part, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee stayed out of Texas’s congressional primaries — with one notable exception.
In the Seventh District, the one race where they got involved in an attempt to knock off progressive candidate Laura Moser, the DCCC’s strategy backfired. The campaign arm of House Democrats tried to torch the former freelance journalist and progressive activist’s candidacy by releasing an opposition memo highlighting past statements Moser made seemingly denigrating her home state.
The move may have helped propel Moser across the finish line in the first round of the primary and into a May runoff election, along with Houston attorney Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, who was endorsed by the pro-female candidate Super PAC Emily’s List.
Despite DCCC spokespeople insisting that Texas voters would choose two candidates that were not Moser in the runoff, Houston voters did exactly that.
By trying to finish off Moser early, the DCCC ended up elevating her national profile and opened up an intraparty rift in the process, galvanizing progressive groups that came out to support her.
At least one left-leaning group, the Working Families Party, is already taking aim at Fletcher. It spent more than $20,000 on ads against the attorney leading up to the race and plans to spend more in the runoff, according to WFP spokesperson Joe Dinkin.
As Vox’s Matt Yglesias wrote, the DCCC’s big bet on Moser not only didn’t pay off but it backfired spectacularly:
This is a perfect statement of the standard Washington political professional’s view of how to target resources — some candidates are electable and some aren’t, and it’s a waste of time to back the ones who aren’t. But to walk away from TX-7 or other purplish seats based on the identity of the nominee would be a serious mistake. Targeting resources is reasonable, but so is humility about one’s ability to foresee the future.
That attacks on Moser backfired is a reminder that the political judgment of the pros in Washington is flawed, and both narrative history and broad quantitative research shows that their ability to accurately identify which races are winnable and which candidates are worth backing is sharply limited.
The DCCC is banking that the information it released about Moser will damage her in the runoff now that the field has narrowed and she’s up against Fletcher. But it’s given her a lot of ammunition in the process.