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Slap Fight in Governor's Race Over Fundraising

Nobody expected Republican Greg Abbott and Democrat Wendy Davis to agree on big policy issues. But this week, after releasing their fundraising reports, it became clear they can't agree about how to count, either.
Usually when candidates for political office turn in their fundraising reports, it’s pretty clear who came out on top. Numbers don’t lie.

But in the increasingly bitter race for Texas governor, a fight has broken out over who raised the most money, the identity and number of some of Democrat Wendy Davis’ small donors and the way she is accounting for her funds with three separate entities.

Counting all three entities, Davis reported raising $12.2 million in the last half of 2013. And after adding previous balances and subtracting expenditures, she ended the year with about $9.5 million in the bank. Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott reported raising $11.5 million and, with a huge balance carried forward, rang in the New Year with $27 million accumulated for the race so far.

Since $12.2 million is more than $11.5 million, Democrats claimed victory.

“They said it couldn’t be done,” Davis wrote in a message to supporters from her Twitter account. “But we raised $12.2 million, $700,000 more than their $11.5, thanks to you!”

Not so fast, Republicans said. They say Davis is counting money that isn’t hers to spend, and using “fuzzy math” to inflate the fundraising total and generate positive media coverage.

“The Wendy Davis campaign wants Texans to believe that her campaign exceeded their own fundraising goals and surpassed the fundraising efforts of our Republican Gubernatorial candidates,” GOP state chairman Steve Munisteri wrote on the party’s webpage. “The truth is that she fell short on both.”

There’s also a rub about the number of unique donors that Davis is citing for the period: more than 71,000, a staggeringly high figure and a legitimate bragging point for the Democrat. But many of them are not accounted for in the data at the Texas Ethics Commission, because under state disclosure rules only donations of $50 or greater have to be itemized.

In Davis’ case, there are just over 30,000 donations (including some by people who gave multiple times) listed in her reports. That means more than 40,000 of the 71,000 donors Davis is citing remain unitemized, so it’s impossible to know what city or state they’re from, what their names are or exactly how much they gave.

“Texans deserve to know who is funding Sen. Davis’ campaign,” said Abbott spokesman Matt Hirsch. “Why is Sen. Davis hiding the source of hundreds of thousands in contributions?” Abbott reported more than 11,000 donations and voluntarily itemized the ones that were under $50.

Davis spokeswoman Rebecca Acuña said the campaign followed reporting requirements, and she suggested that the Abbott campaign is raising a stink because the attorney general is worried about her strong fundraising numbers and support.

“Wendy Davis beat Greg Abbott — and it won’t be the last time,” Acuña said. “She raised more money from more contributors.”

Lost in the back-and-forth, of course, is that Texans are witnessing a surprisingly competitive governor’s race in a state that isn’t exactly used to them.

By any measure, Davis turned in strong fundraising numbers — better than the performance of the last Democrat who ran for Texas governor, former Houston Mayor Bill White, at a similar point in his trajectory. The numbers give her a measure of credibility and legitimacy as a candidate for the state's highest office.

After rocketing to the political stratosphere with her filibuster against a restrictive abortion measure in June, the state senator from Fort Worth became an instant fundraising powerhouse — particularly with small donors who were willing to demonstrate their support by sending her $5, $10 or $20.

Once she announced her run for governor on Oct. 3, Davis began collecting big donations, too, including two rare $1 million contributions — one from an Austin doctor and the other from Houston trial lawyer Steve Mostyn, the state’s most prolific Democratic donor and Davis’ biggest benefactor by a long shot. (Abbott got $900,000 from the late Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons during the period, but the money was broken up into several donations.)

The $1 million donation Mostyn gave Davis went into a separate fund, known as the Texas Victory Committee. It was set up as a joint project between the Davis campaign and Battleground Texas, created by former field organizers for President Obama. Battleground Texas’ stated mission: register Democratic voters, turn them out in November of even-numbered years and again make the state hospitable for the party’s candidates, who haven’t won a statewide race since the mid 1990s.

The Texas Victory Committee, according to the Davis campaign, is uniquely focused on getting the Fort Worth senator elected. According to high-placed Democratic operatives, it was created because some major donors wanted to make sure their money would support the kind of turnout infrastructure that Davis needs to win — but that would outlive any single candidacy, including hers.

In a statement released by the Davis campaign, the victory committee’s treasurer, Aimee Boone, said, “The Texas Victory Committee was created to support the Wendy R. Davis Campaign and Battleground Texas to elect Wendy Davis for Governor in 2014 and to build a lasting grassroots infrastructure for candidates statewide."

All told, Davis in the second half of 2013 year raised at least $8.7 million that she alone controls — $4.5 million for Wendy R. Davis for Governor, Inc. and $4.2 million for the Wendy R. Davis account she created when she was a candidate for the state Senate. Davis used the Senate committee as as her primary fundraising vehicle until announcing her race for governor in October.

Another $3.5 million went into the Texas Victory Committee, money the Davis campaign cites as part of its overall number for the last six months of 2013. That's how they get to $12.2 million.

At the least, Republicans say, Davis should count no more than half of the joint committee's proceeds since her campaign splits the resources with Battleground. That would reduce Davis’ haul to $10.5 million, or $1 million less than what Abbott raised.

The GOP also has its own, Battleground-like operation funded by the state party, designed to pump up turnout in November. So if Davis counts the whole allotment from the Texas Victory Committee, they say Abbott should count that money, $1.8 million, which would boost his figures to more than $13 million.

Cal Jillson, political scientist at Southern Methodist University, said both sides have a point. As Republicans point out, the victory committee is a “jointly administered account,” and Battleground Texas as an organization is working to get Democrats elected up and down the ballot — not just Davis.

On the other hand, Battleground Texas has overwhelmingly moved into the role of getting Davis elected, he said.

“Politics occasionally is about big issues and ideas, but most of the time it’s a third-grade slap fight, and that’s what this is,” Jillson said. “Both sides have plausible arguments, but at the end of the day, both are going to have plenty of money to make their case to the Texas electorate.”

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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2014/01/17/slap-fight-over-fundraising-governors-race/.

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