$4M spent, but few wins
Did GOP advocacy group’s losses result from tilt too far right?
Advocacy group Empower Texans spent more than $4 million on this year’s elections hoping to be the kingmaker of conservative candidates.
But after the final ballots were cast on Tuesday, only about a third of the political action committee’s candidates made it to victory.
The vast majority of dollars and inkind support invested by Empower Texans — about $3 million — went to unsuccessful bids. The most notable casualties included Dallasarea GOP legislators Konni Burton, Don Huffines and Matt Rinaldi.
All told, only about $1 million was spent on successful candidates, according to campaign finance reports filed so far this year. That was funneled through both Empower Texans and its related political action
committee, Texans for Fiscal Responsibility.
Critics of the group have been quick to point out its defeats, saying Empower Texans’ effort to get more hardline Republicans into office backfired when voters grew tired of their relentless push and then elected Democrats.
“They don’t share the value system of the rest of Texas and are trying to shift the political structure so far to the right that they’ve fallen off a cliff,” said Jason Villalba, who was among a handful of moderate Republicans Empower Texans targeted this year. He lost in the primaries to an Empower Texans candidate.
Empower Texans representatives did not return phone calls and emails seeking comment. While its leaders have acknowledged on social media that the general election was a rough night for all Republicans, they have said that doesn’t mean it’s over for candidates who share their values.
“If you think the conservative agenda is DOA in the Texas Legislature, you are dead wrong,” wrote Cary Cheshire, who serves as vice president of Texans for Fiscal Responsibility.
Empower Texans backed 42 candidates this year, with 14 winning office.
Longtime political observers concede that it’s too soon to say exactly what the election results mean for the future of Texas politics, particularly for conservative groups like Empower Texans. They say too many unusual factors came into play this year.
Democrats fielded dynamic U.S. senatorial candidate Beto O’rourke. Many voters were frustrated by President Donald Trump and his policies. And then there are the shifting demographics across the state as typically conservative suburban areas start to have more ethnic and economic diversity.
“It is a surprise in some ways because typically, Texas is highly predictable and these kinds of candidates do really well,” said Matthew Eshbaughsoha, chair of political science at the University of North Texas. “So what comes next in 2020? A lot of times, this can be a rubber band snapping back — you stretch it out and make some progress but if it snaps back, we haven’t really moved.”
Empower Texans was founded in 2006, largely backed by West Texas billionaires Tim Dunn and brothers Farris and Dan Wilks to push more teaparty aligned candidates across the state from local elections to the Legislature as well as judges.
The group is often critical of school bond elections and efforts to pass tax ratification elections, saying districts need to be more fiscally conservative. And it has supported candidates who are advocates of voucherlike efforts that would funnel taxpayer money away from public education for families to use toward private schools.
After Empower Texans sent mailers to public school employees in the spring, asking them to be whistleblowers during the elections, watching for misuse of district resources or improper electioneering, a social media campaign took off where teachers were touting the good of public education with the hashtag #blowingthewhistle.
By the time the general election season was underway this fall, a new social media campaign encouraged voters to “#Empt” the Legislature by voting against candidates backed by the group.
Empower Texans’ bigdollar investment in Burton’s Tarrant County race for state Senate was a campaign issue that drew the focus of her challenger Beverly Powell, who said local voters are tired of the influence from West Texas billionaires.
Even among candidates in the win column, many finished their races with narrow margins. Republican Matt Shaheen’s reelection in the District 66 race in Collin County was by fewer than 400 votes. Challenger Sharon Hirsch has yet to concede as provisional and absentee ballots are being reviewed.
Some say more moderate candidates would have fared better this month if Empower Texans hadn’t spent big money to unseat them. The group has heavily invested in farright social conservatives who supported legislation such as a bill that would have banned transgender people from using the restroom that matches their gender identity.
Dallas’ Villalba, who supported antidiscrimination legislation favored by the LGBT community and is a critic of Trump, was among those targeted. Lisa Luby Ryan beat him in the May primaries only to lose this month to a Democrat.
“Now Dallas has two remaining Republicans in its delegation,” Villalba said. “My demise was that these primary voters were so focused on these fringe ideological, antilgbt initiatives and not on economic development and public education. So then in the general election, we as Republicans were cast aside. In order to win some of these seats back in the future, we’re going to have to move back to that.”
Dallas area state Sen. Bob Hall, Redgewood, was among those backed by Empower Texans who won a reelection bid. He dismissed claims that the results have anything to do with who is backing candidates, saying the election was more about
how Texas is changing, particularly noting the influence of voters who moved here from other states as their companies relocated to Collin County and other areas.
“I don’t think it means conservatives are dead,” Hall said. “I think it means in those districts we have people who identify more as Democrat, including a lot of people who moved in from California and brought their values with them.”
County ‘gets bluer’
Hall said it’s too soon to know whether this year’s results will make it harder to get conservative candidates on the ballot again in two years. He pointed to Huffines’ district as an example, noting that although the nowousted senator didn’t face a Democrat challenger when he was first elected in 2014, by the presidential elections in 2016, Hillary Clinton won that area with doubledigit margins.
“If you’re deep in Dallas County — which gets bluer all the time — it doesn’t matter what your values are,” Hall said. “That’s almost irrelevant because people are going to show up and vote Democrat no matter what. That’s a steep, uphill climb and it wouldn’t matter who was supporting him.”
And a changing Texas means not only spending more money campaigning, but also frequent gutchecks to see if a candidate’s message aligns with what voters want, and thinking about reversing a nearly twodecade trend of moving ever more conservative.
“For the Republicans, right now they are doing some serious soul searching on what the
future holds and if they need to be fielding more moderates,” said Sherri R. Greenberg, a clinical professor of state and local government at the University of Texas.