DALLAS — By most accounts, the 87th Texas Legislature and its special sessions were a Republican-led hurricane of conservative bills being passed into law. Texas drew national attention for its lawmakers’ history-making, sharp right turn.
From the nation’s most restrictive abortion ban to a controversial elections bill, Texas Democrats were steamrolled by the Republican’s control over both chambers of the legislature and a Republican governor kowtowing to the conservative wing of his party ahead of a re-election bid in 2022.
Still, some Democrats say there are opportunities that will come out of the hard right turn of their opponents.
“I would even argue that Republicans have awoken the most active organized voting block in the state and the country, which is women, with these abortion restrictions,” said Tori Taylor from Swing Left, a national political group focused on raising funds for Democratic candidates across the country.
Few Democrats have jumped into the 2022 Texas state elections — most notably into the governor’s race. But one Democrat challenging Attorney General Ken Paxton has attracted the attention of donors, particularly those from out of state.
Lee Merritt, a civil rights attorney, announced his campaign to unseat Paxton in July at a time when the state legislature was locked in a voting rights battle that sent State House Democrats on a quorum-breaking trip to Washington, D.C.
According to Merritt’s most recent campaign finance reports, while the country was focused on the Texas Democrat’s fight to protect voting rights, money started flowing into the Dallas-based lawyer’s campaign for Texas attorney general.
From July 7 to Aug. 6, the time of the special session dedicated to the Republicans' priority elections bill, Merritt raised $285,060, more than seven times as much as Paxton raised during the same period.
“Texas Republicans have launched an all-out assault on voter rights and civil liberties,” Merritt said in a statement after making his campaign official two months ago.
He pointed the finger at Paxton and other GOP leaders, accusing them of “blatantly attempting to turn back progress in the Lone Star State using the familiar tactics of voter suppression, divisive rhetoric and corporate money.”
Merritt didn’t just outraise Paxton, whose contributions totaled $38,890 during that same period. He also outraised all of Paxton’s primary challengers, including Texas Land Commissioner Geoge P. Bush, who raised just over $157,000, and former Texas Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman, who raised about $193,000 during the same period.
Guzman outraised other GOP candidates, but still fell $92,000 short of Merritt’s total for the 30-day period.
One other Democrat has entered this race, Joe Jaworski, who will face Merritt in a primary. Jaworsky raised $30,363 during the filing period ending Aug. 6. Unlike Merritt, most of Jaworski’s donations came from Texas-based donors.
Candidates running for statewide offices and the state legislature, as well as certain other elected seats, are required to file campaign finance reports with the Texas Election Commission semiannually as well as during the periods of special sessions of the legislature.
To be sure, Paxton still has a large war chest in the $6.84 million he reported in cash-on-hand as of June 30. And he raised $1.8 million during the first six months of this year, while Merritt, who hinted at a run for attorney general in March, reported having raised $100,000 and had $75,485 cash on hand during that time period.
But, in the latest filings from Sept. 15, about 73%, or $207,357, of donations to Merritt’s campaign came from out of state. Texas-based donors accounted for 27% of the total raised by his campaign during that reporting period.
Merritt’s large number of out-of-state donations could signal that the national attention on Texas Republicans’ most conservative legislative session in years might be good P.R. for Democratic fundraising.
The out-of-state donations from individuals to Merritt’s campaign follow a trend seen during the general election cycle when the Texas Democrats’ campaigns saw huge boosts from national organizations fundraised campaigns hoping to flip the nation’s second-most populous state blue.
“Texas is widely considered the biggest battleground state in the country and there continue to be opportunities for Democrats to make gains year after year,” Taylor said. “Some of those opportunities are driven by demographic changes and the shifting ideology of the state, but I think there will be substantial political consequences by what we are seeing the Texas state legislature and Gov. Abbott prioritizing in Texas right now."
While Abbott’s gubernatorial seat is the big prize in 2022, Paxton’s seat is viewed by many analysts as being potentially more vulnerable than other Republican-held statewide offices because of legal challenges that have overshadowed him since taking office in 2015.
Within a few months of becoming Texas’ attorney general, following Abbott’s exit to become governor, Paxton was indicted on securities fraud. He has also been accused by former aides of bribery and abuse of office to help a wealthy campaign donor, which launched an FBI investigation.
Paxton has denied any wrongdoing.
An August public opinion poll conducted by the Texas Politics Project at the Univerisity of Texas at Austin showed nearly 32% of Texans surveyed strongly disapproved of Paxton’s job performance.
Meanwhile, Abbott is facing at least two challengers in the Republican primary, both of whom accuse the governor of not being conservative enough. Many see Abbott’s push to the conservative side of his party’s base as a sign that he sees a fight ahead of him to get to the general election.
Abbott’s approval ratings have dropped in recent months. In August, 41% of Texans surveyed strongly disapproved of the governor, while 19% strongly approved, according to the same Texas Politics Project poll.
“National interest has not given up on Texas, and they understand that is a big state that is going to take big investment and it's going to take time,” said Ed Espinoza, the executive director of Progress Texas, a political organization.
Still, there is the risk of fatigue from national Democrats who have heard for several election cycles that Texas is on the verge of turning blue.
“The revolution won't happen overnight. We did get closer in 2020 than we did in 2016. And we did get closer in 2016 than we did in 2012,” Espinoza said, adding that since 2016, Texas Democrats have picked up and held 20 seats in the state legislature, a remarkable accomplishment for any state in the country.
“Would have like to have seen more? Absolutely. But the point is we are moving in the right direction,” he said.