AUSTIN, Texas — Texas is the Wild West of big-money, no-limit political giving. But the early cash hauls lassoed in the race to replace Gov. Rick Perry hint at a new kind of gold mine.
Republican Greg Abbott and Democrat Wendy Davis filed reports Wednesday, revealing a mix of donors small and large — including one giving $1 million to Davis. As a result, both candidates have collected more than $11 million in the first six months of campaigning, a potential record-setting pace for fundraising in a Texas gubernatorial election.
Davis, who became an overnight Democratic star with her filibuster of abortion limits last summer in the Texas Capitol, faces the challenge of keeping up the fundraising pace after the momentum of that nationally followed event wears off. She's widely expected to need more than $40 million to stand a chance in Texas, which hasn't elected a Democrat to a statewide office in 20 years.
"They said it couldn't be done," Davis tweeted about her $12.2 million in donations since she became a candidate, including a joint fund with the Democratic group Battleground Texas.
For Davis, a Fort Worth state senator, the largesse helps legitimize her longshot bid in fiercely conservative Texas. Abbott keeping pace with $11.5 million further swells the bankroll of the state's longtime attorney general, who's now sitting on $27 million.
California set the record for a governor's race in 2010 when eBay CEO Meg Whitman poured more than $140 million of her own money into her failed Republican run. Texas won't threaten those numbers considering both prospective nominees have only moderate personal wealth, but the fundraising levels have raised eyebrows nationwide — not just for what they mean for 2014 but 2016 as well.
"It's impressive. It's an indication that this may get to record levels for Texas," said Edwin Bender, executive director of the National Institute on Money in State Politics. "With the presidential campaign two years down the road, there's going to be people looking at the Texas, Californias, New Yorks of the world as bellwethers and how they can get people in line for the next round of elections."
The new fundraising filings in Texas cover the past six months. Davis didn't officially launch her campaign until October but has been raising swarms of cash since June, when her nearly 13-hour filibuster on the floor of the Texas Senate in June over new abortion restrictions propelled her to national political stardom.
Davis' campaign sought to emphasize the impact of small donors, boasting that 85 percent of all donations were contributions of $50 or less. But wealthy heavy-hitters are also financing Davis' attempt to become the first Democratic governor in Texas since Ann Richards was elected in 1990.
Austin doctor Carolyn Oliver gave $1 million — a rare seven-figure lump sum from an individual donor. Fort Worth businessman Robert Patton, who co-owns baseball's Los Angeles Dodgers, donated $250,000. She also had some famous donors, receiving $1,500 from Barbra Streisand and $1,000 from former tennis star Martina Navratilova.
Abortion-rights supporters have also opened their checkbooks to Davis. The Washington-based group EMILY's List, a group that supports women candidates who back abortion rights, gave nearly $150,000 in donations and in-kind contributions. Planned Parenthood Votes and NARL Pro-Choice America were also among her top donors.
Among the contributions to Davis' three political fundraising accounts was an expected $3.5 million to Texas Victory Committee, which organizers list as a "joint project" between Davis' gubernatorial run and Battleground Texas, which was launched by former campaign architects of President Barack Obama's re-election bid.
Filings by Abbott, whose campaign criticized Davis for "fuzzy math" by pooling donation totals from multiple accounts, revealed at least $900,00 in donations during the last half of 2013 from the late billionaire Harold Simmons. The GOP megadonor died Dec. 29 and gave his last contribution to Abbott — $250,000 — about three weeks earlier.
In 2002, Democrat Tony Sanchez sunk about $60 million of his own fortune in a losing bid to Perry. Experts say that excluding that race, Davis and Abbott could set records for individual donors and contributions, easily surpassing the $39 million Perry raised in his 2010 re-election in a win over Democrat Bill White, who raised about $26 million.
There are no limits on individual political contributions in Texas. Experts say that makes the state unlikely to see outside and third-party groups that get involved in other competitive gubernatorial races elsewhere.
"In a state with more stringent campaign rules, they're a necessity. In Texas, given our effective lack of any limits on campaign donations, third-party groups are historically less of a factor," said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University.