In just a year, residents doled out $30.7 million to hopefuls in out-of-state races
By RICHARD S. DUNHAM
WASHINGTON — Back in 1978, a group of Texas oilmen gathered in Dallas to discuss ways to extend their influence on Capitol Hill. Their conclusion: They should try to make friends in far-flung locales by spreading their political donations well beyond the 27-member Texas delegation.
Three years later, the Texas businessmen won their first major legislative battle when Congress deregulated natural gas. And they've never looked back.
What began three decades ago as a trickle of Texas campaign donations to candidates in the other 49 states has turned into a bipartisan gusher. Today, Texas has become one of the nation's major exporters of campaign cash to out-of-state political candidates.
A Houston Chronicle analysis of 2007 campaign finance data has found that Lone Star State residents gave $30.7 million to non-Texas congressional candidates or presidential contenders.
"Texas is mecca for out-of-state fundraising," said Richard H. Collins, a Dallas educational entrepreneur, philanthropist and Republican fundraiser. "They all come to Texas, and they all come more than once."
But the cash pipeline leading out of Texas is much bigger than the one returning to the state: Texas candidates received less than $9.9 million from the other 49 states, or one dollar for each three sent to the rest of the nation.
That 3-to-1 ratio applies to Texas Republicans and Democrats alike. The export of Lone Star cash to non-Texas campaigns crosses party and ideological boundaries. Recipients of Texas political largesse this past year range from staunch conservatives such as Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., and Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., to oustpoken liberals including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and comedian-turned-Senate-candidate Al Franken, who is running in Minnesota.
But the ever-increasing cash flow out of Texas is causing growing consternation among the state's lawmakers. "All we are right now is an ATM machine," Gov. Rick Perry recently declared.
How cash is distributed
In the first year of the two-year 2008 campaign cycle, Texans donated $16.6 million to out-of-state Republicans and presidential candidates and $14 million to Democrats.
While GOP presidential candidates took in 59 percent of the monetary haul from Lone Star donors, out-of-state congressional Democrats received more of the Texas loot than House and Senate Republicans in the first year after the Democrats regained control of Capitol Hill.
The leading recipients of Texas cash were 2008 presidential candidates: former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a partner in the prestigious Houston law firm of Bracewell and Giuliani; Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y.; Illinois Sen. Barack Obama; and since-departed contender John Edwards, whose national finance chairman was Dallas attorney Fred Baron.
Republican front-runner John McCain of Arizona placed sixth with $2.3 million.
In the presidential race, individual Texas Democrats sent $11.8 million out of state, while the candidates in return have pumped just $5.5 million into the Texas economy, most often to AT&T, Dell and Southwest Airlines.
Republicans in the state donated $16.9 million to about a dozen different candidates. Giuliani, who coordinated his campaign largely out of his Houston-based law firm, spent more than $14 million in Texas. The rest of the candidates spent $6.7 million in the state.
Of course, the candidates will have an opportunity to stimulate the Texas economy in coming weeks as they gear up for the March 4 Texas primary. Then again, they're continuing to vacuum up contributions with fundraising events, too.
When it comes to congressional candidates, the leading recipients of Texas money are Democrats: Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, D-W.Va., Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La.
Republicans making successful fundraising forays into Texas include Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., former Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., Colorado Senate hopeful Bob Schaffer, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., who accepted $73,750 in Texas contributions before announcing his retirement.
'Two kinds of money'
John J. Pitney Jr., a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College, said that Texas is so prominent in national fundraising because it is "big and has a lot of rich people."
Pitney quotes Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a former Republican National Committee chairman, on the motivations behind donations: "There are two kinds of money: belief money and access money."
Texas has both, experts and fundraisers agree.
The original clutch of Texas oilmen that started the out-of-state giving — one group in Dallas, one in Houston — has expanded to overlapping circles of eclectic conservatives, such as Houston home builder Bob Perry, Dallas energy tycoon Boone Pickens and Pittsburg chicken magnate Lonnie "Bo" Pilgrim. Democrats rely mostly on a network of trial lawyers and well-to-do liberal activists in the "Texas Triangle," the area between Houston, San Antonio and Dallas.
Collins, the Republican fundraiser, says unwritten rules apply to the money minuet. "You always make them come down and make a personal appearance," he said. "If you send them the check without building any relationship with the guy, then it's not the most effective way of making a donation."