Two years ago, in the midst of a hot-and-heavy presidential race, Democrat Mike Clark, running in a congressional district just north of Austin, reported raising $1,035 in a six-week period ending in late March on his way to getting crushed by incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. John Carter.
During the equivalent periodof 2018, Democrat Mary “MJ” Hegar, running in the same district, raised 200 times that amount, according to newly filed campaign finance reports.
In the latest sign of Democratic enthusiasm heading into 2018 midterm elections, a couple of Central Texas Democrats competing in traditionally conservative congressional districts have raised far more money than their Republican counterparts from Feb. 15 to March 31, according to an American-Statesman review of campaign finance records.
Campaigning in the 21st Congressional District, which runs from West Campus to the north side of San Antonio and encompasses six Hill Country counties, Democrat Joseph Kopser raised about $350,000— approaching double what the two candidates vying in the Republican runoff raised combined during the same period.
And in the 31st Congressional District, which includes Austin’s fast-growing northern suburbs as well as a portion of the area around Fort Hood, Hegar, a former Air Force helicopter pilot who won medals for her bravery in Afghanistan, raised $200,000during the same six-week period. Carter, seeking his ninth term, raised about $145,000 during the same period.
Hegar will face Cedar Park physician Christine Eady Mann, who raised about $6,500 during the period, in the May 22 runoff.
After unexpected Democratic victories in special elections in Pennsylvania and Alabama, the fundraising amounts appear to be another piece of evidence of Democratic ardor nationally ahead of the November general election.
The heavy fundraising “certainly makes races more competitive,” said Sean Theriault, professor of government at the University of Texas. “You don’t want to put too much faith in what money can do, especially for first-time candidates new to politics, but it means they’ll have a bigger microphone.”
He said the districts “are manufactured to elect a Republican.” But when lawmakers created the districts, “they didn’t want them 80 percent Republican, they wanted them 60 or 62 percent Republicans, so that in normal political circumstances the Republican will have an easy time to win.”
But since 2016, he said, “we’re not in normal politics anymore.”
“It’s going to take the Democrat running a really good race, the Republican not running a good race, and Donald Trump being unpopular — and still they’ll have a 50-50 chance if everything breaks their way,” said Theriault, author of the book “The Power of the People: Congressional Competition, Public Attention, and Voter Retribution.”
Before they get to the general election, these candidates have to secure their parties’ nomination — and money doesn’t guarantee victory. Kopser, a former Army officer and tech entrepreneur, raised vastly more than his Democratic opponents but still finished second in the March primary to Austin-area pastor Mary Wilson — who raised more than $30,000 during the six-week period.
The two will face each other in the runoff.
Kopser has been an especially effective fundraiser: His campaign has raised more than $1.1 million.
Kopser said the fundraising totals show “we have a message and we have the machinery that is prepared to meet voters where they are and to get those people excited about what we’re doing.”
“It’s a reflection of the times that we live in that we have a candidate like me that fits the district well that cannot only appeal to progressive Democrats who want to see the issues they fought for preserved, but it’s also an indicator that independents or even some moderate Republicans are seeing that I’m not so out of step with what they’re thinking and therefore want to raise that money,” Kopser said.
He said the suburban growth of the district suggests an opening for a Democrat. These are “people who bring in their families, less so their ideologies,” he said.
“They come in and start businesses as opposed to starting new factions or new tribes, if you will, of extreme partisanship,” he said. “And those people just want to see members of Congress who want to fix problems and move forward, and that’s why we’ve had the amount of success we’ve had.”
Chip Roy and Matt McCall, in the Republican runoff in the 21st Congressional District, raised $170,000 and $25,000, respectively, in the same period.
Overall, Roy, a former aide to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, has raised $543,157.
Victoria De Francesco Soto, an electoral politics lecturer at UT’s LBJ School of Public Affairs, said that for Democratic candidates up and down the ballot in Texas, the key will be winning “country club Republicans.”
Correction: This story has been updated to give correct time periods for campaign finance figures.