Building a war chest for a volatile battleJanet Elliott-Austin Bureau
San Antonio Express-News
June 17, 2007
AUSTIN - Fundraising for next year's legislative races officially kicks off today, and the long campaign season carries added importance because of the numerous challenges to House Speaker Tom Craddick.
Additionally, Democrats who backed Craddick could find themselves in trouble with party activists who vote in the primaries, as could Republican legislators who tried to unseat the speaker in the waning days of the legislative session last month.
Craddick starts off the season with a $4.1 million war chest. What isn't clear is whether business interests and lobbyists will back him financially as they have before, or spread some of their money to his challengers.
House Appropriations Chairman Warren Chisum said the speaker's race will be won long before the opening day of the 2009 legislative session when the 150 House members officially chose their leader.
"You win a speaker's race by helping people get elected to office and having a lot of support out there for you," said Chisum, a Pampa Republican who backs Craddick.
All House seats are on the ballot next year, and the uncertainty concerning the speaker could mean a record number of contested primaries. Some incumbents who don't draw challengers or have more money than they need may give some to a fellow candidate.
Five Republicans and two Democrats already have announced they want to be speaker.
Very little money will go into the special accounts that the seven were required to establish because of strict legal restrictions on how that money can be used.
Instead, the big-dollar donations will be directed toward the primary and general elections that will decide who will be in the House to vote for the next speaker in January 2009.
With millions in the bank and the ability to raise more as long as he remains in power, Craddick would appear to have a huge financial edge over those seven representatives. He has the second largest available cash of any state politician, trailing only Attorney General Greg Abbott's $5.6 million, according to filings with the Texas Ethics Commission.
"In his position he's a magnet for campaign contributions, and he can spend it playing hardball in the political arena on behalf of his candidates or against his enemies," said Craig McDonald, executive director of Texans for Public Justice, a group that analyzes campaign donations.
Craddick, who has represented his Midland district since 1968, likely won't need much of his money to win re-election in the unlikely event he draws an opponent.
That would free him to use the campaign funds to support candidates who are likely to back him as speaker. He also could give money to challengers of lawmakers who oppose him, but since becoming speaker four years ago, Craddick has never used his campaign funds to help unseat an incumbent representative.
"Craddick is in a very difficult position," said Bill Ratliff, a former Republican state senator who now lobbies on education issues. "If he in fact does go after some of those members, then he essentially validates some of the criticism" that he rules the House through intimidation.
Craddick's press secretary, Alexis DeLee, said the speaker would not discuss the expenditure of money or the speaker's race at this time.
But money doesn't make Craddick invincible. It's up to the House members to re-elect him and a growing number say they are tired of Craddick's top-down leadership style.
He survived a challenge at the start of the 2007 legislative session from Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie. Pitts again is seeking the speakership.
Two of the state's biggest megadonors, Houston homebuilder Bob Perry and San Antonio businessman Jim Leininger, are likely to play key roles in the GOP primaries.
Craddick has supported the issues of Leininger, a school voucher proponent, and Perry, who favors limits on lawsuits against businesses. Spokesmen for Perry and Leininger declined to discuss the speaker's race but Chisum said he has no doubt they will continue to back Craddick.
"Without Craddick, their agenda doesn't look as good," Chisum said. "I don't think they'll abandon Craddick by any means. In fact, they may just double their effort."