WASHINGTON – The ongoing coronavirus outbreak continues to challenge political fundraising in Texas, potentially complicating what was set up to be the state’s most hotly contested – and accordingly, most expensive – election season in decades.
That reality is apparent in select campaign finance data and anecdotal reports from Texas political consultants, both Democrat and Republican.
Giving dropped off as the pandemic took hold in April, though some of that certainly reflects the usual lull that follows the March primary. While there are signs fundraising activity could be starting to rebound – particularly as campaigns adjust – uncertainty remains at the forefront.
Fundraisers are eyeing with unease the dynamic heading into the fall, especially as continued economic pain due to the coronavirus leaves some donors less able to make contributions.
“It will have a significant impact,” said Susan Lilly, an Austin-based GOP fundraising consultant, pointing to stay-at-home orders and other measures. “You’re going to continue to have unemployment rates increase if we have to close businesses back down.”
Political fundraising is, no doubt, down the list of coronavirus consequences.
But less money flowing into campaign coffers could produce myriad effects on the ground, ranging from a greater reliance on cheaper digital advertisements to less robust field organizing operations to a shorter period of time that candidates will be able to operate at full tilt.
So campaign advisers are working hard to head off the worst of it, tapping into their creativity now that social distancing guidelines have made it harder to hold high-dollar, in-person events.
To make virtual fundraisers less like turgid Zoom meetings for work, a couple of Texans have shipped out wine and snacks to donors. Another politician taught a cooking class and then shared the recipe. Still another – a trained violinist – performed a short concert.
Political consultants also said the most effective strategy these days is often for candidates to simply serve as a resource and sounding board.
“It’s fun to have fun,” said Royce Brooks, executive director of Annie’s List, a group that supports progressive women candidates for the Texas House and other offices. “But what people really want is leadership.”
It’s difficult to put a dollar amount on just how much the coronavirus has affected political fundraising in Texas.
Candidates typically file their regular reports on a quarterly or semiannual basis, depending on the office that they seek. That means the campaign reports for April, May and June – the bulk of the COVID era – won’t be available until next month.
But one significant clue comes from ActBlue, the Democratic fundraising platform that accounts for a massive number of online donations, particularly of the small-dollar variety.
ActBlue files its reports on a monthly basis during election years, providing an early peek at how Democratic campaigns all over the U.S. are faring with donations made through the platform. ProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom, then breaks out the data for Texas and other states.
Fundraising via ActBlue in Texas peaked in February, dropped off in March and April and then rebounded a bit in May.
“Post-primary, when we saw the effects of the stock market and the potential economic crisis, it certainly became a lot harder,” said Megan Rodman McGilberry, a Dallas-based Democratic fundraising consultant, pointing to the broader fundraising environment.
That kind of trend was likely replicated on the Republican side, too.
“The decline in fundraising overall was indicative of U.S. consumer spending going down during that time,” said Bryan Eppstein, a Fort Worth-based GOP consultant, noting that many campaigns proactively paused their fundraising appeals early on in the pandemic.
A post-primary slowdown in Texas, of course, is normal to some degree. There are fewer candidates left, though winners get to consolidate support. Not all campaigns are affected the same, either, with some powerhouse candidates plowing ahead.
Former Vice President Joe Biden effectively sealed up the Democratic nomination for the White House just as the outbreak took off in mid-March, and his fundraising in Texas via ActBlue has been productive in the months since then.
But the atmosphere has clearly changed.
Many potential donors are now under personal financial pressure. Even if they weren’t, many Texas candidates, but not all, have abandoned the stalwart task of hosting in-person fundraising events in an effort to align with recommended social distancing guidelines.
Enter the Zoom fundraiser, along with other digital outreach.
“I have clients who are spending eight hours a day on the phone,” Lilly said.
The transition hasn’t been seamless. Many Americans are already spending many hours each day in virtual meetings, either speaking to their colleagues as they work from home or talking to family members who live elsewhere. More screen time isn’t necessarily a perk.
Technology also goes on the fritz sometimes, with a speaker’s dropped call at one of Biden’s recent Texas-focused virtual events causing the moderator — Cecile Richards, the former Planned Parenthood leader — to joke about “life in the time of Zoom.”
“These virtual Zooms, they just don’t have the same impact,” said former state Rep. Domingo Garcia, a Dallas Democrat who now serves as national president of the League of United Latin American Citizens and who’s participated in several such online events.
Candidates and their campaigns are trying to change that.
Brooks, the Annie’s List executive director, said that “through trial and error, we’ve discovered some of the sweet spots” on how to host a successful virtual fundraiser: Keep the event shorter than an in-person one and limit the guest list to encourage more substantive interaction.
One more tip, she said: “Folks do really seem to like having stuff delivered to their houses.”
That could be a merlot, like when U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican, hosted virtual wine tastings of late, per Politico. Or it could be a recipe, like when state Rep. Lorraine Birabil, D-Dallas, demonstrated cooking a dish at a virtual bunch fundraiser.
Music helps, too.
Willie Nelson and Robert Earl Keen performed for 400-plus people this week on a virtual fundraiser for Biden. Texas Supreme Court Justice Brett Busby, meanwhile, treated donors to his own talents as a violinist by recently playing a virtual concert alongside his wife.
One lawmaker – state Rep. John Bucy, D-Round Rock – went even further, escaping the virtual fundraising rut by renting out a drive-in movie theater to screen Rocky for donors.
Others have leaned on appearances by national political figures, movie stars and other special guests – anyone and anything that might convince a potential donor to carve out time for a virtual get-together and, ultimately, make a financial contribution.
“It’s all about creativity,” McGilberry said, adding that the revamped approach to fundraising has “provided an opportunity for engagement.”
There’s still the matter, though, of making a financial ask during unsettled economic times.
Lilly, for example, has encouraged her clients to not make a direct appeal during the virtual fundraisers. She’s suggested that they instead follow up by phone with each participant and then, if it’s appropriate, talk about what kind of contribution they are able to make.
“You need to know your constituency,” she said.
Political consultants in Texas have started to notice an uptick in fundraising activity in June, and not just because of a spate of runoffs. Candidates are learning the new setup. They are also finding captive audiences in many instances, given that vacation plans have been scrapped.
But the recent spike in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations has caused many to take a wait-and-see approach. Eppstein explained that if he had been asked back in January, he “would’ve said this was going to be a record-setting fundraising cycle” in Texas.
“We’re going to see people feel like, ‘I don’t want to invite people to an event. I don’t want to call them up if they’re having to make sacrifices for their families or their businesses,” he predicted, pointing to the likelihood that the coronavirus will outlast the campaign season.