Hey, Texplainer: How much does it cost to run for office in Texas?
Today’s Texplainer is inspired by a question from Texas Tribune reader Rakshya Angel. Send us your questions about Texas politics and policy by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or through texastribune.org/texplainer.
Hey, Texplainer: How much does it cost to run for statewide office or a legislative seat in Texas?
The short answer is that there’s no magic dollar amount.
Some of the most expensive campaigns were run by people you have probably never heard of. In some cases, a candidate entering a general election contest with better name recognition or the right party affiliation for that district doesn’t have to spend much money at all.
A Texas Tribune analysis in March of how much Texas candidates spent per vote reveals that, in some cases, no amount of money is likely to secure an election victory.
Texas voters saw a prime example of this in 2002 when South Texas millionaire Tony Sanchez launched a campaign to to become the first Hispanic governor of Texas and unseat then-Gov. Rick Perry. Sanchez spent $65 million — and lost.
Former political consultant Harold Cook said the amount a candidate needs to successfully run for office depends on several factors, including what office you’re running for, how many voters you need to reach and name recognition. Running for office in Texas is more expensive than running in most other states, he added, because of the state’s multiple media markets.
“Honestly, if you wanted to run a credible statewide race, I wouldn’t even suggest you get into it unless you can raise $20 million,” Cook said. “And that’s not even a win number, that’s just a credible candidate number.”
Austin-based Republican campaign consultant Ted Delisi agrees. He added that candidates looking to run for office also need to utilize the power of social media and online marketing — in addition to money.
“It’s prohibitively expensive to run for statewide office in Texas just given the number of media markets and the fact that Texas has some of the largest media markets in the country,” Delisi said. “Television advertising — although not as important necessarily as in previous cycles — is still the dominant way that candidates communicate to voters.”
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is currently sitting on $45 million ahead of the 2018 elections — a hefty sum for an incumbent in a reliably red state. The filing deadlines for the March primaries is fast approaching, however, and Delisi said even Republicans running statewide can’t take money for granted.
“I think the consulting community is acutely aware that the national dynamic is not moving in favor of the Republican Party, and it’s probably a significant motivating factor in keeping this party and this ticket focused on what they have to do next fall,” Delisi said.
Running for office at the local level — such as seeking a state House seat — is different because there are fewer voters to reach. According to Delisi, someone considering a local run may need to raise $400,000 to $550,000.
“Some incumbents have low-turnout elections, and so they can get away with spending less to communicate,” Delisi said. “At the end of the day, how expensive your race is is a function of how competitive your race is.”
Democrats running at both the statewide or local level may need an extra push, though.
“The Democrat in the race doesn't have to outspend the Republican, but voters have to have heard of you and what you stand for,” Cook said. “That takes a lot of voter contact, and voter contact is not free.”
Cook added that Democrats looking to serve often face an uphill battle in Texas, especially when it comes to down-ballot general election races. When it comes down to it, however, a good candidate should be able to raise money, he said, regardless of party affiliation.
“I’ve heard a million Democratic activists say the following sentence: ‘Wow, that guy would be a great candidate. Too bad he can’t raise money.’ This, in my mind, is the dumbest sentence uttered ever,” Cook said. "A great candidate who can’t raise money is like a great quarterback in the NFL who can’t pass — it doesn’t exist.”
It’s also important to note that money isn’t the only thing you need to run for office in Texas. Requirements for local offices (such as city councils and school districts) vary according to the political subdivision.
Someone wanting to run for office should contact the political subdivision they’re interested in running for to learn the qualification requirements, filing periods and other relevant dates and filing fees. The Texas Ethics Commission, the agency charged with making sure public officials and campaigns obey state ethics and elections laws, also has a campaign finance guide for aspiring candidates and officeholders.
“We strongly encourage all those considering becoming a candidate in the upcoming elections to first contact the Texas Ethics Commission to learn about information on campaign contribution reports, appointment of a campaign treasurer, or personal financial statements that they may be required to file,” said Sam Taylor, a spokesperson for the Texas Secretary of State’s office.
The bottom line: No dollar amount is going to secure a win when it comes to running for office. To launch a competitive campaign in Texas — regardless of party — experts say aspiring statewide leaders may need to spend several million dollars, while those seeking local seats may need no more than half a million dollars, depending on district size.