In the race for Tarrant county judge, about $1.5 million was raised by both candidates in the general election. Democrat Deborah Peoples raised $377,391, or 24% of the figure, Republican Tim O’Hare raised 1.2 million, or 76%.

Campaign finance reports reveal a wide gap between Republican and Democrat candidates. In the weeks following the election, the Report reviewed data and spoke with experts to explain why money matters in local races. 

Raising awareness for a candidate is important, especially a local candidate, said James Riddlesperger, a political science professor at TCU. That’s why attracting donors is critically important, specifically large ones. 

“Money is the mother’s milk of politics,” Riddlesperger said. 

Despite the importance of campaign contributions, the primary motivation of large donors may not be the candidate themself or even the party marked next to a candidate’s name on the ballot. Instead, interest groups and donors are likely weighing who is most likely to win, Riddlesperger said. 

“Money follows winners,” Riddlesperger said. “People aren’t going to invest their money where they don’t think that they’re going to win.”

Since the turn of the century, Republicans have been winners in Tarrant County, giving the party an advantage. The county’s history creates a system of producing qualified Republican candidates, said Rick Barnes, chair of the Tarrant County Republican Party. 

“They have the relationships out there with supporters,” Barnes said. “There’s two different kinds of supporters, one’s the person that votes and the other is the person that has the money to support.”

Republican’s dominance in Tarrant County creates a challenge for Democratic candidates looking to disrupt that status quo, said Allison Campolo, chair of the Tarrant County Democratic Party. 

“Democrats don’t have a solid organization because they have not elected winners, but how can you elect winners if you don’t have the organization?” Riddlesperger said. 

While Democrats seeking countywide offices routinely get more than 40% of the vote, they raised proportionally much less money in the run-up to the General Election compared with their Republican opponents.  

“Until we vote in some Democratic countywide candidates here in Tarrant County, that does make fundraising that much harder,” Campolo said. “That’ll be true until we are able to flip the county at the bottom of the ballot, but I don’t think that’s very far off.”

Despite entering the general race with more cash on hand, Peoples, who got 47% of the vote, raised about $378,000 compared to O’Hare’s $1.2 million through the general election. 

Part of that differential can be attributed to the type of donors that campaigns attract. With 30 days until the General Election, O’Hare received an average donation of $1,978 from his 303 donors while Peoples received an average donation of $70.02.

Some of O’Hare’s largest donors included Don Woodard Jr., president of the Western Companies, Hollis Sullivan, founder of Veritas Energy, and other business executives. Both Woodard Jr. and Sullivan contributed more than $200,000 to the O’Hare campaign, totalling more than the amount Peoples raised from July through Election Day

“Money talks. Mr. O’Hare had big donations come in,” said Darlene Watkins, a Peoples voter who attended the Tarrant Democrats’ Election Night watch party. “He took full advantage of that because advertising is hugely expensive.” 

Republicans tend to go after larger donors compared with Democrats, Barnes, the Republican chair, said. 

“We have to go after the dollar amounts that can fulfill the needs for the campaign in and of itself,” Barnes said. “So you usually start with higher donors.”

The importance of campaign donations come with some caveats, though, Riddlesperger said. Money invested in candidates early on is typically more impactful than late contributions, he said, and that money is effective only when it is wisely invested.

In the race for Precinct 2 on the Tarrant County Commissioners Court, Republican donors were not enough to win in an increasingly blue precinct. 

Democrat Alissa Simmons defeated Republican Andy Nguyen with about 52% of the vote. In the general election, both candidates raised a total of $348,290. Simmons raised just 13%, or $42,390 of that total figure while Nguyen raised 87%, or $305,900. 

The race illustrates campaign limitations, Riddlesperger said. Fundraising can typically overcome up to a 10-point deficit. 

“If Democrats have a 15% advantage in a district, there’s not enough money in the world to overcome that deficit,” Riddlesperger said. 

Simmons’ win is a reflection of her hard work and involvement in the community, Campolo said. 

“When they’ve been community leaders for such a long time, that really can overcome quite a bit of fundraising differences,” Campolo said.

Tarrant County Republicans invested a lot of time and money into the Precinct 2 race, Barnes said. At the end of the day, the district had high Democratic turnout that Nguyen couldn’t overcome. 

“We watch that area pretty heavily. Now we’re watching it and analyzing it and getting ready for the next cycle,” Barnes said. 

Peoples managed to raise more money than past Democratic candidates for county judge,  Campolo said. 

“Dollars do matter, Campolo said. “But we’re seeing continuous progress in terms of investment in Democratic candidates and Democratic infrastructure.”

Infrastructure and Investment 

George Young, a Tarrant County lawyer focused primarily on civil litigation, contributed $25,000 to District Attorney winner Phil Sorrells’ campaign. 

Sorrells, a Republican, received about 53% of the vote. Of the about $676,000 raised during the  race, Sorrells’ share was 75%. 

Many of his high-dollar donors were lawyers, like Young. The law industry has an established habit of donating campaign funds to Incumbent judges, typically Republicans, Young said. 

There is a sense of momentum to Republican candidates, Young said. Part of the momentum stems from the infrastructure Republicans have established in Tarrant County. 

“There’s a big infrastructure of Republican clubs all over Tarrant County,” Young said. “It is not on the Democratic side.”

That infrastructure helps with fundraising, Barnes said, but also helps produce quality candidates. 

“Our candidates don’t just show up from nowhere, want to run and pick an office,” Barnes said. “You build a team as you go through the process and through your proven levels of success, people get behind you to climb up the ranks.”

Part of the problem for Tarrant Democrats stems from the national Democratic Party, Riddlesperger said. Democratic Democratic donors with lots of money to spend may be encouraged to send that money to faraway races in Arizona or Georgia, where the races are deemed more competitive. 

“There are some very wealthy people in Tarrant County that are open to supporting Democrats.  The potential is there,” Riddlesperger said. 

A key facet of Tarrant Democrats’ strategy will be keeping a portion of those donations in local races, Campolo said. 

“I really think we’ve made significant progress toward that local donor base, toward keeping our dollars here in the county and here in Texas, instead of sending them out to other places, Campolo said.

Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at rachel.behrndt@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Rachel BehrndtGovernment Accountability Reporter

Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report in collaboration with KERA. She is a recent graduate of the University of Missouri where she majored in Journalism and Political...