As governor of Texas, Republican Greg Abbott doesn’t flash the White House ambitions of his predecessors or their big personalities. But in just five years he has quietly built his own distinction: Taking in more cash from donors than any governor in U.S. history.
Few others even come close. Since first running in 2013, Abbott has accepted more than $120 million in political contributions, an Associated Press review of campaign filings shows. He has been showered with big-donor money on a scale that is prohibited in most states and far beyond limits for members of Congress — more than 200 times receiving contributions of $100,000 or more.
The only others in his league would be former Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker and New York Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who since their first successful runs in 2010 raised $119 million and $111 million respectively, according to the National Institute on Money in Politics. But they needed years more to get there.
For most politicians, raising big money is about two things: fueling higher pursuits or turning back competition. But as Abbott begins a second term in Texas, he is a governor who doesn’t seem to have either.
“The sizes of the checks he asks for, his relentlessness — he never stops fundraising,” said George Seay, who was the Texas finance chair for former Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s first presidential run in 2012. “It’s a machine probably not duplicated, if at all, around the rest of the country.”
His style isn’t a soft touch. “If someone might be expecting a $50,000 ask, he’ll ask for $250,000,” Seay said.
But Abbott, a 61-year-old former state attorney general and judge, makes no indication that the money has purpose beyond a desire to stay put. Though presidential speculation comes with the territory of being Texas governor, Abbott has consistently dismissed suggestions that he might follow the path of George W. Bush and Perry.
Critics have suggested that money is just Abbott’s way of quantifying power, and that he collects it from those who want appointments or influence over policy.
“Abbott stockpiling that money is just a reflection of a one-party state that seems to protect the donor class in Texas,” said Craig McDonald, executive director of the watchdog group Texans for Public Justice. “It says more about how the system works and is bigger than Greg Abbott himself.”
An Abbott spokesman denied selling access, saying donations are never factored into decision-making. Last year, Abbott’s campaign returned a $10,000 check to a West Texas developer, George McMahan, after he told a local television station, “You make a large donation to the governor, and in turn you are eligible for appointment” to a university governing board.
Unlike the swaggering figures who preceded him, Abbott has remade the job with a lower profile — a style that has stocked criticism of sometimes being too detached. He has likened himself to a CEO and wears the buttoned-down look. His politics are conventional hard right, of late pushing immigration crackdowns and border security surges.
Most remarkable, though, is how Abbott has become almost a party unto himself. Fortified by his donors, he was able to spend more than $2 million last year targeting a few GOP lawmakers who crossed him and to help ideological allies threatened by a minor Democratic resurgence in Texas. He could spare it: that was more money alone than what Abbott’s Democratic opponent, Lupe Valdez, raised in her own feeble campaign.
During the 2018 midterm election, party leaders say Republican Sen. Ted Cruz had a field staff of 18 for the political fight of his life against Democrat Beto O’Rourke. By comparison, Abbott financed a machine of about 200 for his own lopsided campaign and other races he wanted to influence.
“There’s no sense in being governor unless you have a legislature supportive of your ideas,” said Dave Carney, Abbott’s longtime political adviser.
If Abbott simply wants to be governor for life, it’s a possibility in a state with no term limits. Perry held the job for a record 14 years, a stretch that allows a governor to amass power by gradually stocking the state’s powerful state boards and agencies entirely with his own appointees. Already, Carney said, Abbott is looking ahead to a third term in 2022.
For a politician seeking money, Texas is nirvana. It is among only about a dozen states that allow unlimited contributions from individuals, unlike most states where donations are capped at four or five figures.
Abbott’s million-dollar donors include Dallas pipeline magnate Kelcy Warren, who was appointed to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission, and West Texas oilman Syed Javaid Anwar, who sits on the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.
Other donors are executives whose businesses have state contracts, and in at least one case, receive subsidies straight from Abbott’s office. Race promoter Robert Epstein, whose Circuit of the Americas track in Austin has received more than $150 million from an events fund controlled by the governor, donated $50,000 after Abbott won re-election. The contribution came months after Epstein learned he was being denied additional funds this year because of missing paperwork. Epstein declined comment about his donation.
Houston businessman Stuart Stedman, who since 2013 has given Abbott more than $500,000 and was appointed chairman of Texas’ higher education board, said in an email, “My financial support speaks for itself in describing my opinion of Governor Abbott.”
Abbott spokesman John Wittman said contributions are never considered in the appointment process.
“Proof of that is that more than 70 percent of Gov. Abbott’s appointees have never contributed to him and less than one percent of the Governor’s donors have been appointed to positions of service. To suggest otherwise would be false and a disservice to the character and quality of the individuals who are appointed to selflessly serve the state without compensation,” Wittman said in a statement.
The AP tally only includes Abbott’s fundraising since he formally launched his run for governor in July 2013. The comparison to Cuomo does not include Cuomo’s earlier failed run in 2002, when he raised more than $13 million.
Two of the Republican lawmakers Abbott targeted unsuccessfully for defeat in 2018 had one thing in common: both challenged him over not adding ethics reforms to a list of emergency legislative items. Their proposals included a ban on raising money during special sessions and not allowing appointees to donate more than $2,500.
Seay, the Republican fundraiser in Dallas, said Abbott seems to exemplify a type of Texas politician who comes to the state capital intending to settle in.
“This is what they do,” he said.