Hollywood loves stars and loves an underdog, and Democrat Wendy Davis is both. At a recent rooftop fundraiser hosted by Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg at the Bad Robot film studios near Los Angeles, she socked away more money for what could be a financially record-shattering race for Texas governor.
Likewise, in Manhattan brownstones, Silicon Valley mansions and Washington hotels, Davis has told her compelling personal account of rising from a trailer park to Harvard Law and has reeled in donors. She has financial backers in every U.S. state and has collected nearly four times as much – at least $3.6 million – from outside Texas as her opponent, Republican Greg Abbott.
The Fort Worth state senator’s feats as a fundraising dynamo since her nearly 13-hour filibuster over new Texas abortion restrictions a year ago have put her in a stronger financial position than any recent Democratic candidate for Texas governor, raising the likelihood that she'll be able to afford the barrage of airtime needed to compete in a state with two time zones and 20 media markets.
“Texas is a huge state,” said Kristin Oblander, a national Democratic fundraiser who helped host a Davis luncheon in Atlanta. She added, “The budgets for these races are immense, and the pressure for fundraising is huge.”
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But Republicans are beginning to make an issue of her out-of-state money, and it’s not clear whether the cash will be enough to help her close the gap in a state that hasn’t elected a Democrat to statewide office in 20 years.
Davis has continued to trail significantly in polls after the Texas primary elections and last week she made a huge shake-up by switching campaign managers. Even the chairman of the Democratic Governors Association didn’t include Texas while ticking off a list of top races that the group deems winnable.
Davis isn’t eager to discuss her out-of-state support.
“The vast majority of the donations have come from within our state. This is a race about Texas,” she said recently, deflecting questions about her national fundraising.
Out-of-state vs. in-state donations
Courting out-of-state-dollars is not uncommon in governor’s races: Virginia Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Wisconsin Republican Scott Walker raised most of their funds last year from beyond their state borders. But it’s rarer in Texas, where both parties have deep rosters of big donors, and it’s sensitive for Democratic candidates who must appeal to conservative voters.
Her campaign crows about an impressive 133,600 individual donors she has enlisted in raising at least $16 million, which approaches the $17 million Abbott has raised since last summer. More than $1 in every $4 to Davis has come from out of state. More than 90 percent of Abbott’s haul is home-state money.
“Republicans have such a strong base here in Texas,” said Roy Bailey, a top Republican fundraiser in Dallas. “If you’re looking out of state, it just tells you there’s something fundamentally wrong with where you’re running.”
Although Abbott has taken money from the conservative billionaire Koch brothers, who are in Kansas, his campaign says he’s putting in the most face time across Texas’ 254 counties.
“We’re out there talking to Texans. She’s out there talking to Californians and New Yorkers,” his spokesman Matt Hirsch said.
The pitch Davis makes to donors elsewhere is familiar: Republicans who’ve run the state have shortchanged basics like schools and tightened access to abortion, and a new Tea Party wave is only pushing the state further to the right. Her celebrity status is an added attraction.
“I shelled out a hundred bucks just to be able to meet her, shake her hand and talk to her for a second,” said Vicki Roush, 60, a Florida wine shop manager who’s never lived in Texas but attended a Davis fundraiser in Key West. She said she cried while watching Davis’ filibuster online last summer. “All the girls I know that were there were beside themselves.”
At the same time, some Democratic Party support may be holding back until the state’s growing Hispanic population makes a Democratic victory more likely in the next five to 10 years.
“It’s been frustrating for people here,” said Scott Atlas, finance director for Bill White, the Democratic candidate in 2010, who got little help from the Democratic Governors Association and lost by double digits.
Many Texas Democrats say it’s simply nice for once to see other states opening checkbooks for one of their candidates.
“I think it’s to her credit. I hope she raises a lot of money out of state,” said Arthur Schechter, a prominent Democratic fundraiser. For other states’ candidates, “We’re the national ATM machine.”