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Small donations add up for Texas politicians

John Lamar Lenamon of Fort Worth knew his $22 wasn’t much.

But Lenamon, a 75-year-old retiree, wanted to show his support for George P. Bush in his bid to become Texas’ next land commissioner.

“It is absolutely amazing what $25 will do in a campaign,” he said. “If you put $25 together from a million people, that’s a lot of money.

“When you give money to a campaign, you are actively supporting a candidate. You’re doing a little more than saying you like that guy. It’s making a statement.”

Generally, the big donors — those who send in checks for tens of thousands of dollars — make the headlines and draw attention from candidates.

But small donors such as Lenamon, who sent a donation to Bush’s campaign last year, are gaining a larger voice in the political process.

These supporters have been sending money to candidates in amounts ranging from $1 to $100 for decades.

And though the amounts they send may not seem terribly significant, the message they send is.

“There are a lot of people who are working class that nonetheless want to support someone,” said Jim Riddlesperger, a political science professor at TCU. “People want to feel like they are participating.

“And if you develop a following of people with a habit of giving even small donations, a bunch of those donations adds up,” he said. “Texas is a big enough state where these donations can make a difference.”

Just ask President Barack Obama.

When he began his underdog Democratic campaign in the 2008 presidential primaries against heir apparent Hillary Clinton, he started a grassroots online campaign unlike nearly any seen before.

He sought small donations that added up as more and more people gave — and many continued sending small amounts every paycheck or every month, as they could.

“How could he win the nomination?” said Victoria Farrar-Myers, a political science professor at the University of Texas at Arlington. “It was grassroots and smaller donations.”

And the promise of what each small donor had to offer.

“Small donors are more likely to turn out to vote,” she said.

Small checks

Take the current race for governor, which is expected in November to pit Republican Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott against state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth.

Less than a month into the year, it is a multimillion-dollar battle expected to grow in intensity and cost.

Abbott has reported that his war chest contains more than $27 million and Davis reports more than $9.5 million on hand, according to recent campaign finance reports that detail donations from the last half of 2013.

Small checks of $100 or less made up 27 percent — more than $3 million — of the amount Davis raised in the last half of 2013, according to a recent study by Texans for Public Justice, a campaign finance watchdog group.

Abbott raised $384,878 in small checks.

“Any amount helps a candidate,” said Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha, an associate political science professor at the University of North Texas.

At the same time, checks of $10,000 and more made up nearly 70 percent of Abbott’s recent tally and 50 percent of the money Davis raised, the study says.

At the top of the spectrum, Davis logged two $1 million checks last year — one from the Mostyn Law Firm in Houston that went to the Texas Victory Committee to help her campaign, and one from retired physician Carolyn Oliver of Austin.

Abbott picked up three $250,000 checks, and a fourth for $150,000, from the late Harold Simmons, a Dallas billionaire and generous donor to Republicans.

“The small donations show the opposite of what big donations show — grassroots support by the tens of thousands, not the wealthy few,” said Jennifer Anderson-Logas of Carrollton, who sent $12.07 to the Davis campaign last year for a Wendy Davis car magnet.

“There is way too much money in politics,” she said. “It’s shameful that money can buy an election.”

‘I give what I can when I can’

Many small donors simply want to show their support, even if it means they might need to scrimp or tighten their belts to make up for the donation.

“They think they can’t do a lot, but they want to contribute,” Eshbaugh-Soha said. “They think, ‘This is somebody I can feel good about donating to.’”

That’s why Sidney Achee of Fort Worth sent a $15 check last year to Abbott’s gubernatorial campaign.

“I give what I can when I can,” said Achee, 91. “I give my $10, $15 or $20 to individuals when I feel they need it.

“I think Greg Abbott will do a good job,” he said. “And I sure don’t like Wendy.”

That’s the opposite of Dennis Gibbons, who sent eight small donations to Davis last year to help her become governor.

Three donations were for $10, and five were for $5 each.

“I would like to have a Democrat as the governor of Texas and I think Wendy Davis has the best chance of winning,” said Gibbons, a 64-year-old librarian in Fort Worth.

“I wanted to donate something, but do not have a lot of expendable income,” he said. “I think small donations add up. They encourage the candidate and keep the donors mindful of what we are trying to accomplish.”

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