Incumbent candidates for state representative are leading the pack in campaign fundraising, thanks in part to bulk donations from a conservative political action committee.

Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, raised $78,045 in the last six months of 2017, pulling in donations from valuable political allies and leading his closest opponent by an 8-to-1 margin. That left him with $82,578 in cash. 

Rep. Cole Hefner, R-Mount Pleasant, raised $71,843 in the last six months of 2017, leaving him with $101,161 in cash to run a campaign that political experts expect him to win handily.

The numbers come from public filings from the Texas Ethics Commission. Candidates filed reports with the commission in January disclosing what they raised from July 1 through Dec. 31.

Primaries for Republicans and Democrats will take place on March 6, but only Schaefer has a primary opponent. In conservative East Texas, experts say the winners of each Republican primary likely will win the general election on Nov. 6.

State Representative — District 6

Schaefer is the chairman of the Texas Legislature’s Freedom Caucus, formerly known as the tea party. The Freedom Caucus represents the most conservative members of the Legislature and often clashes with establishment Republicans.

During the filing period, Schaefer raised $45,850 from a combination of political action committees, or PACs, and other Republican political campaigns. That accounted for more than half of the money his campaign raised this filing period.

“We get a ton of small donations, and often those mean more to me in terms of support than the larger donations because … they’re people of modest means,” Schaefer said in an interview. “My financial support has come from really a mixture.

“If you look at the groups that have supported me, they’re looking at my voting record and the work that I do, and saying, ‘That’s something that we want to put our money behind,’ and so … the money is reinforcing the work that we’re doing,” he said.

That total is boosted by a $25,000 donation from the Empower Texans PAC, which is known statewide for giving large donations to support Freedom Caucus candidates and primary opponents to establishment Republicans, according to Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston.

Jones said the Empower Texans PAC spends most of its money in Republican primaries, particularly for someone like Schaefer, who is facing Ted Kamel, a former state representative who held Schaefer’s seat back in the 1990s.

Kamel raised just $1,350 during the filing period, with all of the money coming from individual donations. He also loaned his campaign $19,436 during the filing period. 

Kamel said he loaned his campaign money because he works two full-time jobs and does not have time for fundraising. He said he is instead focusing on getting his name out through signs, advertising and participating in public forums.

He also criticized Schaefer’s large fundraising haul. 

“I think it’s a little ridiculous that it costs hundreds of thousands of dollars for a job that only pays $600 a month," Kamel said. "I'm going to prove that you can win this election without spending $200,000.

"I’m my own man," he said. "I represent my district. I’m not going to be dictated by a PAC or a special-interest group. I’m not going to take someone’s money and then be bought and paid for." 

Neal Katz, a rabbi in Tyler who is running as an independent, is Schaefer’s closest opponent in terms of fundraising, and raised $9,050 during the reporting period. He also received all of that money from individual donations, with his biggest donation, $1,500, coming from himself. 

Katz said he did not start heavily fundraising until November, so the campaign finance reports don’t tell the full financial picture of his campaign. Additionally, he said, he had a successful month of fundraising in January.

Jones said Schaefer’s most notable donation came from the campaign of former state Sen. Kevin Eltife, who is now a member of the University of Texas board of regents.

“That’s big,” Jones said. “If you were Kamel, the only real plank you might be able to make against Schaefer is that he’s very conservative, too conservative.”

When he announced his candidacy, Kamel criticized Schaefer’s poor relationship with current Speaker of the House Joe Straus, R-San Antonio.

Eltife, by contrast, is widely known as a more independent Republican, Jones said. His support is a good counterargument to the criticism that Schaefer may be too conservative, Jones said.

Schaefer also received three different $1,500 donations from PACs with ties to the railroad industry, the tobacco industry and the title insurance industry. He received another $1,000 from the Texans for Lawsuit Reform PAC and $250 from a PAC advocating against mandatory vaccinations.

“People are looking at, ‘What is that representative’s bent? Is it a bent toward more freedom or less freedom? Is it for limited government or expanding government?’” Schaefer said. “And I think a lot of those groups … are interested in someone who supports limited government.”

For example, Schaefer said he does not support drastically increasing taxes on tobacco or raising the age for using tobacco to 21. He also said that, while he gets his children vaccinated, the government should not make that decision in place of parents.

Notable local donations include $100 from the campaign of Smith County Sheriff Larry Smith, and $100 from Jacob Putman, who is running for Smith County district attorney.

State Representative — District 5

Hefner is running unopposed in the Republican primary. He will face Bill Liebbe, a Democrat, in the general election on Nov. 6. However, Liebbe has not raised any money for his campaign, according to filings with the Texas Ethics Commission.

Hefner received $50,586—more than two-thirds of his money from this filing period—from individuals. The remaining $21,257 came from PACs and other campaigns.

Hefner said groups donate to him because they agree with him on a lot of things, but not everything. 

“I believe in freedom of speech. I believe that people should be able to support who they want to,” Hefner said. “I’m honored and grateful for any support we can get.”

His biggest contribution was $10,000 from the Empower Texans PAC. He received $1,000 donations each from PACs affiliated with the energy and insurance industries, among other donations. Hefner also received a $1,000 donation from the Kevin Eltife Campaign, and another from the Pilgrim Estate.

Jones said it’s important for Hefner to keep fundraising because, even though he does not have a challenger in the 2018 Republican primary, he could face one in 2020, which is a presidential election year.

Hefner added in an interview: “If you have a decent amount on hand, sometimes that prevents people from challenging, which saves a lot of donor money.”

TWITTER and INSTAGRAM: @_erinmansfield 

Erin came to Tyler from Vermont, where she worked for and previously the Rutland Herald. She received her B.A. in Economics and Spanish from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, where she also attended journalism school.

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