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77%

Percent of candidates raising the most money who won an open-seat primary outright or advanced to a runoff since 2006.

We looked at every open-seat primary race* for statewide, legislative and congressional office with three or more candidates during the last six election cycles to see if candidates could translate fundraising prowess into primary victories.

Unsurprisingly, money is a pretty good predictor of who will win an election. In general, money and incumbency walk hand-in-hand. As of December 31, all but seven statewide, legislative and congressional incumbents seeking re-election had raised more money than any challenger. However, there is no power of incumbency in an open-seat race.

Instead, open-seat races are often won by candidates who can get off to the fastest start, building name ID and positive favorability during the short sprint that is a primary campaign. Candidates receiving fewer contributions may be able to offset a fundraising disadvantage if they have the ability to spend lots of money without needing to raise it first, pre-existing name ID and a “built-in” constituency, the right endorsement that spurs a reliable voting bloc or a particularly large field of candidates.

Chart by Visualizer

During the last six election cycles, the open-seat candidate with the highest contribution total has won a primary race outright 24% of the time and advanced to a runoff 54% of the time. Candidates raising the most money lost or missed a runoff in the other 23% of open-seat primary races. The candidate with the second-highest contribution total won 3% of the time and advanced 54% of the time. More than half of all open-seat primary runoffs involved the two candidates with the highest contribution totals, regardless of the number of candidates in the race.

No candidate whose total contributions ranked outside the top two has won an open-seat primary race outright in at least 12 years. The candidate ranked third in contribution total advanced to a runoff in 25% of open-seat races, and just 9% of candidates ranked fourth or lower advanced. Nearly all of the candidates ranked third and lower advancing to a runoff emerged from larger pools of candidates. Only one of every 20 candidates who had the lowest contribution total qualified for a runoff, regardless of the number of candidates in the race.

Raising money is only one half of the formula. Most successful candidates spent it, too. Candidates who raised and spent the most money won 25% of the time, advanced 58% of the time and lost or missed the runoff just 16% of the time. None of the outright winners and just 14% of runoff candidates were outside of the top two in both total contributions and total expenditures. Half of all runoffs involved the two candidates who spent the most money.

Only twice since 2006 have runoffs included two candidates ranked third or lower in both total contributions and total expenditures. One was the six-way 2010 Republican primary for Supreme Court, from which former Rep. Rick Green (R-Dripping Springs) and longtime District Judge Debra Lehrmann advanced after receiving 19% and 18% of the vote, respectively. The other was the four-way 2016 Democratic primary for HD139 for which no candidate raised more than $50K or spent more than $60K.

Large primary fields tend to lessen the advantage candidates with the most money have against candidates running shoestring campaigns. Since 2006, five open-seat primaries have attracted 10 or more candidates. All five went to runoffs. In four of those races, the candidate who raised the most money missed the runoff. Runoff participants included candidates who ranked fifth, sixth and eighth in total contributions. The candidate who ranked fifth spent $1.3M of his own money. The candidate who ranked sixth was a former congressman. The candidate who ranked eighth was endorsed by former U.S. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Surfside Place).

In other words, they had the ability to spend lots of money without needing to raise it first, a pre-existing name ID and a “built-in” constituency or the right endorsement that spurred a reliable voting bloc, and they all emerged from a particularly large field of candidates.

* We included in this analysis a few primaries to determine an eventual general election winner over an incumbent from the other party and a special election for which only one party fielded candidates, making it effectively an open-seat primary race. We did not include primaries for the non-winning party.

©2018 Texas Election Source