Organizations that are independent of the candidates they support can be more pointed in their criticism of opponents, says one political expert.
AUSTIN — Republican Gov. Greg Abbott and his Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke have raised a combined total north of $160 million with three weeks still to go before the Nov. 8 election, and a handful of outside groups are adding millions more as they seek to influence the outcome.
Mothers Against Greg Abbott, a political action committee whose name is a takeoff on the Donald Trump-inspired acronym of MAGA, raised more than $1 million, almost $945,000 coming in from July through September, according to the most recent campaign finance reports filed with the Texas Ethics Commission.
Meanwhile, the National Rifle Association’s Political Victory Fund has spent more than $163,000 since July in its efforts to help Abbott defeat O’Rourke. And a third organization calling itself Coulda Been Worse, formed in Delaware as a limited liability corporation and operating outside the purview of the Ethics Commission, has reserved more than $10 million worth of TV ads targeting Abbott in markets across Texas in the runup to Election Day.
Mothers Against Greg Abbott is the brainchild of Austin resident Nancy Thompson, an El Paso native who moved to Texas’ capital city in 1995 just as Republicans were building their political majority in the state. Thompson, a mother of three, has a marketing background and her activism began in the summer of 2021 when she held a handmade sign with her organization’s slogan in front of the Capitol building to protest Abbott’s rollback of COVID-19 restrictions while the pandemic was still in the upswing.
After the U.S. Supreme Court in June overturned the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, the organization’s prime focus has been on abortion rights.
“I have a daughter who’s 16 who has fewer rights than I did when I was 16,” Thompson said. “That’s really worrisome to me.”
The organization’s most recent abortion-related ad, which appeared Oct. 13 on digital platforms, features an actor portraying a doctor who is advising an actor playing an expectant mom about what looks like a routine pregnancy. But then the shot widens to show the pregnant person to be just a child herself looking worried and perplexed — the subtext being that she’d be forced to carry the pregnancy to term under policies signed into law by Abbott.
An earlier ad shows a couple in a doctor’s office hearing about complications that threaten the viability of a pregnancy. The doctor, portrayed by the same actor, says “a decision will have to be made about termination.” As the woman begins to contemplate the decision, the doctor makes believe he has called Abbott, who tells him the pregnancy must continue.
“The best way to really get to people is through honesty, humor, satire and shock,” said Thompson, who added that 40 people with ties to the film industry, including Austin film writer/director Richard Linklater, have volunteered their expertise. “It has to be something that they can relate to. And that brings them into the topic matter.”
The NRA’s effort to defeat O’Rourke appears largely directed at gun rights supporters who might otherwise not vote. An essay posted on an NRA-related website in late summer says that even though O’Rourke has backed away from his “hell, yes” pledge to take away military-style rifles from civilians, gun confiscation remains his goal.
“This radical position plays well with some Democratic presidential primary voters. It doesn’t with the Texas electorate,” the NRA essay says. “That’s why the perennial loser has been working to muddle his gun control position.”
The NRA message continues a theme that Abbott had often used against O’Rourke before the May 24 mass shooting at Uvalde’s Robb Elementary School. Since then, the NRA-endorsed governor has mentioned the gun rights issue less frequently.
Less is known about Coulda Been Worse, whose name references Abbott’s remarks, later proved to be misleading, that Uvalde “could have been worse” had not law enforcement officers acted quickly and decisively. Later information showed that the 391 officers at the school hesitated 77 minutes before confronting the gunman.
Under Delaware law, limited liability corporations are not required to make public information about the people who formed them. A firm called AdImpact, which tracks political advertising spending in numerous races around the country, said the organization has reserved at least $10.4 million in ad buys.
The national nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center said the use of so-called dark money undercuts the public’s right to know who is financing political races and candidates.
“Voters need real transparency about who is spending on elections,” said Saurav Ghosh, the center’s director for federal reform. “When groups like this spend on political ads while concealing their funding sources, which are often corporations or special interests advancing their own agenda, voters are unable to weigh the credibility of the political ads they see, and are thus unable to cast an informed vote.”
Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Dallas’ Southern Methodist University, said third-party ads can be effective because they are often more pointed in their criticism of a candidate than an opponent might be in his or her own 30-second spots.
“It serves a dual purpose, both promoting the favorite candidate and destroying the opposition,” Jillson said. “You tend to get more heated rhetoric and you tend to get more black-and-white comparisons.”
Dave Carney, the Abbott campaign’s chief strategist, said in a conference call with reporters on Tuesday the two-term Republican is unconcerned about third-party spending on behalf of O’Rourke, saying the efforts have not been able “to move the needle.”
Polling over the past several weeks has shown Abbott holding steady leads ranging from 4 percentage points in the Oct. 12 Marist College poll to around 9 points in the Sept. 19 Dallas Morning News/UT-Tyler poll.
Chris Evans, spokesman for the O’Rourke campaign, said the Democrat is not coordinating ad spending with either third-party organization seeking to blunt Abbott’s reelection. Evans said the campaign has made no effort to find out the names behind Coulda Been Worse.
On the NRA’s effort, Evans said, “they’re preaching to the choir.”
John C. Moritz covers Texas government and politics for the USA Today Network in Austin. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @JohnnieMo.