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Republican Leaders, Donors Clash In State Senate Special Election This Saturday

Shelley Luther holds a citation while talking to a Dallas police officer.
LM Otero
Associated Press
Shelley Luther, earlier this year in her Dallas salon.

Voting is set for Saturday in a divisive runoff for the Texas State Senate District 30 seat formerly held by Pat Fallon.

Texas has only 31 state Senate seats, giving each person considerable power over laws and policy in the Lone Star State. And while special elections do not typically draw significant voter interest, Saturday’s runoff in State Senate District 30 certainly matters to elites within the Republican Party.

The contest pits newcomer Shelley Luther against state Rep.Drew Springer (R-Muenster). Luther gained fame after reopening her Dallas salon against the shutdown order of Gov. Greg Abbott during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic. She used that moment to launch a run for the seat held by Republican Pat Fallon, who’s headed to Congress.

According to recent campaign finance disclosures, elites occupying two different factions in the GOP are investing heavily in the race.

“Springer is definitely a mainstream, very conservative Republican,” said Joanne Connor Green, professor of political science at Texas Christian University. She said Luther, by contrast, is running as a Tea Party-style populist.

“That really is some of the tension right now within the state Republican Party, and so this particular race illustrates that in a nicely symbolic way,” Green said.

Different Conservative Funders

On one side are business interests backing Springer, like Texans for Lawsuit Reform (TLR), a group that advocates for laws that make it harder to sue companies. TLR has given Springer’s campaign at least $240,000 this year, according to filings with the Texas Ethics Commission. Other business groups have also donated to Springer. The Texas Association of Realtors contributed at least $15,000, and the Texas Farm Bureau AGFUND has given at least $75,000.

He's received $50,000 from the PAC of outgoing House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and $2,500 from the campaign of Dade Phelan, who will likely be the next speaker.

Gov. Greg Abbott is another big supporter. Abbott endorsed Springer earlier this month, and his campaign has given at least $265,000 worth of in-kind contributions to the Springer campaign.

Luther’s campaign, on the other hand, has received at least $1.7 million of her funding from Tim Dunn — this includes a $1 million loan. Dunn is CEO of the oil and gas firm CrownQuest and chairman of Empower Texans. Empower Texans has funded primary challenges to Abbott allies, sending politicians to Austin that are even more ideologically-driven and dedicated to cutting taxes and spending.

A PAC funded by Dunn, Defend Texas Liberty PAC, has given Luther’s campaign an additional $34,779.

Mark P. Jones, a fellow in political science at the Baker Institute at Rice University, noted on Twitter that almost 90% of the money powering Luther’s campaign has come from Dunn.

Screenshot of Mark P. Jones tweet listing percentages of Shelley Luther's campaign donations.

The two candidates are campaigning by criticizing each other’s financial backers.

During a Wednesday debate on the Chris Salcedo Show, Springer called Luther “somebody who’s taken $1.7 million from a billionaire in West Texas who’s trying to buy this seat.”

Springer said Dunn “knows he will control Shelley Luther, and that’s why he’s willing to spend that kind of money.”

Luther called on Springer to stop accepting lobbyist money.

“When our legislators stop taking all of that [lobbyist] money, then that’s when our taxpayers can keep their money and spend it on things that are crucial — like fire departments, police departments, roads,” she said.

Luther also criticized Abbott for choosing a side in the race, “when there’s two Republicans.”

Pretty Close On Policy

The two candidates have minor differences on policy. When they debated, both advocated for increasing consumption taxes as a way to reduce property taxes and for parents to have choices as to where to send their children to school. They both want to end cities’ and counties’ ability to use taxpayer money to pay professional lobbyists to track and lobby on legislation in Austin.

Regarding Gov. Abbott’s disaster powers, Springer has introduced legislation that would create a board to oversee those powers during an emergency like a pandemic. Earlier in the coronavirus outbreak, he called for a special session to address the governor’s orders.

Luther's political career was launched in opposition to Abbott’s COVID-19 response. In the debate, she said one of her top priorities is “making sure that the government isn’t taking away our liberty.”

‘It’s More About Perception’

Special elections often have very low turnout, and experts expect this one will be no exception.

Before the first round of voting in September, Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at UT-Austin, said a special election like this can’t be used to know what’s happening in the broader Republican Party. There's simply not enough participation in special elections.

“In statistical terms, it’s a bad sample,” he said.

Despite that, TCU’s Green said if Luther were to win after running on a platform that’s more overtly against the governor’s COVID actions, her allies could use the victory to say their views are ascendant.

“The people who agree with this could use this as a proxy referendum on the governor and his actions,” Green said. “Whether or not that’s actually the case is another issue — but it’s more about perception in politics [than] perhaps objective reality.”

Got a tip? Email Bret Jaspers at You can follow Bret on Twitter @bretjaspers.

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Bret Jaspers is a reporter for KERA. His stories have aired nationally on the BBC, NPR’s newsmagazines, and APM’s Marketplace. He collaborated on the series Cash Flows, which won a 2020 Sigma Delta Chi award for Radio Investigative Reporting. He's a member of Actors' Equity, the professional stage actors union.