Pay to Play: One Way to Get a Religious-Right Group's Endorsement?

by Dan Quinn

Conservative Republicans for Texas, a political action committee run by a longtime religious-right activist in Houston, has released its list of endorsements for the March 4 Republican primary in Texas.  A mailer sent to Texas voters age 65 and older lists the group’s endorsements. Most of the names aren’t a surprise — especially when you see where CRT has gotten much of its money in this election cycle.

Steven Hotze, who runs CRT, is a Houston physician with a long history of religious-right and anti-gay activism. We won’t list all of his group’s favorite candidates. (Click here to see part of the group’s endorsement mailer: ConsRepOfTexasMailer_2.2014.) But one of the candidates the group endorses is Barry Smitherman, a member of the Texas Railroad Commission who is running to replace Greg Abbott as the state’s attorney general.

Smitherman has become known for his extremist positions on a host of issues. Last October, for example, he defended white supremacist and other extremist organizations identified as hate groups by the respected Southern Poverty Law Center. (Smitherman thought the SPLC was unfairly criticizing the groups, which he lumped in with what he called “patriot, mormon, and judeo-christian religious groups.”) He also thinks aborted fetuses would have voted Republican, argues that climate change is not associated with carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases, and tweeted an image of a noose and the word “treason” beside the names of Republican U.S. senators who voted in favor of background checks for gun purchases.

But positions and comments like that are pretty standard for Republican politics in Texas these days. And Smitherman’s primary opponents, state Rep. Dan Branch and state Sen. Ken Paxton, are among the the state’s most conservative legislators. (Paxton, in particular, has often been a champion of far-right causes and groups in Texas.) So why did CRT give Smitherman its endorsement?

Well, the Texas Tribune published an article late last week that explained how candidates give money to some political action committees for printing and mailing out their endorsements. The piece identified CRT as just one example of a PAC that operates in such a way. Some candidates (especially, of course, those who don’t get a group’s endorsement) call such practices “pay to play” — with PACs tending to endorse candidates who send the most money their way.

So we checked campaign finance records CRT has filed with the Texas Ethics Commission. And guess what? Smitherman’s campaign gave $100,000 to CRT on January 3. Moreover, George Ryan, head of a tax consultancy business in Dallas, gave CRT $200,000 on the same day. And guess what else? Yup, Ryan has been a contributor to Smitherman’s campaign as well: $25,000 on December 17 of last year.

So of the just over $500,000 CRT reported raising since January 1, 2013, $300,000 came from Smitherman’s campaign and one of his campaign contributors. And now CRT has endorsed Smitherman in the Texas attorney general’s race.



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