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Greg Abbott, Tim Dunn spend millions in Texas GOP primary fights over vouchers, impeachment

By Robert Downen and Karen Brooks Harper, The Texas Tribune

Greg Abbott, Tim Dunn spend millions in Texas GOP primary fights over vouchers, impeachment” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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Texas Republican leaders, megadonors and political groups are spending massively ahead of the March 5 primary, pouring millions of dollars into campaigns that have become a litmus test for the Texas GOP’s future amid deepened fissures over school vouchers and Attorney General Ken Paxton’s impeachment.

New campaign finance reports show just how expensive the Texas GOP’s ongoing civil war has gotten, with political interest groups such as Texans For Lawsuit Reform doling out more than $6 million in the last month to a mix of incumbents and PACs; and a small group of voucher supporters, state leaders and far-right megadonors separately injecting at least another $8 million into the primaries.

From Jan. 26 to Feb 24, the most recent campaign finance reporting period, Gov. Greg Abbott spent $6.1 million as part of his ongoing quest to stack the Texas House with members who will pass school voucher legislation. Last year, about two dozen Republicans joined with Democrats to block Abbott’s yearlong crusade to pass a law allowing state dollars to subsidize private school funding. Pro-voucher groups have aided Abbott’s efforts, pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into challengers’ accounts in cash and ads.

Over the same period, far-right billionaires such as Tim Dunn have ramped up their giving. In the last reporting period, Dunn’s new group, Texans United For A Conservative Majority, spent more than $2.5 million as part of their campaign to oust incumbent Texas House members who voted last summer to impeach Paxton, a key ally of the state’s right wing. Paxton was acquitted by the Senate.

Paxton, who has endorsed the roughly one-third of House Republicans who resisted his impeachment on corruption accusations, didn’t spend any money on those races. Most of his cash is going to legal fees, according to campaign finance reports.

Voucher fight goes to the districts

Abbott’s spending spree in the most recent fundraising period was largely aimed at 10 GOP primary challengers to anti-voucher Republicans in the Texas House. Abbott spent about $4.4 million on mostly ads, polling and canvassing for those challengers. For those 10 challengers, Abbott’s spending made up almost all of their campaign funding for the period.

Abbott spent another $1.5 million in open-seat races and defending House Republican incumbents — like Rep. Ellen Troxclair of Austin — who supported vouchers, but are facing heated primary contests because of their votes to impeach Paxton.

Abbott’s voucher effort has been bolstered by a record-setting $6 million contribution from pro-voucher activist Jeff Yass in December.

The top beneficiary of the governor’s funding from Jan. 26 through Feb. 24 was Marc LaHood, who received $672,410 in ad spending and other services from Abbott, representing some 81% of his fundraising for that period. LaHood is trying to unseat three-term state Rep. Steve Allison in his San Antonio district.

Close behind him was Janis Holt, who received $671,300 in ad spending from Abbott in her primary against state Rep. Ernest Bailes. That ad spend made up 92% of her total haul for the most recent fundraising period. Bailes, a Shepherd Republican and voucher opponent, lashed out at Abbott last week for his efforts to unseat otherwise loyal Republicans.

“My unwillingness to be a puppet, is why I am challenged so aggressively and by so much money this election,” Bailes said on Facebook.

Bailes and other anti-voucher Republicans were boosted by the Charles E. Butt Public Education PAC, which poured $1.3 million into 11 GOP incumbents’ campaigns.

Half of that was spent defending Allison and Bailes. Allison barely outraised his challenger with $889,000 in contributions — about $60,000 more than LaHood — while Bailes raised about $50,000 less than Holt in the most recent reporting period.

Abbott’s pro-voucher quest was aided by other PACs.

The AFC Victory Fund super PAC, formed expressly to support private school vouchers, spent some $784,000 in Texas last month and collected $2.5 million in donations from less than a dozen donors.

The PAC spent almost $450,000 on direct mail against those anti-voucher incumbents, with some of the heaviest financial firepower reserved for state Rep. Glenn Rogers, R-Graford, who is battling for his third term west of Fort Worth against Paxton and Abbott favorite Mike Olcott.

Olcott also received a $50,000 donation this month from Dunn, whose groups have for years sought to unseat Rogers, a longtime foe and vocal critic of the billionaire’s political network.

“I can’t be controlled by radical billionaire special interests. I represent YOU, the people of my district,” Rogers wrote on X this week.

The pro-voucher Family Empowerment Coalition PAC spent nearly $600,000 last month, mainly on House races. It raised nearly half a million from donors in January including $100,000 from Dallas billionaires Darwin and Douglas Deason, and a quarter-million from Andrew Price, an Austin-area billionaire investor.

Holt took in $50,000 from the Family Empowerment Coalition PAC. She got another $5,000 from Texans United for a Conservative Majority, as well as a “campaign endorsement text message” from Texans for [Lt. Gov.] Dan Patrick valued at $3,318. The rest of her $2,400 in contribution came from 11 individual donors, several outside the district.

Dunn reemerges

Dunn meanwhile gave $1.75 million in February to Texans United for A Conservative Majority, which was created late last year after another Dunn-funded group, Defend Texas Liberty, was embroiled in controversy over its ties to Nick Fuentes and other white supremacists. The PAC also received $1.3 million last month from Farris Wilks, another West Texas oil tycoon who funded Defend Texas Liberty.

After laying low in the last quarter of 2023, Dunn’s new group poured roughly $3.4 million into campaigns and ad buys amid an ongoing war with the Texas GOP’s more moderate, but still deeply conservative, wing. In February alone, Texans United for a Conservative Majority spent roughly $2.5 million.

Instead of vouchers, the group has focused more on ousting incumbents who backed Paxton’s impeachment, or supporting candidates who share their hardline views on the border or LGBTQ+ issues.

Since Jan. 26, Texans United for a Conservative Majority has given $194,000 in support to David Covey’s challenge to House Speaker Dade Phelan, who has been targeted by Dunn’s groups for his role in the Paxton impeachment, his appointment of Democrats to minor House committee chairs and his sharp criticism of Defend Texas Liberty in the wake of the Fuentes scandal.

The PAC also gave $180,000 in support to Andy Hooper, who is challenging Rep. Lynn Stucky of Denton; $180,000 to Brent Money ahead of a rematch of a January run-off in which he narrowly lost to Jill Dutton in North Texas; and $103,000 to Mitch Little, a former member of Paxton’s impeachment defense team who is challenging Rep. Kronda Thimesch, R-Lewisville .

The PAC is also backing some of its former candidates, including Shelley Luther, who ran for the Texas House in 2022 after being jailed for refusing to close her salon during Abbott’s pandemic-era shutdown; and Biedermann, whose previous tenure in the Texas House was bankrolled by groups connected to Dunn.

Since Jan. 26, Texans United has given $133,000 in contributions or ad buys for Luther’s campaign. It also gave $83,000 to Biedermann days before he was roundly criticized for defending Bryan Slaton, a former state representative who was bankrolled by Dunn’s groups until he was expelled last year for having sex with a drunk, 19-year-old aide.

Big TLR money

Meanwhile, the Texas GOP’s business wing has continued to spend big in support of incumbents in the Texas House and Court of Criminal Appeals, both of which have drawn the ire of Paxton and his allies.

Leading the way has been Texans For Lawsuit Reform, a powerful pro-tort reform PAC, associated with backing the Republican establishment, that entered the year with more than $35 million in its coffers. Since Jan. 1, TLR has spent more than $8.2 million — including more than $6.5 million in the last month.

Among the PAC’s biggest beneficiaries: Troxclair, who since Jan. 26 has received $583,000 amid a challenge from Biedermann. and Joanne Shofner, whose campaign against incumbent Rep. Travis Clardy received $408,000 from TLR. Clardy was an outlier in the House for voting against vouchers but also vocally opposing Paxton’s impeachment.

Shofner and Troxclair have also been backed by Abbott, who since Jan. 26 has given them $368,000 and $237,000 in support, respectively.

In February, TLR also matched a $477,000 contribution from Phelan’s campaign to the Secure Our Border Now PAC, which supports the speaker’s House allies. TLR also gave $250,000 to the Judicial Fairness PAC, which is supporting three incumbent judges on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals who have been targeted by Paxton for ruling that his office can’t unilaterally prosecute local voting crimes.

Phelan, protecting his own supporters in the House, spent some $1.3 million of his considerable war chest just since late January on incumbents battling well-funded opponents. Receiving the most were Reps. Lacey Hull of Houston with $125,000, Matt Shaheen with $130,000 and Lynn Stucky with $95,000.

Phelan raised $3.8 million in the past month as he defends his own Beaumont district against an onslaught from Abbott, Patrick, Paxton and hard-right grassroots who accuse of him of party disloyalty.

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