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Amid white supremacist scandal, far-right billionaire powerbrokers see historic election gains in Texas

By Robert Downen, The Texas Tribune

Amid white supremacist scandal, far-right billionaire powerbrokers see historic election gains in Texas” 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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West Texas oil billionaires Tim Dunn and Farris Wilks entered the 2024 primary election cycle wounded.

Their political network was in the middle of a scandal over its ties to white supremacists. Republicans were calling on each other to reject the billionaires’ campaign money. And their enemies believed they were vulnerable — one bad election day from losing their grip on the state.

Instead, Dunn and Wilks emerged from Tuesday perhaps stronger than ever — vanquishing old political foes, positioning their allies for a November takeover of the state Legislature, and leaving little doubt as to who is winning a vicious civil war to control the state party.

In race after race, more moderate conservative incumbents were trounced by candidates backed by Dunn and Wilks. Their political network made good on its vows for vengeance against House Republicans who voted to impeach their key state ally, Attorney General Ken Paxton, advancing more firebrands who campaigned against bipartisanship and backed anti-LGBTQ+ policies. Tuesday’s election also paved the way for the likely passage of legislation that would allow taxpayer money to fund private and religious schools — a key policy goal for a movement that seeks to infuse more Christianity into public life.

All told, 11 of the 28 House candidates supported by the two billionaires won their primaries outright, and another eight are headed to runoffs this May. And, in a sign of how much the state party has moved rightward, five of their candidates beat incumbents in rematches from 2022 or 2020 — with some House districts swinging by double-digits in their favor. Of the candidates they backed, they donated $75,000 or more to 11 of them — six who won, and four who went to runoffs.

Tuesday was a stark contrast from just two years ago, when Dunn and Wilks’ top political fundraising group poured $5.2 million into a host of longshot candidates — much more than what they spent in the current election cycle. They lost badly that year — 18 of the 19 challengers to Texas House members they backed were defeated. Their only successful House candidate that year was Stan Kitzman of Pattison, who toppled former Rep. Phil Stephenson of Wharton in a runoff.

Among the triumphant on Tuesday was Mitch Little, aided by at least $153,000 in Dunn and Wilks cash, who defeated Rep. Kronda Thimesch in a campaign that focused on Little’s defense of Paxton from impeachment charges in the Senate trial last summer. Three days before he won, Little appeared at an event in Denton County with Paxton and, among others, Steve Bannon, the political operative who helped rally the far right behind then-candidate Donald Trump in 2016.

And another Dunn and Wilks candidate, David Covey, stunned the state by winning more votes than House Speaker Dade Phelan — the No. 1 target of the state’s far-right in part because of his role in the Paxton impeachment and refusal to ban Democrats from House leadership positions. Phelan now faces a runoff from Covey and the prospect of being the first Texas Speaker since 1972 to lose his primary.

Certainly, Tuesday’s dark-red wave can’t be attributed solely to Dunn and Wilks. Texas GOP primaries have historically been decided by small shares of voters, many of them further to the right of even the party’s mainstream. This election cycle, the billionaires’ targets also overlapped with an unlikely ally, Gov. Greg Abbott, who poured more than $6 million into his quest to rid the Texas House of Republicans who defied his calls for school voucher legislation last year. (Dunn and Wilks’ political groups supported Abbott’s opponent in his 2022 gubernatorial primary.)

Meanwhile, Paxton barnstormed the state as he sought retribution against incumbents who supported his impeachment. And, perhaps most importantly, former President Donald Trump was active in many contests — following the lead of Paxton and his other ally, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and offering late endorsements that bolstered right-wing candidates.

Even so, the billionaires’ fingerprints appear all over the outcomes. Since January, they spent more than $3 million to support candidates through a new political action committee, Texans United For a Conservative Majority. That PAC is a rebrand of Defend Texas Liberty PAC, which has been at the center of a political maelstrom since early October.

That controversy started barely two weeks after the state Senate acquitted Paxton in his impeachment trial — and as Defend Texas Liberty was gearing up for retribution in the primaries.

Jonathan Stickland, then the president of Defend Texas Liberty, was caught hosting Nick Fuentes, a prominent antisemite and white supremacist, prompting Dunn to issue a rare public statement through the lieutenant governor. Stickland was quietly removed from his position with the PAC.

Subsequent reporting by The Texas Tribune revealed other ties between white supremacists and groups funded by Dunn and Wilks, prompting outcry from some Republicans and calls for the Texas GOP to distance itself from Stickland’s groups.

As votes continued to tally in the far right’s favor this week, Stickland returned from a post-scandal social media sabbatical to gloat.

“We warned them,” Stickland wrote Wednesday on X, one of the handful of posts he’s made since shrinking from the public eye after the Fuentes meeting. “They chose not to listen. Now many are gone.”

Dunn and Wilks both made their fortunes in West Texas oil and, in the last 15 years, have poured more than $100 million into a constellation of political action committees, dark money groups, nonprofits and media websites that they have used to push the state GOP further to the right.

Their strategy has been to incrementally move the party toward their hardline views by painting fellow conservatives as weak and ineffectual — as “RINOs,” or Republicans in name only — and promising well-funded primary challengers to lawmakers who defy their network and its aims. With almost endless wealth, they have poured millions of dollars into inexperienced candidates who often lose but advance the far right’s long-term goals by slowly normalizing once-fringe positions, bruising incumbents, depleting their campaign coffers and making them more vulnerable in the next election cycle.

For years, many Republicans have denounced the strategy, noting that the state Legislature is routinely ranked as the most conservative in the country and warning that Dunn and Wilks’ no-enemies-to-our-right approach to politics would eventually cost the party elections and open the doors to outright extremists.

This year’s elections show just how successful the billionaires have been in pulling the party toward their hardline views.

In House District 62, Shelley Luther, a former hair salon owner who rose to fame after being jailed for defying COVID-19 lockdown measures, beat Republican Rep. Reggie Smith by 7 percentage points — a stunning, 24-point swing from the 2022 primary. Luther has run for office twice and lost. In her last run, she said that she was not comfortable with transgender children and complained that students shouldn’t be punished for making fun of them. She received more than $183,000 in support from Texans United For a Conservative Majority this cycle.

Rep. Lynn Stucky, R-Denton, is headed to a May runoff against Andy Hopper, who received at least $280,000 in support from Dunn and Wilks this year. It’s the second time they’ve squared off — Stucky narrowly defeated Hopper in 2022. Hopper and his family have close ties to Dunn and Wilks: One of his sons, Chris Hopper, leads the anti-LGBTQ+ Texas Family Project; and another of his sons, Sam, works for a consulting firm that is owned by Stickland and rebranded after the Fuentes scandal.

Meanwhile, Brent Money prevailed in his rematch against Rep. Jill Dutton after losing to her in a January special election to replace Bryan Slaton, a former state representative whose career was bankrolled by Dunn and Wilks until he was unanimously expelled from the House last year for having sex with a drunk, 19-year-old aide. (Another Dunn and Wilks-backed candidate, Kyle Biedermann, lost his Tuesday rematch with Rep. Ellen Troxclair, R-Austin, after defending Slaton last month — but still received 43% of votes).

In House District 53, the Dunn and Wilks-backed Wesley Virdell, a gun rights lobbyist, won 60% of votes in his race to replace Rep. Andew Murr, a Junction Republican who retired last year after leading the House’s failed impeachment of Paxton — and as Dunn and Wilks groups promised revenge. Two years prior, Murr trounced Virdell in the GOP primary. Virdell and Covey, the challenger to Phelan, have both signed a pledge to support a referendum on Texas secession.

Rep. Jacey Jetton, R-Richmond, was soundly defeated by Matt Morgan, an Abbott-backed candidate who also received more than $75,000 in support from Texans United For A Conservative Majority this cycle. Morgan won by 15 points — a reversal from 2020, when he lost by 5 points to Jetton in a runoff.

And in House District 60, Rep. Glenn Rogers lost Tuesday by more than 27 points in another rematch. His opponent, Mike Olcott, lost to Rogers by 1 point in a 2022 runoff despite support from Wilks and Dunn. Backed this time by the billionaires and Abbott, Olcott walloped Rogers — an outspoken enemy of the state’s far right.

Rogers made no secret of who he blamed for his loss, accusing Abbott of telling “blatant lies” as part of his $6 million spending spree against House members who broke with him on school voucher legislation last year.

But the bulk of Rogers’ ire was reserved for Dunn and Wilks — the “two billionaire, ‘Christian’ nationalist power brokers that run this state.”

“History will prove that our current state government is the most corrupt ever and is ‘bought’ by a few radical dominionist billionaires seeking to destroy public education, privatize our public schools and create a Theocracy that is both un-American and un-Texan,” Rogers wrote in a Wednesday op-ed in the Weatherford Democrat. “May God save Texas!”

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