Earlier this decade, there was no more interesting subplot in Texas politics than the Republican Civil War, a somewhat grandiose name for the discomfort the tea party was causing the more polite faction of the GOP. But much of the “civil war,” to the extent that it was actually a thing, was really about a very specific grudge match: House Speaker Joe Straus and his friends versus a small faction of Texas megadonors who really, really, really did not like him.
It was a great story, weird and intricate. Straus was a committed Republican, who happens to be Jewish, governing the lower chamber of a deep-red state with the help of the Democratic Party. His foes were equally unique Texas characters. Midland oilman Tim Dunn, an evangelical Christian with more money than sense, desperately wanted the state to have a Christian speaker of the House. A few like-minded friends joined him as time went on, most notably the Wilks brothers.
So Dunn blessed his lieutenant, Michael Quinn Sullivan, the peculiar ringleader of Empower Texans, with an essentially unlimited credit line, and charged them with buying new members of the Texas House. It worked, kinda, sometimes. The ins and outs of that fight could fill a book. But now Straus is leaving of his own accord, and he’s apparently being replaced by Dennis Bonnen, a guy Empower hates. It’s the third body blow the organization has taken this year, after a miserable performance in the primaries and an equally bad one in the general election.
After a decade spent trying to remake Texas politics, Empower Texans has achieved nothing interesting or notable with Dunn’s money that could not have happened without him, and lost a lot of what ground they had gained in 2018. It looks at the moment like one of the most audacious and successful donor grifts in the history of Texas politics, a historically peerless campaign to keep a small subset of political consultants neck-deep in expensive whiskey and good cigars.
Let’s step back. Though it was formed before Barack Obama came to office, Empower Texans’ model piggybacked on the Obama backlash. When the state Republican Party was overwhelmingly dominant and moving to the right, Empower could boost far-right candidates in primaries and win important victories. They backed winners in statewide races (Dan Patrick, Ken Paxton) and in the state Senate (Konni Burton, Bob Hall) with a flood of campaign cash. Looking back, though, it’s difficult to judge how much of what happened in those races was actually dependent on Empower’s help, because this rightward shift was also occurring in nearly every other red state.
Empower’s central goal was to take control of the lower chamber and unseat Straus, without which gains in the Senate mean less. So the group and its affiliates spent most of its real effort on running House candidates in the GOP primary. Most years they’d knock a Straus friend or two off their perch and crow about it. But this method notched many more expensive failures than successes. Often their candidates were slightly off, prone to quoting Sun Tzu at inopportune times, say, or dressing up as a gay Nazi for Halloween. An extensive rehabilitation campaign followed the surfacing of Empower hero state Representative Jonathan Stickland’s previous comments, on a fantasy football forum, about marital rape and weed. The rumor was he’d had a second baptism.
“If they were running humans in these races,” a Straus supporter once told me, “we’d be done for.” Of the Empower Texans candidates who did get elected, very few ever accomplished anything notable at all. They were treated with breezy contempt on the House floor. Once, Straus ally Charlie Geren tied a string to a cookie to try to lure Stickland off the back mic. State Representative Matt Rinaldi was supposed to be Empower’s rising talent in the Lege, at least until he threatened to shoot a fellow lawmaker and got annihilated in his re-election bid.
Dunn’s money sloshed around in other, weirder ways, disappearing into agitprop shops and bizarre stunts. True Lege-heads miss the sureshot duo at AgendaWise, a blog in the orbit of Empower Texans that for years churned out posts that sounded like they were written by 19th-century Serbian revolutionaries, before being disappeared after doing a bad case of misogyny. At the end of 2014 they posted on their website a shot-for-shot remake of the music video of “Every Breath You Take,” the famous anthem about stalking. A few months later it came to light that their friends had been stalking state lawmakers, surreptitiously shooting video at Austin hangouts. Nothing much came of it. Empower Texans expanded into local elections and lost a lot more. They had a byzantine and expensive fight with the Texas Ethics Commission, which degraded state government but did little to build power for Dunn.
In 2018 Dunn and co. poured money into defending their guys. Most of that cash got flushed down the toilet. The little blue wave in the Legislature took out moderate and far-right Republicans alike, but Empower can less afford to lose people, because they have so few to begin with and the cost of installing them is so great. Empower lost more than $700,000 in North Texas defending Burton and Rinaldi, along with state Senator Don Huffines, and those losses create a vacuum that can’t be easily filled.
What’s more, it became clear that in certain political climates Empower’s successes can hurt the party. They unseated the hated moderate state Representative Jason Villalba in his primary. But they replaced him with Lisa Luby Ryan, an oddball anti-vaxxer who got stomped by a Democrat. Villalba might not have won either, but he had a better chance, just as pro-choice GOP state Representative Sarah Davis, who beat an Empower-backed candidate in the primary, retained her blue district in a year when she really shouldn’t have.
Worst of all, Empower finally got their wish — the Republican caucus selected a speaker on their own. But it’s Dennis Bonnen, one of Straus’ best friends, and someone who always seemed to delight in making fun of Empower guys on the floor. Empower literature has been pushing the line that Bonnen will be real mad about Straus’ other friends because they didn’t back him as speaker, or some such indecipherable nonsense, but that’s projection. If Bonnen retains a dislike for anybody, one suspects it might be Empower, who gave $102,000 to Bonnen’s primary opponent, the wonderfully named Damon Rambo. This is how Rambo spent it:
Better to be feared than loved, some famous Italian used to say, but better both than to be laughed at. Empower’s great bête noir rode off into the sunset and they have nothing to show for it except mortgage payments. One of the most important conditions for their success — a disengaged Republican and Democratic electorate — is on the wane, for the time being. If I was Dunn I’d mothball the place at least until there’s a change in the White House, but Democrats should hope that never, ever happens.
I asked Empower’s Cary Cheshire about what comes next for the group. “All I can do is point you to our mission statement,” he said. “We’ve been doing that since we were started and intend to keep doing it.” That’s as damning as anything I could think to say.
Truthfully, though, Empower is right about one thing: Too many Texas lawmakers are bought. The problem was that Empower simply wanted to buy them instead, and they proved to be pretty bad at it. Who won, then, in the Republican Civil War? Who wins with Bonnen’s imminent election to speaker? The people who always win — that great ancient order of the Texas Legislature, the lobby. They’ve been winning since before any of us were born and they’ll keep doing it long after we’re gone. Things, in other words, are getting back to normal.