With dozens of contested races up and down the ballot, the upcoming primary elections pose the biggest opportunity for hard-right insurgents to gain ground in the Texas Republican Party in nearly a decade.
And wherever there’s intra-party combat, you can bet that the biggest benefactors of the state’s right-wing movement—billionaires Tim Dunn and Farris Wilks—will be there, checkbooks in hand. In the final weeks before the March primary, these mega-donors are sinking millions into the GOP primary wars.
For more than a decade, the two West Texas oil and gas moguls have used their fortunes to finance an ideological crusade to oust the torchbearers of the party establishment and install champions of their far-right, theocratic agenda. For several years, Dunn’s vehicle of choice was a PAC called Empower Texans, into which he dumped millions of dollars trying to elect right-wing insurgents to the state Legislature. By 2018, the civil war he instigated had fizzled out and, with a tarnished political brand, Empower Texans quietly folded.
Now, like a pugilistic phoenix rising from the ashes, a PAC called Defend Texas Liberty—helmed by the recently retired right-wing state Representative Jonathan Stickland—has become the new vessel for their ideological crusade. In January, Dunn contributed $2.2 million and Wilks gave $2 million, according to the latest campaign finance report.
In turn, the PAC is cutting big checks to its favored warriors. Most notably, Defend Texas Liberty gave $1 million to former state senator and real estate developer Don Huffines, who’s waging a longshot primary bid against Governor Greg Abbott.
Polls have shown the governor with a commanding lead against his stable of right-wing challengers, but that seven-figure check—and the potential of more to come—is sure to keep Abbott on his toes as he tries to avoid getting forced into a May runoff. The PAC also gave $50,000 to one of Abbott’s top allies, embattled Attorney General Ken Paxton, who owes his seat to a $1 million loan to his campaign in 2014.
Dunn and Co. aren’t stopping at the statewide primaries. They’ve historically had the most electoral success by putting up big money behind challengers—and tarring GOP incumbents as liberal hacks—in state House and Senate races.
And after redistricting prompted dozens of retirements and revamped districts, the upcoming primary is a target-rich environment. As Quorum Report reported this week, Defend Texas Liberty is sending out mailers to voters ahead of early voting on February 14 attacking at least a dozen—and potentially as many as 25—Republican incumbents in the Texas House who have primary challengers.
The PAC is also directly bankrolling a handful of its top allies in legislative races, including Shelley Luther, the Dallas hair salon owner who became a conservative icon after getting jailed for defying pandemic-related business restrictions. She parlayed her newfound fame into a failed run for an open Senate seat in north Texas in 2020, which was financed in large part by Dunn, who personally gave her $1.7 million.
Now she’s running against Republican state Representative Reggie Smith, who represents a deep-red district along the Oklahoma border—this time with help from Dunn’s new PAC. Luther is trying to paint Smith as insufficiently conservative, using school choice as a wedge issue. At a candidate forum this past Saturday, Luther, who is a former public school teacher, lamented that she couldn’t tell her students to make fun of their transgender classmates.
“I am not comfortable with the transgenders,” Luther told the audience of Republican voters. “The kids that they brought in my classroom, when they said that this kid is transgendering into a different sex, that I couldn’t have kids laugh at them.”
Luther said transgender kids in public schools was the reason that she supports “school choice.” Last month, she said that Chinese students should be banned from public universities in Texas.
The $4.3 million from Dunn and Wilks may be just the start, as they’ve been known to pump money into races up until the last minute. We’ll see whether that money helps elect a fresh batch of right-wing legislators. If they win enough seats in the House, they may be able to pull off a coup against House Speaker Dade Phelan.