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Hours before the Texas House overwhelmingly voted to impeach Ken Paxton in May, a well-funded supporter of the attorney general issued a threat to his fellow Republicans.
A vote to impeach Paxton, Jonathan Stickland wrote on Twitter, “is a decision to have a primary.”
“Wait till you see my PAC budget,” he later added.
Stickland is the leader of Defend Texas Liberty, a political action committee that has donated millions of dollars to far-right candidates in the state. It is a key part of the constellation of political campaigns, institutions and dark-money groups that a trio of West Texas oil tycoons — Tim Dunn and brothers Farris and Dan Wilks — have pumped small fortunes into as part of a long-term crusade to push Texas to the extreme right.
And, until last month, no state politician had received more money from those groups than Paxton, who has in turn used his office to push ultraconservative priorities while declining to defend state agencies in numerous lawsuits filed by groups connected to Dunn and the Wilks brothers, including those seeking to undermine the state’s campaign finance laws.
Now, with the clock ticking toward Paxton’s September impeachment trial before the Texas Senate, Stickland and his far-right friends are fighting hard and spending big to protect their most important ally — and to stave off a major loss amid their ongoing fight for control of the Texas GOP.
The Paxton drama comes at a crucial time for the state’s ultraconservative wing, which has been increasingly criticized by moderate Republicans who have grown weary of their purity tests and attacks even as the state drifts further to the right. The Wilks and Dunn orbit also has been hobbled by a series of divisive, costly — and largely unsuccessful — primary races and the removal of former Rep. Bryan Slaton, whose political life was subsidized by Defend Texas Liberty until he was expelled from the House in May for having sex with a 19-year-old aide he got drunk.
Those losses, coupled with intraparty animus, have raised the groups’ stakes in the Paxton trial.
“The Paxton impeachment could be the most high-profile stumble for the far right of the Texas GOP,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a University of Houston political science professor. “Paxton was their shining star but now looks more like a shooting star.”
The Wilks brothers could not be reached for comment. Dunn did not respond to multiple interview requests or a detailed list of questions emailed to him. Stickland declined an interview and did not respond to questions via text.
An old relationship
Over the past 20 years, Dunn and the Wilks brothers have sunk nearly $100 million into a sprawling mix of nonprofits, political campaigns, think tanks, fundraising committees and websites to advance their far-right religious, economic and anti-LGBTQ+ views.
But their groups were not always so laser focused on the red-meat social issues that they’ve helped thrust into the mainstream of today’s GOP. In the mid to late 2000s, their primary influence came from Dunn through a handful of groups — the Texas Public Policy Foundation, Texans for Fiscal Responsibility and Empower Texans — that pushed libertarian, small-government economic and tax policies.
As with now, the strategy was simple: Pull the party’s middle further to the right by labeling other Republicans — particularly Joe Straus, the GOP speaker of the House from 2009-19 — as ineffective moderates in bed with liberals to suppress conservative priorities. Those attacks were disseminated through a well-funded media ecosystem to a grassroots base motivated by the election of President Barack Obama, the Tea Party movement, the proliferation of social media and an influx of dark money unleashed by the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.
Since the beginning, the groups have aimed “to force retirements or defeat moderate incumbents in primaries, really almost to the exclusion of any other strategic goal,” said Matt Mackowiak, chair of the Travis County GOP and a longtime Republican political consultant.
“It’s about convincing incumbents that if they don’t vote as conservatives, then they’ll be put at political risk,” he said.
And the billionaire-backed groups have always liked Paxton.
In 2009, Texans for Fiscal Responsibility gave Paxton, who was then a state representative, the “Taxpayer Champion Award.” A year later, the group hailed him for his bill rejecting Obama’s signature Affordable Care Act. And, ahead of the 2011 legislative session, Empower Texans wrote glowingly of Paxton as he challenged Straus for House speaker, framing the McKinney Republican as a man-of-the-people conservative who was unafraid to confront the House’s effete RINOs — Republicans in Name Only — and their supposed liberal allies.
“This is the first time in modern history when Texans can express their preference on the speaker’s race and involve themselves in it,” Empower Texans wrote in November 2010. “Some in the Austin power elite — including the media — don’t like it.”
Paxton dropped out of the speaker’s race shortly before the vote but a year later was elected to the Texas Senate, where he spent two years before launching his 2014 bid for attorney general. Despite initially trailing in the polls, Paxton defeated the better-funded, establishment candidate Dan Branch in the GOP primary runoff — with help from his West Texas friends.
In what The Dallas Morning News described at the time as an “unusual arrangement,” Dunn and Empower Texans backed a $1 million loan to Paxton that helped narrow Branch’s financial edge and pay for a late TV advertising campaign. Paxton also received a boost from freshmen U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, a Tea Party darling whose unexpected rise was aided by a super PAC that received $15 million from the Wilks brothers.
One year later, as news broke of Paxton’s indictment for securities fraud, those allies again came to his defense. Previewing the claims they’d make after his 2023 impeachment, Empower Texans insinuated conspiracy theories that framed Paxton as the victim of a witch hunt orchestrated by House Republicans and left-wing activists.
“Time will tell how long it will take for Paxton to clear his name and rebut the politically-charged attacks against him,” Tony McDonald, a longtime attorney for Dunn- and Wilks-connected groups, wrote at the time for Empower Texans. “But will we ever know the true role Republican House leadership played in launching the probe?”
The 2015 securities fraud charges, related to Paxton’s work soliciting investors in Servergy Inc. without disclosing that the McKinney tech company was paying him for the work, have yet to go to trial amid a series of appeals by prosecutors and defense lawyers.
In the years since, a mutually beneficial relationship has continued, with Paxton pushing policies favored by the far right as the billionaires filled his campaign coffers with millions of dollars.
Campaign finance records show that since 2002, Dunn, the Wilks family and their affiliated groups have collectively given more than $2.85 million to Paxton — 6.8% of his total fundraising, and nearly double what he’s received from his second-biggest donor, Texans for Lawsuit Reform PAC. Add in the two loans that they’ve backed or given — including one that remains outstanding for $750,000 — and their support tops $4.65 million.
That money has helped keep Paxton afloat in recent years as his legal troubles mounted, approval ratings dipped and some key donors invested elsewhere.
After Texans for Lawsuit Reform PAC gave $626,000 to Paxton’s 2022 primary challenger Eva Guzman, Defend Texas Liberty helped lift his campaign, giving him more money than ever and floating him a $750,000 loan. And last month, as Paxton and his high-profile defense team continued to spar with House impeachment managers, Dunn donated another $150,000 to the suspended attorney general’s campaign. Neither Paxton nor his attorneys have disclosed who is paying for his impeachment defense.
Recent financial disclosures also show that in June, Defend Texas Liberty gave $3 million in loans and donations to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who will preside over Paxton’s impeachment trial in the Texas Senate.
Hours after the donations were made public, Stickland again took to Twitter. “This is just the beginning,” he wrote. “Wait till you see the next report. We will never stop. Ever.”
Texas is among a handful of states with no limits on individual political contributions in state races. Since Defend Texas Liberty PAC was created in 2020, Dunn and Farris Wilks have given at least $14.5 million to the organization. They also helped bankroll Stickland’s career in the Legislature before he took over the group.
The Texas Tribune sent interview requests and lists of questions to Paxton’s lead impeachment attorney, his campaign and two communications firms working on his behalf. None responded. Patrick’s campaign and office did not return requests for comment.
“So too has Ken Paxton”
Millie Black, a political science professor at Collin College’s Wylie campus, said it’s often difficult to gauge the extent to which high-dollar donors impact politicians once they’re in office, particularly on social issues.
But it’s clear, she said, that Paxton’s public evolution from a small-government budget hawk into a red-meat social conservative has corresponded with the Texas GOP’s move to the right, a shift that was influenced heavily by Dunn and the Wilks brothers.
Publicly, “he has not always been so far to the right,” Black said of Paxton, whose legislative career mostly emphasized conservative economic policy. “But as the Republican Party has grown in its conservatism, so too has Ken Paxton.”
Since his election as attorney general, Paxton has used his office to rally behind the ultraconservative social issues and anti-LGBTQ positions favored by his biggest donors and their allies.
In 2017, Paxton pitched business leaders on the controversial “bathroom bill” that would have cracked down on transgender-friendly restroom and locker room policies. And he has routinely issued legal opinions that bolstered priority issues for groups connected to Dunn and Wilks, including “school choice” programs, challenges to Texas’ prohibitions on giving public money to religious institutions and bans on gender-affirming care for transgender minors.
Paxton has wielded power in other ways as well.
“Policymaking is not just what you do, but also what you don’t,” Rottinghaus said. “By ignoring some things and emphasizing others, politicians are effectively reshaping policy. The attorney general … has a lot of ability to shape policy at the margins” as the state’s top lawyer.
A handful of times, Paxton has declined to perform a core function of his office: defend state agencies from lawsuits — including those directly connected to his biggest donors.
In one instance, Paxton declined to defend the Texas Ethics Commission against a lawsuit, filed by Empower Texans, that sought to strip the agency of its core oversight of campaign finance. As a result of Paxton’s decision — which watchdog groups called “rare” at the time — the ethics commission made an emergency, $600,000 budget request in 2018 to lawmakers to pay for private lawyers in the matter.
In a separate lawsuit, Paxton’s office again did not represent the ethics commission after Empower Texans head Michael Quinn Sullivan challenged his $10,000 fine for failing to register as a lobbyist while leading the group in 2010 and 2011. In that case, Empower Texans’ lawyers argued that Sullivan was the victim of a “witch hunt” orchestrated by Straus’ “cronies,” and that he and his group should have been exempt from registering as lobbyists because they were acting as journalists.
Those two lawsuits and their subsequent appeals have collectively cost the ethics commission more than $1 million in outside legal expenses, general counsel Jim Tinley said last week. That total is likely to climb if Sullivan successfully petitions for the case to be heard by the Texas Supreme Court. Tinley declined to comment on other questions about Empower Texans, citing pending litigation.
The attorney general’s office did not respond to a request for comment, but officials have previously said the decisions aligned with the office’s “first obligation to defend the Constitution and the basic rights it guarantees to each and every Texan.”
The commission’s former chair still disagrees.
In an interview this month, Chase Untermeyer said Paxton’s hands-off approach in the Empower Texans lawsuits was upsetting, if somewhat expected given his ties to the group. But even if Paxton disagreed with the agency’s mission, Untermeyer said, he still had a duty to protect it as it carried out its “obligations under the state constitution to pursue” violations.
At one point, Untermeyer said, Paxton’s office stopped enforcing subpoenas issued by the agency — a “particularly appalling” decision that Untermeyer said undercut an investigation into Empower Texans.
“The only thing worse than not being represented by Ken Paxton would have been to be represented by Ken Paxton — because we did not have full faith that he was on our side,” Untermeyer said. “We can understand how the attorney general, for some reason of his own choosing, might not want to represent the ethics commission in a district or appellate court. But to not even support the principle of a state agency, a constitutional agency, issuing subpoenas, was a particular aggravation.”
Paxton has had his own issues with the ethics commission: He has repeatedly been criticized for failing to timely disclose significant campaign donors or the addresses of some properties owned by him and his wife, state Sen. Angela Paxton.
In 2016, the agency ruled that Paxton could not accept out-of-state donations to a legal defense fund in his securities fraud case. And last year, the Houston Chronicle found that Paxton had declined to sue hundreds of political candidates and lawmakers to collect more than $700,000 in fines for campaign disclosure violations assessed by the agency.
“Rules for thee, not for me”
For six years, Zachary Maxwell saw firsthand how West Texas oil money slowly reshaped the state’s political landscape — including through the numerous conservative campaigns he helped lead and, later, as chief of staff for former Rep. Mike Lang, the leader of the House’s ultraconservative Freedom Caucus. He also briefly worked for the Empower Texans-affiliated Texas Scorecard as a staff writer.
Maxwell ultimately left that world because of what he said was hypocrisy from the Dunn and Wilks cohort, who he said were almost singularly focused on conservative “chest beating” as a means of pulling the party’s mainstream views to the right and accumulating political power.
“It is rules for thee, not for me,” he said of Empower Texans and its affiliated groups, including Defend Texas Liberty. “They do not care about how Austin is run — they care about running Austin. They care about who can scream the loudest, and usually that ends up being people with the least amount of integrity. And the entire Legislature is sick and tired of it. Nothing is good enough. And the second you get off course, you’re going to get hammered.”
“It’s just exhausting,” added Maxwell, who still works in conservative politics. “But it’s the cost of doing business.”
Maxwell is not the only Texas Republican to express such frustrations. In recent years, prominent conservatives have complained about the groups’ frequent attacks from the right, and the perpetual purity tests that they worry may ultimately push the Texas GOP too far to the extremes.
The backlash was evident during the 2018 primaries, when conservative business leaders, worried about the effects of Empower Texans’ social policies on the state’s business climate, spent more than $3 million to defeat the group’s slate of far-right candidates. Bemoaning the races’ vitriol at the time, one prominent conservative commentator compared the West Texas billionaires to an “oligarchy,” hellbent on destroying anyone who “didn’t get on their knees and kiss the ring.”
“They romanticize the rural Texan,” Brandon Darby, editor of Breitbart Texas, a right-wing news site that had previously employed Sullivan, said at the time. “They wear the hat, the boots and the Wrangler jeans, but their policies actually strangle rural Texas communities.”
Meanwhile, Empower Texans continued its attacks on House leaders, accusing them of being RINOs and sparring over legislation and media credentials that would have given the group better access to representatives during floor debates. The latter conflict came to a dramatic head in 2019, when Sullivan released secret recordings with then-House Speaker Dennis Bonnen that prompted the Republican leader not to seek reelection.
In 2020, Empower Texans officially disbanded after its news blog, Texas Scorecard, was spun off into a new nonprofit that’s led by Sullivan. The website has remained one of the most vocal supporters of anti-LGBTQ and other far-right legislation, as well as candidates bankrolled by Defend Texas Liberty.
Chief among them: Slaton, the former Royse City representative who was removed from office.
Since running for office in 2020, Slaton received roughly $680,000 from Defend Texas Liberty — among the most of any other officeholder besides Paxton and Patrick — and was in turn a reliable bomb thrower and annoyance to House leadership, needling his fellow Republicans even as they passed a litany of conservative bills.
The Texas GOP’s campaign finance records show that in the first week of April — as rumors about Slaton’s inappropriate sexual relationship swirled around the Texas Capitol — the party received a $100,000 donation from Defend Texas Liberty PAC and another $35,000 from Dunn.
Leaders of the party were later criticized for what some said was a muted and delayed response to the allegations against Slaton, a “family values” conservative who often touted his career as a Southern Baptist youth pastor.
The Texas GOP and its chair, Matt Rinaldi, declined interview requests and did not respond to a list of questions last week. In an email, Rinaldi condemned what he said was an attempt to frame Phelan and other House Republicans as the “mainstream in the Party and Paxton, Cruz, Trump, Patrick, and all others in the actual mainstream as a fringe group.”
A party spokesperson disputed the timing of the $100,000 donation from Defend Texas Liberty, saying it arrived March 30 — two days before Slaton allegedly had sex with his aide — but wasn’t posted until April 4 “due to processing times.” Asked twice to provide documents backing that claim, Rinaldi responded that “we can but don’t feel the need to.”
Members of the House General Investigating Committee — which also launched the inquiry into Paxton this year — later said their investigation of Slaton was hampered by obfuscation from him and members of his staff who refused to meet with an investigator. The staff members were represented by McDonald, the longtime Empower Texans lawyer who, in 2015, wrote that Paxton’s securities fraud charges were the result of a conspiracy orchestrated by House leadership.
McDonald declined an interview request but has previously said the House committee’s “statement that Slaton’s staff refused to cooperate is completely false,” and that “any condemnation of them is unfair, spurious and based on false information.”
New scandal, old tactics
Two weeks after Slaton’s ouster, the chance of also losing Paxton suddenly became real for the far right. As news of the House’s investigation into Paxton broke, Stickland, Sullivan and their allies went on the offensive.
They again blamed the attorney general’s mounting troubles on a shadowy cabal of liberals and House Republicans, and said his strong opposition to President Joe Biden made him a target of the deep state. (The inquiry began after Paxton asked lawmakers to cover a $3.3 million lawsuit settlement with whistleblowers fired from the attorney general’s office after they reported Paxton to law enforcement for allegedly misusing his authority to help a friend, real estate investor Nate Paul.)
Supporters posted about the “coming political war” and made overt threats to anyone who might support Paxton’s impeachment and the “witch hunt” that Sullivan said was orchestrated by Phelan’s “cult.” Occasionally, Paxton responded on social media with a simple “thank you.”
The day of the impeachment vote, Stickland’s PAC sent mass text messages comparing Paxton to twice-impeached former President Donald Trump and urging supporters to inundate their representatives with complaints.
And, in the wake of the 121-23 vote for impeachment, they excoriated the 60 Republicans who voted to advance the 20 articles of impeachment to the Texas Senate, calling it an attack on grassroots conservatives by the “crony establishment” that had been after Paxton since 2015.
Particular attention was given to longtime Paxton allies and deep-red conservatives who voted for impeachment. After Rep. Briscoe Cain, one of the most conservative lawmakers in the state, said he voted for impeachment out of a duty to due diligence, Sullivan compared Cain to Pontius Pilate, the enabler of Christ’s crucifixion.
Since then, Dunn and Wilks-backed groups and individuals have continued to attack virtually every aspect of the Paxton impeachment process — and fellow conservatives who supported it. In June, Defend Texas Liberty paid for billboards accusing Rep. Glenn Rogers, R-Graford, of having “joined 61 democrats to impeach Ken Paxton.”
Rogers, who fended off a well-financed 2020 primary challenge by Farris Wilks’ son-in-law, responded forcefully, noting the deep-pockets relationship between Dunn, Farris Wilks and Stickland, the “big puppeteer” who does “their dirty work.”
“They hide behind their money and a pious front in order to create chaos and division in the Republican party,” Rogers wrote on Facebook. “Get ready for a barrage of misrepresentations, deceit, and outright lies financed by these ‘fine Christian gentlemen.’”
Longtime political observers expect the acrimony to worsen in the coming months as Stickland promises expensive primary challenges to more-moderate incumbents next year, and Defend Texas Liberty continues to receive heavy backing from West Texas — including a new, $3.5 million infusion from Dunn and Farris Wilks in June.
The Texas GOP, chaired by Rinaldi, a former representative who was bankrolled by Dunn and Wilks, has gone all-in on attacking House leadership, accusing Phelan and others of subverting the will of voters by impeaching Paxton, and claiming that it is part of a broader plot against grassroots conservatives.
That schism is likely to deepen ahead of an expected October special legislative session on contentious “school choice” legislation and the 2024 primary elections, said Mackowiak, the Travis County GOP chair. He said it would be extremely difficult for Defend Texas Liberty and its allies to mount serious challenges to every Republican who approved Paxton’s impeachment. Mackowiak also said he doubts the Paxton impeachment vote will be the primary, animating issue for voters next year.
But he said Defend Texas Liberty could attack incumbents from the right by packaging together their votes on school voucher-like programs, Paxton and bills on social issues that did not make it out of the House during the last legislative session. And while losing Paxton would be a blow to that ultraconservative wing of the Texas GOP, Mackowiak does not believe that it would change the faction’s tactics, which he said have been proven successful by the state’s gradual turn to the far right over the past decade.
“It’s a proxy battle,” he said. “And, in a way, their movement is bigger than it’s ever been.”
Disclosure: Collin College, Texans for Lawsuit Reform, Texas Public Policy Foundation and University of Houston have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
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