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Three West Texas billionaires are pushing Texas to the far-right

Three West Texas billionaires have quietly taken over Republican politics in the state and have swung Texas to the far right.

Tim Dunn, Farris Wilks and Dan Wilks have funneled immense resources to politicians who are carrying out their vision of Christian nationalism.

In February, KERA reported that they support Texans United for a Conservative Majority, a PAC that has given almost $400,000 to North Texas candidates running for state rep seats, according to campaign finance reports filed since January.

But there are many people — and voters — who've never heard their names.

Brandon Rottinghaus, professor of political science at the University of Houston, discussed these billionaires’ ever-expanding political influence.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity, and this web post now includes both parts of the discussion.


Rottinghaus on the billionaires: Part 1

Clayton: Talk to us about how these three billionaires, Tim Dunn, Farris and Dan Wilks have become so influential in Texas politics.

Rottinghaus: Texas politics has always had a very strong streak of independent, very politically motivated rich people. And so, the ideologies that these individuals, especially people who are quite wealthy, have really made a significant kind of stamp on state politics.

These individuals in particular have a specific philosophy that they believe to be the proper way that Texas should govern itself and the nation to govern itself. It's a very kind of conservative, very right-wing vision. And it's also tempered with a significant amount of Christianity. So, they have a very distinctive vision for what the Republican Party should look like, and therefore what Texas should look like.

Clayton: If you could boil it down, what are the main goals of Dunn and the Wilks?

Rottinghaus: Their primary goal is to effectively move the state to a very conservative version of itself. Now, we've seen the state gravitate to a much more conservative wing of the party in the last few years, so that's not something that is that surprising. But this group definitely wants to push it even more so.

So, they'd like a very militarized border. They'd like a very strongly religious orientation in public schools. They'd like to see more school choice. They have a very specific version of how they'd like to see morality play out. So obviously — very anti-abortion.

They're very much against gay marriage. So, a lot of the debates about individuals who are transgender in public schools, how they can access medical care — these are all things that the far-right donor crowd would like to see changed in Texas.

Clayton: The money flows through their political action committee. Can you explain how this works and how it's doled out to politicians?

Rottinghaus: Yeah, it's a pretty thick web. Effectively, what happens in Texas in this case is that these individuals donate a significant amount of money to a particular PAC. This PAC has been run by various people over the years, currently run by a former member of the Texas Legislature, Jonathan Stickland.

And then this PAC effectively doles out those moneys to individuals who are running under the banner of the Wilks-Dunn flag.

The Texans United for a Conservative Majority PAChas given at least $385,000 to North Texas candidates running against GOP incumbents who supported Paxton impeachment.

Clayton: Can you explain how Dunn and the Wilks brothers score politicians?

Rottinghaus: What they do is to track certain bills that they have as priorities. So these bills can be reducing the tax burden on Texans. It could be about a particular bill on gay marriage, or it could be on transgender sports, these sorts of things.

And what this score card does is really just kind of track the votes for individuals. So, then each person gets a score from zero, which is the worst — you don't support — to 100, which is your perfect score — everything they wanted, effectively those members voted on.

Then when it comes time to either endorsing people in primaries or to giving money to incumbents, they look at these scores and decide how much they're willing to support.

If you're on the right side, you're going to get money, and you're probably in the clear, at least from the kind of shrapnel that's going to come from a political fallout from this. If you're not on that side or deemed insufficiently conservative, then you're probably going to get a primary challenger, and that challenger is probably going to get a pretty hefty sum of money from these far-right donors.


Rottinghaus on the billionaires: Part 2

Clayton: The PAC [Defend Texas Liberty], created by Dunn and Wilks, became associated with white supremacist Nick Fuentes. What's behind this story?

Rottinghaus: Yeah, the long and short of it is that the individual PAC in this case ... run by this kind of group of individual consultants had met with Nick Fuentes, and that started off this firestorm of pushback from mainstream Republicans who said that "we don't want to be associated with that kind of politics."

So that's been a real battle in this primary cycle, where you've had incumbents, who have had challengers, who have been funded by Wilks and Dunn and their allies, and they've said that, "we'd rather go it alone. We'd rather, frankly, lose than have to kind of play with those individuals." So that relationship is something that has been a very political issue in the last cycle.

Clayton: The efforts of Tim Dunn and the Wilks brothers to move Texas to the far right has largely flown under the radar for most Texans. How have they managed to accomplish so much without attracting too much attention?

Rottinghaus: In terms of impact, the biggest impact isn't really on most Texans. They go about their daily lives, commuting to work and doing their jobs [and] hang out with their kids. But it's really the most committed Republican primary voters that are the most susceptible to this.

This is an organization that has strong connections to this group. They know politically what they want. They're able to feed them. And politically, those alignments are really influential in Republican primaries.

Clayton: Wealthy people have been donating to political candidates forever. How are Dunn and the Wilks brothers different?

Rottinghaus: They're really not that much different. Texas has a system of campaign finance where individuals can give as much as they want, and the candidates and PACs can take as much as they want. ... If you're an individual, a wealthy donor, you can have a pretty outsized say in terms of what the politics of the finances at least go in terms of Texas politics.

That to me is really interesting because ... most of the money there has been very ideologically motivated in Texas has come from oil money. So, it's not surprising ... even going all the way back to the 40s, that we're seeing this trend emerge from the Wilks and Dunn and their allies.

Clayton: How close is this to a true oligarchy?

Rottinghaus: It's pretty close. You've got a very small group of very committed conservative donors who are ideologically aligned with the very far right in the party, who have a significant say in terms of how state politics goes, especially how things go inside the Republican Party. And as things are, the Republicans dominate things politically.

I relate this to a situation where you've got like an eight foot center in basketball. The center doesn't always have to do something in order for them to impact the game. The Wilks and Dunns and their allies have really shifted the ideological balance just by being in the game.

They don't have to give money to be influential, because it's understood that they're a big part of how the state's GOP functions.

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Jerry Clayton can be reached at jerry@tpr.org or on Twitter at @jerryclayton.