By Patrick Svitek and Carla Astudillo
The Texas Tribune
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The recent meeting between the Defend Texas Liberty PAC leader and prominent white supremacist Nick Fuentes is bringing new scrutiny to the group’s donors and the politicians who have accepted its money.
Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan — a persistent target of the PAC — is calling on fellow Republicans to disavow the group and part ways with its money. While a handful have heeded his call, others have refused to do so and alleged Phelan is just seeking political gain.
Notably, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick – who has taken over $3 million from the PAC — has denounced Fuentes but said Wednesday he sees “no reason” to return the group’s money and accused Phelan of an “orchestrated smear campaign.”
Either way, it represents a pivotal moment for the group, which started in 2020 and has led the charge to push state GOP officials even further to the right. It is mainly funded by Tim Dunn, a Midland oilman who has spent at least the past decade bankrolling efforts that target Texas Republicans whom he and his allies have deemed insufficiently conservative, particularly in the state House.
On Sunday, The Texas Tribune reported that Fuentes visited an office building associated with Defend Texas Liberty’s president, Jonathan Stickland, for nearly seven hours last week.
The PAC has not commented on the report other than to criticize Phelan for making an issue out of it and saying it opposes Fuentes’ “incendiary views.”
Patrick said Wednesday in a statement that he had talked with Dunn and he “told me unequivocally that it was a serious blunder for PAC President Jonathan Stickland to meet with white supremist Nick Fuentes.”
Stickland is a former rabble-rousing state representative who did not seek reelection in 2020. Early last year, he started a political consulting firm, Pale Horse Strategies, that Defend Texas Liberty has since paid over $800,000. Stickland remained the president of Defend Texas Liberty as of Tuesday, when a news release about the PAC’s latest polling identified him as such.
On paper, Defend Texas Liberty PAC started in March 2020. But the political forces driving it are not new.
Before funding Defend Texas Liberty PAC, Dunn plowed millions of dollars into a conservative group called Empower Texans that also was known for aggressively targeting House Republicans in the primary. In more recent years, Dunn’s millions have been supplemented by similar giving from Dan and Farris Wilks, billionaire brothers from Cisco who made their fortune in fracking. They burst on the national political scene in 2015, when they gave $15 million to a super PAC network supporting Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign. They are also major investors in right-wing media companies — including The Daily Wire and PragerU — that push their ultraconservative views.
Today, 90% of all money raised by Defend Texas Liberty comes from Dunn and Farris and Jo Ann Wilks. The group has collected nearly $16 million total and spent $14.8 million, funding primary challengers and allied groups like the Texas GOP who have pushed fellow Republicans to take a harder line against things like illegal immigration and transgender people.
More recently, the PAC has cemented itself as a top donor to two statewide officials, Patrick and Attorney General Ken Paxton.
The group gave $3 million in campaign funding to Patrick in June as he was preparing to preside over Paxton’s impeachment trial in the Senate. After the Senate acquitted Paxton last month on allegations of bribery and misuse of office, Patrick faced a cascade of criticism that he was essentially bought off. Patrick has defended taking the money by arguing he received just as much from the “other side” in the trial, though that is difficult to verify.
The effectiveness of Dunn’s network is constantly up for debate. Defend Texas Liberty lost most state House races it got involved in last year, but its influence can often be felt in less tangible ways. For example, Gov. Greg Abbott’s governance in 2021 took a pronounced turn rightward when he was up against a primary challenge from Don Huffines, who the PAC backed generously.
Over the years, the Republican establishment has dealt with Dunn’s activities with varying levels of confrontation. Former House Speaker Dennis Bonnen memorably sought to broker a kind of treaty with Empower Texans in 2019, taking a meeting with its leader, Michael Quinn Sullivan, to discuss election strategy. Sullivan secretly recorded the meeting, later sharing audio of Bonnen suggesting the group politically target certain House Republicans. The meeting ultimately upset so many members that Bonnen chose to step down.
Dunn’s network has weathered scandals before. In 2020, two Empower Texans staffers, Cary Cheshire and Tony McDonald, were caught on an audio recording disparaging Abbott with profanity and joking about his wheelchair use. Abbott and other GOP leaders denounced the comments, and Empower Texans said both were “suspended from all public activities.” Cheshire still works inside the Dunn-funded network, and McDonald is a lawyer whose firm continues to represent the network’s interests.
The biggest recipient of Defend Texas Liberty’s money has been Don Huffines, who received $3.7 million from the group while running against Abbott in the 2022 primary. Huffines pushed for Abbott to take drastic action on the border, including declaring a constitutional “invasion,” and especially scrutinized his pandemic leadership, claiming credit when Abbott reversed his opposition to outlawing vaccine mandates by private businesses.
Huffines provided a statement to the Tribune that did not mention Defend Texas Liberty but said Fuentes “sucks” and Huffines has “nothing to do with him.”
“My father, a decorated war veteran, dedicated years to killing Nazis and earning commendations for liberating concentration camps,” Huffines said. “Throughout my life, I've been a steadfast friend of the Jewish community and authored pivotal pro-Israel legislation ending the BDS boycotts. While my record speaks for itself, let me be clear: I will always fight anti-semitism and communism.”
Beyond Patrick and Paxton, the PAC has made smaller contributions to 17 other current state officeholders: Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, Railroad Commissioner Wayne Christian, Land Commissioner Dawn Buckingham, Sen. Brandon Creighton of Conroe, Sen. Paul Bettencourt of Houston, Sen. Lois Kolkhorst of Brenham, Sen. Kevin Sparks of Midland, Sen. Phil King of Weatherford, Sen. Bob Hall of Edgewood, Rep. Tony Tinderholt of Arlington, Rep. Nate Schatzline of Fort Worth, Rep. Mark Dorazio of San Antonio, Rep. Matt Schaefer of Tyler, Rep. Carrie Isaac of Dripping Springs, Rep. Teresa Leo-Wilson of Galveston, Rep. Brian Harrison of Midlothian and Rep. Stan Kitzman of Pattison.
One of the biggest recipients of the PAC’s money was former state Rep. Bryan Slaton of Royse City, who the House unanimously voted to expel in May after a committee investigation found he had sex with a 19-year-old intern after getting her drunk. In a photo that has been widely recirculated on social media in recent months, Stickland posed with Slaton last year while handing him a large $100,000 check for his campaign from Defend Texas Liberty.
The Texas Tribune contacted representatives for most of the incumbents Wednesday and only one of them replied. Kitzman, who got a $5,000 from the PAC in his 2022 primary runoff, said in a statement he would redirect the money to “support causes that resonate with my personal values as a Christian and as a representative of House District 85.” The groups included the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
Earlier Wednesday, another House Republican, Rep. Jared Patterson of Frisco, said he was sending $2,500 he got from Stickland’s campaign in 2018 to the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces.
Up until recently, though, Defend Texas Liberty has been better known for its spending on candidates and not incumbents. It has thrown its money behind Republicans who have run the farthest to the right in primaries, vowing to challenge House GOP leadership and staking out the most strident opposition to things like abortion, illegal immigration and gender-affirming care.
Some of the more high-profile candidates for the Texas House the PAC has funded include Shelley Luther, the Dallas salon owner who was arrested for defying a statewide COVID-19 shutdown order, and Jeff Younger, who has been in a yearslong public legal battle with his ex-wife over their child’s gender identity. Both espoused hostile views toward transgender people, with Luther questioning at one point why schoolchildren are not allowed to make fun of transgender classmates.
Neither Luther nor Younger won, but like in so many cases with Dunn-backed candidates, their well-funded runs forced the establishment to play defense and pulled other candidates, including incumbents, to the right.
Some of the Defend Texas Liberty-backed candidates are already running again next year, and incumbents have wasted little time trying to make them answer for the Fuentes meeting. Rep. Stan Gerdes of Smithville released a statement Tuesday calling on his challenger, Tom Glass, to “return and/or reject any contributions from” Defend Texas Liberty. The group gave Glass $10,000 when he ran in the primary for the same seat last election cycle.
Glass said in a statement he condemns Fuenties “and his toxic, antisemitic ideas and anyone associated with him.”
“I also condemn attempts by Dade Phelan and Stan Gerdes to exploit this tragedy for political gain,” Glass said. “Their pathetic attempts are nothing less than an attempt to distract the voters’ attention from the baseless, failed Ken Paxton impeachment debacle.”
Rep. Lynn Stucky, R-Denton, also called on his repeat challenger, Andy Hopper, to denounce Defend Texas Liberty after receiving $55,000 from it in his prior campaign. Hopper, whose son works for Pale Horse Strategies, responded with a two-page statement blasting Stucky for making an issue out of it. Hopper only briefly mentioned Fuentes, saying he just learned of him and found he has “some very insidious personal views.”
“I will not label an organization by the views of an individual who happened to enter their building,” Hopper said.
Patrick took a similar posture in his statement Wednesday, saying Phelan is “desperate to deflect attention from his failure to pass conservative legislation.”
“Those who parrot his calls for officeholders to return the money are as politically bankrupt as he is,” Patrick said.
The Defend Texas Liberty donations could not only prove problematic in primaries but also in general elections. Adam Hinojosa, who is staging a comeback bid for a battleground state Senate seat in South Texas, took $5,000 from Defend Texas Liberty in his 2022 campaign.
Asked about the donation, Hinojosa said in a statement Wednesday he planned to “donate personally to the Pregnancy Center of the Coastal Bend, which will help the organization open a new pregnancy center in Brownsville.”
While Defend Texas Liberty has attracted a handful of other donors giving at least six figures, it is largely driven by the funding of Wilks and Dunn, CEO of CrownQuest Operating in Midland.
Dunn has given $9.7 million to Defend Texas Liberty, while Wilks has contributed $4.8 million.
Neither responded to requests for comment on the Fuentes visit with Stickland. But the morning after the Tribune report, Dunn used X to highlight that he was named a “top 50 Christian ally of Israel” by the Israel Allies Foundation last year. It was his first original post on the platform since June.
Patrick said Dunn told him that Defend Texas Liberty will not have “future contact” with Fuentes and “everyone at the PAC understands that mistakes were made and are being corrected.” Patrick said he trusted Dunn.
Four other people have given six figures to Defend Texas Liberty — a small fraction of Dunn’s and Wilks’ funding but still sizable amounts for Texas politics. They include Windi Grimes, a Houston oil heiress; Phillip Huffines, a Dallas home builder and brother of Don Huffines, the 2022 Abbott challenger; Ken Fisher, a Plano money manager; and Alex Fairly, an Amarillo businessman who is active in local politics and recently gave $20 million to create an institute at West Texas A&M University to promote American values.
Two of the six-figure donors responded to requests for comment, including Fisher, who gave $100,000 in January 2022.
“Wasn't there, aren't active there, know nothing about it or him,” Fisher wrote in an email when asked about the Fuentes meeting. “Has nothing to do with my past contribution. Plain and simple.”
Fairly and an LLC connected to him gave about $181,000 to Defend Texas Liberty this spring as the group got involved in Amarillo City Council elections.
“Having no knowledge of, nor ever having met or spoken to the alleged participants in the meeting referenced in The Tribune’s article, I will not comment on the story,” Fairly said. “But I will comment on the only issue in this story that matters: Racism, in any form, dispersed by any person or organization, saddens and dismays me because I believe God created every man and woman in His image, and any attempt to lessen or denounce the value of any human based on their race does so in direct opposition to the God who created each of us.”
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.
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