By Casey Tolan, Matthew Reynard, Will Simon and Ed Lavandera, CNN
Gun owners allowed to carry handguns without permits or training. Parents of transgender children facing investigation by state officials. Women forced to drive hours out-of-state to access abortion.
This is Texas now: While the Lone Star State has long been a bastion of Republican politics, new laws and policies have taken Texas further to the right in recent years than it has been in decades.
Elected officials and political observers in the state say a major factor in the transformation can be traced back to West Texas. Two billionaire oil and fracking magnates from the region, Tim Dunn and Farris Wilks, have quietly bankrolled some of Texas’ most far-right political candidates — helping reshape the state’s Republican Party in their worldview.
Over the last decade, Dunn and his wife, Terri, have contributed more than $18 million to state candidates and political action committees, while Wilks and his wife, Jo Ann, have given more than $11 million, putting them among the top donors in the state.
The beneficiaries of the energy tycoons’ combined spending include the farthest-right members of the legislature and authors of the most high-profile conservative bills passed in recent years, according to a CNN analysis of Texas Ethics Commission data. Dunn and Wilks also hold sway over the state’s legislative agenda through a network of non-profits and advocacy groups that push conservative policy issues.
Critics, and even some former associates, say that Dunn and Wilks demand loyalty from the candidates they back, punishing even deeply conservative legislators who cross them by bankrolling primary challengers. Kel Seliger, a longtime Republican state senator from Amarillo who has clashed with the billionaires, said their influence has made Austin feel a little like Moscow.
“It is a Russian-style oligarchy, pure and simple,” Seliger said. “Really, really wealthy people who are willing to spend a lot of money to get policy made the way they want it — and they get it.”
Dragged to the ‘hard right’
Dunn and Wilks did not respond to repeated requests for comment. In past interviews and opinion pieces, Dunn has argued that his political spending is focused on making Texas’ state government more accountable to its voters, while Wilks has described his donations as aimed at electing principled conservative leaders.
Former associates of Dunn and Wilks who spoke to CNN said the billionaires are both especially focused on education issues, and their ultimate goal is to replace public education with private, Christian schooling. Wilks is a pastor at the church his father founded, and Dunn preaches at the church his family attends. In their sermons, they paint a picture of a nation under siege from liberal ideas.
“The cornerstones of our government are crumbling and starting to come apart,” Wilks declared in a 2014 sermon at his insular church, the Assembly of Yahweh 7th Day. “And it’s because of the lack of morality, the lack of belief in our heavenly Father.”
Texas’ far-right shift has national implications: The candidates Dunn and Wilks have supported have turned the state legislature into a laboratory for far-right policy that’s starting to gain traction across the US.
Dunn and Wilks have been less successful in the 2022 primary elections than in past years: Almost all of the GOP legislative incumbents opposed by Defend Texas Liberty, a political action committee primarily funded by the duo, won their primaries this spring, and the group spent millions of dollars supporting a far-right opponent to Gov. Greg Abbott who lost by a wide margin.
But experts say the billionaires’ recent struggles are in part a symptom of their past success: Many of the candidates they’re challenging from the right, from Abbott down, have embraced more and more conservative positions, on issues from transgender rights to guns to voting.
“They dragged all the moderate candidates to the hard right in order to keep from losing,” said Bud Kennedy, a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram newspaper who’s covered 18 sessions of the Texas legislature.
“I don’t think regular Texans are as conservative as their elected officials,” Kennedy said. “The reason that Texas has moved to the right is because the money’s there.”
Political investments paying off
Over the last decade, many of the most conservative bills in the Texas legislature, on topics from LGBT rights to guns to private school vouchers, were killed by the moderate Republicans who held sway in the state House. That changed last year, thanks to people like Valoree Swanson.
Swanson was a Sunday school teacher and political activist when she challenged a 14-year incumbent Republican, Debbie Riddle, in 2016 in a district covering Houston’s Republican-dominated northern suburbs.
Swanson, who ran to Riddle’s right, shocked political observers by outraising the incumbent — an unusual feat for a first-time candidate. Her largest donor: Empower Texans, a political action committee created by Dunn and largely funded by him and Wilks. She defeated Riddle in the Republican primary by more than 10 percentage points and went on to easily win the general election.
Last year, Swanson won a major legislative victory: She authored the transgender sports bill, which blocks trans students from playing on K-12 school sports teams that aren’t aligned with their genders at birth. While other bills about transgender issues had failed in previous years, the sports bill was approved by a legislature now firmly controlled by the GOP’s right flank after the moderate former House speaker retired. Observers saw it as a validation of the billionaires’ early investments in Swanson’s first campaign, paying off years later.
“They’re effectively investing their money and they’re moving the needle on policy in Austin,” said Scott Braddock, the editor of Quorum Report, a publication that’s been covering the legislature for decades, referring to Dunn and Wilks. “These are extreme people investing a lot of money in our politics to reshape Texas, such that it matches up with their vision.”
Swanson is hardly an outlier: All 18 of the current Republican members of the Texas Senate, and almost half of the Republican members of the Texas House, have taken at least some money from Dunn, Wilks or organizations that they fund. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Attorney General Ken Paxton have also been major beneficiaries of the billionaires’ spending.
Texas is one of just 10 states that allow individuals to make unlimited contributions to state political candidates, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures — letting Dunn and Wilks have more influence than they might elsewhere in the country.
While Dunn and Wilks focus on state politics, they’ve also gotten involved in national races. Wilks, his brother Dan and their wives were among the largest donors to super PACs supporting GOP presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz in 2016, contributing a total of $15 million. And Dunn has given millions of dollars to super PACs supporting former President Donald Trump and congressional Republicans in recent years.
In a statement to CNN, Cruz called the Wilks brothers “the epitome of the American dream” and “fearless champions of conservative causes, much to the consternation of the corrupt corporate media.”
So far in 2022, Dunn’s and Wilks’ political investments haven’t been as successful as in past years. Defend Texas Liberty, the group they fund, gave more than $3 million to Don Huffines, a former state senator who challenged Abbott in his Republican primary and won just 12% of the vote. Despite his loss, experts pointed out, over the course of the campaign Abbott embraced some of the positions Huffines had staked out, including strong opposition to transgender rights and support for deploying National Guard members to the US-Mexican border.
Defend Texas Liberty’s second-largest beneficiary this year has been Shelley Luther, an unsuccessful far-right legislative candidate who attracted national attention after she was arrested for refusing to shut down her Dallas hair salon to comply with coronavirus restrictions.
In an interview with CNN, Luther — who proposed banning Chinese students from Texas universities and declared she is “not comfortable with the transgenders” — said that Dunn and Wilks had been integral to her campaign.
“Without them, I couldn’t have even run,” Luther said. But she added that the spending wouldn’t have given the billionaires influence over her votes or decisions: “He wants me to do what I say that I represent,” she said of Dunn.
Enforcing the ‘law of the jungle’
Dunn and Wilks don’t just use campaign donations to play a role in state politics. They also fund a network of organizations that have been influential at boosting conservative causes.
Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, a non-profit chaired by Dunn, has released a “Fiscal Responsibility Index” each legislative session grading state lawmakers based on their stances on conservative bills. The scorecard, which is often cited in election ads that show up in voters’ mailboxes, is known in Texas political circles for its ability to make and break Republican primary campaigns.
“If you don’t show up well on the scorecard, you’re going to have a lot of money spent against you,” Seliger said.
Texas Republicans say that even a deeply conservative record doesn’t protect someone from a primary challenge funded by Dunn, Wilks and groups they bankroll.
State Sen. Bob Deuell had won elections for years in his northeast Texas district and racked up a conservative record — including co-authoring a 2013 abortion bill that was considered among the strictest in the country at the time, and was struck down by the US Supreme Court.
But in 2013, Deuell, a doctor, supported a bill that overhauled Texas’ end-of-life procedures. Texas Right to Life, a group whose largest donor over its history is Wilks, falsely claimed the bill would “strengthen Texas’ death panels.” The following year, Deuell was challenged by Bob Hall, a tea party activist.
Texas Right to Life spent more than $150,000 on mailers, voter guides and political consultants for Hall and other candidates in 2014, airing a barrage of ads claiming Deuell had “turned his back on life and on disabled patients.” Hall won the Republican primary in a runoff by 300 votes. Since that first campaign, Hall has received more than $900,000 from Dunn, Wilks, and groups that they are major funders of — about a third of his total donations.
“All this West Texas money is what made him into a viable candidate,” Deuell said of Hall, who did not respond to requests for comment from CNN.
Seliger, Deuell’s former colleague in the Senate, has also staked out conservative positions on many issues, and Dunn gave his campaign $1,000 during his first year in office in 2004.
But after Seliger decided he couldn’t support efforts to divert funding from public schools to private school vouchers, Dunn turned on him, he said. In the decade since, he’s found himself repeatedly running against a challenger backed by groups funded by Dunn and Wilks.
“That’s the law of the jungle now in Texas,” Seliger said. “The majority of Republican Senate members just dance to whatever tune Tim Dunn wants to play.”
Dunn has defended his spending and his group’s campaign tactics.
“Empower Texans remains outside the swamp, and the group informs voters who want their representatives to do in Austin what they promised during election season,” he wrote in a 2018 op-ed in The Dallas Morning News, responding to criticism of the group’s tactics. “If all of us outsiders stick together, we can drain the Austin Swamp.”
Zachary Maxwell has had an inside view of the billionaires’ influence. He worked for Empower Texans, Dunn’s PAC, and served as campaign manager and chief of staff for then-state Rep. Mike Lang, who received more than 60% of his campaign donations from Wilks and PACs he and Dunn were major funders of.
Maxwell told CNN in an interview that there was “no way” Lang could have gotten elected without Wilks’ money. At one campaign fundraiser, he said, Jo Ann Wilks handed Maxwell a check for more than $100,000.
“I was like, ‘Can you even write a check that big?’ ” Maxwell remembered. “I about had a heart attack.”
Huge sums like that helped buy Wilks influence once Lang took office, Maxwell said. “Whenever (Farris Wilks) called, he answered,” Maxwell said of Lang. “There was a lot of control.”
Lang did not respond to requests for comment from CNN.
West Texas upbringings
Texas has a long tradition of oil and gas magnates using their fortunes to shape politics. Hugh Roy Cullen, one of Houston’s wealthiest philanthropists, supported the pro-segregation Dixiecrat movement in the 1940s, and H.L. Hunt, who owned a vast swath of the East Texas Oil Field, funded a conservative radio program that aired across the US in the ’50s and ’60s.
What sets Dunn and Wilks apart, political observers say, is how they’ve spent so much money pushing not just business-friendly policies that boost their bottom line but also socially conservative bills that seem designed to reshape Texas in the image of their far-right Christian values.
Both are products of humble West Texas upbringings who earned huge fortunes in Texas’ energy industry.
Dunn, 66, lives in Midland, the childhood home of George W. Bush and a center of the state’s oil industry. He grew up in nearby Big Spring, the son of a farm and factory worker, and studied chemical engineering at Texas Tech before working for Exxon and other oil and banking companies.
He started his own oil company, now named CrownQuest Operating, in 1996. The firm operates oil wells around West Texas’ Permian Oil Basin and beyond, and pumped 31 million barrels of oil in Texas in 2021, making it the state’s 12th largest oil producer, according to government records.
Dunn became more involved in Texas politics in 2006, when he opposed a tax measure that included a new tax on business partnerships — including some that fund oil wells, Texas Monthly reported. He started an organization to oppose the measure, Empower Texans, which continued to fund conservative causes even after the tax legislation passed. The group’s PAC shut down in 2020, and the billionaires more recently pivoted to funding Defend Texas Liberty.
Wilks, 70, grew up in a converted goat shed in Cisco, Texas, a town of 3,700 where sleepy streets are dotted with more than a dozen churches. He and his younger brother Dan were the sons of a bricklayer and started their careers as apprentice masons.
After several other business ventures, in 2002 they founded Frac Tech Services, a company that provided trucking services for fracking operators. It was perfect timing: Fracking was about to take off in Texas and elsewhere in the US amid a boom in shale gas.
Less than a decade later, in 2011, the Wilkses sold their majority share of the company for more than $3 billion to a group that included international investors. Since then, they’ve been buying up land in Texas and around the Western US, joining the ranks of America’s largest landowners — and getting involved in politics.
Farris Wilks is the pastor of the Assembly of Yahweh 7th Day Church, which operates a sprawling compound outside of Cisco and was founded by his father. In sermons, he has denounced homosexuality and abortion rights in vitriolic terms.
“A male on male or a female on female is against nature,” Wilks declared in a 2013 recording of one sermon posted on his church’s website, which is no longer publicly available. “This lifestyle is the predatorial lifestyle in that they need your children. … They want your children.”
Dunn also preaches at his church, the Midland Bible Church, where he serves as a member of the congregation’s “pulpit team.”
“No matter what rules you grew up with, none of them are enforceable in God’s kingdom,” he declared in one 2018 sermon.
In a 2004 interview with The Times of London, Dunn told a reporter he believed that, as the newspaper put it, “his oil has existed for only 4,000 years, the time decreed by Genesis, not 200 million years as his geologists know.”
That religious fervor has influenced Dunn’s and Wilks’ political moves. In a meeting with former Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, who is Jewish, Dunn declared that only Christians should hold leadership positions in the chamber, Texas Monthly reported. Straus declined an interview request with CNN.
And both Wilks brothers have donated millions of dollars through their personal foundations to conservative Christian groups, including crisis pregnancy centers, according to IRS records, which work to dissuade women from abortion and in some cases share misleading medical information.
‘The goal is to tear up, tear down’
People who’ve worked with Wilks and Dunn say they share an ultimate goal: replacing much of public education in Texas with private Christian schools. Now, educators and students are feeling the impact of that conservative ideology on the state’s school system.
Dorothy Burton, a former GOP activist and religious scholar, joined Farris Wilks on a 2015 Christian speaking tour organized by his brother-in-law and said she spoke at events he attended. She described the fracking magnate as “very quiet” but approachable: “You would look at him and you would never think that he was a billionaire,” she said.
But Burton said that after a year of hearing Wilks’ ideology on the speaking circuit, she became disillusioned by the single-mindedness of his conservatism.
“The goal is to tear up, tear down public education to nothing and rebuild it,” she said of Wilks. “And rebuild it the way God intended education to be.”
In sermons, Dunn and Wilks have advocated for religious influence in schooling. “When the Bible plainly teaches one thing and our culture teaches another, what do our children need to know what to do?” Wilks asks in one sermon from 2013.
Dunn, Wilks and the groups and politicians they both fund have been raising alarms about liberal ideas in the classroom, targeting teachers and school administrators they see as too progressive. The billionaires have especially focused on critical race theory, in what critics see as an attempt to use it as a scapegoat to break voters’ trust in public schooling.
In the summer of 2020, James Whitfield, the first Black principal of the mostly White Colleyville Heritage High School in the Dallas suburbs, penned a heartfelt, early-morning email in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, encouraging his school to “not grow weary in the battle against systemic racism.”
The backlash came months later. Stetson Clark, a former school board candidate whose campaign had been backed by a group that received its largest donations from Dunn and organizations he funded, accused Whitfield during a school board meeting last year of “encouraging all members of our community to become revolutionaries” and “encouraging the destruction and disruption of our district.” The board placed Whitfield on leave, and later voted not to renew his contract. He agreed to resign after coming to a settlement with the district. Clark did not respond to a request for comment.
Whitfield said he saw the rhetoric pushed by Dunn and Wilks as a major cause of his being pushed out.
“They want to disrupt and destroy public schools, because they would much rather have schools that are faith-based,” Whitfield said. “We know what has happened over the course of history in our country, and if we can’t teach that, then what do you want me to do?”
Meanwhile, the legislature has also been taking on the discussion of race in classrooms, passing a bill last year that bans schools from making teachers “discuss a widely debated and currently controversial issue of public policy or social affairs.” The legislation was designed to keep critical race theory out of the classroom, according to Abbott, who signed the bill into law.
Some of the co-authors and sponsors of the bill and previous versions of the legislation received significant funding from Dunn and Wilks.
The billionaires “want to destroy the public school system as we know it and, in its place, see more home-schooling and more private Christian schools,” said Deuell, the former senator.
The Texans feeling the impact include Libby Gonzales, an 11-year-old transgender girl living in the Dallas suburbs. She and her family say they feel like targets after the new law restricting trans students’ participation in school sports went into effect last year — passed by Swanson and other legislators bankrolled by Dunn and Wilks. Now, Libby won’t be able to play for the girls’ soccer team that she’d like to join.
“We don’t have issues in our neighborhood, among our friends,” said her mother, Rachel Gonzales. “It’s when our legislators meet and decide that they’re going to leverage their political power against some of the most marginalized kids in our state.”
Gonzales has started volunteering for political campaigns in an attempt to turn the tide on anti-trans policies. Libby said she’s been following the news about Texas’ conservative turn — and worrying what’s coming next.
Last month, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a think tank that Dunn serves on the board of, called on the legislature to ban the prescription of puberty blockers and hormone treatments for minors.
“I’m under attack,” Libby said. “I have no idea why people don’t understand that I’m just a girl: an 11-year-old girl living in Texas — with amazing hair.”
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