Ex-Texas House speaker: GOP megadonor told him only Christians should be in leadership

Straus, who is Jewish, publicly confirmed the conversation for the first time Thursday. It had previously been reported by Texas Monthly.

By Jasper Scherer and Robert Downen, The Texas Tribune April 4, 2024

Sign up for The Brief, The Texas Tribune’s daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.

Former Texas House Speaker Joe Straus said on Thursday that Midland oil magnate Tim Dunn, one of the state’s most powerful and influential GOP megadonors, once told him that only Christians should hold leadership positions in the lower chamber.

Straus, a Republican who is Jewish, relayed the encounter in an interview with former Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith at the LBJ School of Public Affairs. It appeared to be the first time Straus publicly confirmed the anecdote, which was first reported by Texas Monthly in a 2018 story that cited “Straus insiders.”

The alleged remarks came at a November 2010 meeting, shortly after Dunn’s political network had targeted many of the Democrats and moderate Republicans who had helped Straus ascend to the speakership the year before. With Straus poised to seek a second term as speaker the following January, he said he asked Dunn to meet in the hopes of finding common ground on “fiscal tax issues.”

But Dunn reportedly demanded that Straus replace “a significant number” of his committee chairs with tea party-aligned lawmakers backed by Dunn’s political advocacy group, Empower Texans. After Straus rebuffed the demand, the two began to talk about social policy, at which point Dunn allegedly said he believed only Christians should hold leadership posts.

“It was a pretty unsatisfactory meeting,” Straus said Thursday. “We never met again.”

Dunn did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Straus’ confirmation of the comments comes as Dunn’s political empire continues to face scrutiny for its ties to avowed white supremacists and antisemites. In October, The Texas Tribune reported that Jonathan Stickland, the then-leader of Dunn’s most powerful political action committee, hosted prominent white supremacist and Adolf Hitler admirer Nick Fuentes at his office for nearly seven hours. The Tribune subsequently uncovered close ties between numerous other Fuentes associates and Defend Texas Liberty, the PAC that Stickland led until he was quietly replaced last year.

Nick Fuentes

The reporting prompted Speaker Dade Phelan and 60 other House Republicans to call for the Texas GOP to cut ties with Defend Texas Liberty and Stickland. Dunn has not publicly commented on the matter, though Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said Dunn “told me unequivocally that it was a serious blunder” for Stickland to meet with Fuentes. Patrick added that Dunn had assured him his political action committee and its employees would have no “future contact” with Fuentes.

Late last year, the state party’s executive committee narrowly rejected a ban on associating with Holocaust deniers, neo-Nazis and antisemites — which some members said could create a slippery slope and complicate the party’s relationship with donors or candidates. After outcry, the Texas GOP’s executive committee passed a significantly watered-down version of the resolution earlier this year.

At the time of his alleged remarks to Straus, Dunn was a lesser-known political entity, using groups such as Empower Texans to push for libertarian economic policy and help fund the state’s nascent tea party movement. Groups and lawmakers backed by Dunn had been particularly critical of Straus, frequently attacking him as a weak conservative—a claim they’ve made against each of Straus’ successors, including Phelan.

Since then, Dunn’s influence on state politics has steadily grown. He and another West Texas billionaire, Farris Wilks, have poured tens of millions of dollars into far-right candidates and movements who have incrementally pulled the Texas GOP and legislature toward their hardline, anti-LGBTQ+, and anti-immigration stances. Dunn's allies have meanwhile pushed back against claims that he is antisemitic or adheres to Christian nationalism, which argues that America's founding was God-ordained and that its institutions and laws should thus favor their brand of ultraconservative Christianity.

Tim Dunn appears on a PromiseKeepers podcast

Even after the Tribune’s reporting sparked a wave of backlash, Dunn emerged from last month’s primary perhaps stronger than ever, after his political network made good on its vows for vengeance against House Republicans who voted to impeach their key state ally, Attorney General Ken Paxton. Nine GOP incumbents were unseated by hardline conservative challengers and eight others, including Phelan, were forced into runoffs—mostly against primary foes backed by Dunn’s network.

The primary also paved the way for the likely passage of legislation that would allow taxpayer money to fund private and religious schools—a key policy goal for a movement that seeks to infuse more Christianity into public life. The push for school vouchers was spearheaded by Gov. Greg Abbott, who spent more than $6 million of his own campaign money to help unseat six anti-voucher Republicans and push four others into runoffs.

Straus, whose decade-long run as speaker overlapped with Abbott’s first term as governor, criticized Abbott’s spending blitz to take out fellow GOP lawmakers. He also accused Abbott of falsely portraying members as weak on border security even after they voted for the GOP’s entire slate of border legislation last year, pointing to Abbott’s ads attacking state Rep. Steve Allison, Straus’ successor in his San Antonio district.

“It’s too bad the governor took on all these members who are 99% with him,” Straus said.

Abbott has called the results “an unmistakable message from voters” in support of school vouchers. He recently said the House was two votes away from a clear pro-voucher majority and urged supporters to “redouble our efforts” during the runoffs.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott

Straus argued Abbott’s move to unseat anti-voucher incumbents “showed more frustration than political courage,” citing the governor’s failure to pass a voucher measure during the spring regular session and multiple special sessions.

“Persuasion failed, so he took on retribution,” Straus said. “I think it’s really unfortunate, and I think it just further diminishes the work of the Legislature and our state government.”

Abbott's campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Straus, who served in the House from 2005 to 2019, announced he would not seek reelection in the fall of 2017, after concluding a months-long feud with Patrick over a bill that would have regulated which bathrooms transgender Texans could use. Straus opposed the measure, which never made it through the House.

Since Straus’ retirement, the legislature has passed laws barring transgender minors from accessing puberty blockers and hormone therapies and restricting which sports teams transgender student athletes can join.

Straus said the array of recent laws aimed at LGBTQ+ Texans have left the community “borderline persecuted.”

“Where's the humanity in that? And why is it such an obsession?” Straus said. “Time and time again, they try to find some niche thing they think will play well in the primary when, in my view, it's rooted in just plain indecency.”

Straus largely demurred when asked to assess Phelan’s performance as speaker, quipping that he “really didn't appreciate former members pontificating about whether I was good or bad” during his run as speaker. He said Phelan has generally been a good speaker, though when asked if Phelan made the right move to impeach Paxton, Straus said, “history has made that questionable,” citing the primary results.

Still, he argued that it remains to be seen how the House will change next session, even with its apparent shift to the right last month and calls from hardline House members to align more with Patrick and the Senate.

"In my experience, the House has never been easily tamed," Straus said after the LBJ School interview. "And I think that if I were a betting man, I would bet that the House will want to protect its independence, that it'll want to protect its institution."

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Morning Digest: Big Lie pushers aim to recall Wisconsin Republican for not pushing Big Lie enough

The Morning Digest is compiled by David Nir, Jeff Singer, and Stephen Wolf, with additional contributions from the Daily Kos Elections team.

Subscribe to The Downballot, our weekly podcast

Leading Off

WI State Assembly: Far-right groups seeking to oust Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos announced Monday that they'd turned in about 10,700 signatures to recall the powerful Republican. The effort comes less than two years after Vos narrowly won renomination against an opponent backed by Donald Trump, who sought to punish the speaker for failing to do enough to advance the Big Lie.

If the recall campaign qualifies for the ballot, each party would hold separate primaries ahead of a general election. Vos' 63rd District in the Racine area is solidly Republican turf, so the best way for his conservative detractors to get rid of him may be to deny him the nomination. It only takes a simple plurality to win the primary, though, so a crowded field would likely benefit the incumbent.

Vos, whose 11 years in power makes him the longest-serving speaker in state history, has used his power to continuously block Democratic Gov. Tony Evers from implementing his agenda and responded to Joe Biden's tight 2020 win in Wisconsin by claiming that he believed there was "widespread fraud."

That pronouncement, however, was far from good enough for Trump. The two had a public falling out in 2022 after Vos told Congress that Trump had called him and urged him to retroactively decertify Biden's victory—a move the speaker said was legally impossible.

Trump retaliated by endorsing a previously little-known Republican named Adam Steen. The challenger came very close to defeating Vos, but the speaker hung on with a 51-49 win. (Steen's subsequent general election write-in campaign came nowhere close to succeeding.) While Vos has continued to frustrate Evers, the speaker antagonized election deniers again last year when he wouldn't advance an impeachment effort targeting Wisconsin's top elections official, Meagan Wolfe.

Vos argued in November that, while he wanted Wolfe removed, his party was "nowhere near a consensus" on how to do it. "We need to move forward and talk about the issues that matter to most Wisconsinites and that is not, for most Wisconsinites, obsessing about Meagan Wolfe," he said. But conspiracy theorists were far from done obsessing about Meagan Wolfe and quickly made good on their threats to launch a recall effort.

However, it's not clear exactly which voters would decide Vos' fate. Last month, Evers signed new legislative districts into law to replace gerrymandered Republican maps that the new liberal majority on the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down. (The court has yet to sign off on the new lines.) Last week, though, the justices declined Evers' request to clarify which set of maps would be used for any special elections or recalls that take place before November, when the new districts are otherwise set to go into effect.

Matt Snorek, who is leading the recall effort against Vos, acknowledged this uncertainty to WisPolitics even as he argued that the old boundaries should apply. "It's unconstitutional to allow folks who didn't vote for him in 2022 to remove him," Snorek said, but also noted that the recall campaign sought to collect signatures in both versions of the seat.

The partisan makeup of Vos' constituency didn't change dramatically, but it did become several points bluer: The old district favored Trump 58-40 in 2020, while the revamped version backed him 56-43.

If the previous lines are used, recall organizers will need 6,850 valid signatures, which represents 25% of the votes cast in the old 63rd District in the 2022 race for governor; the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel writes that it's not clear what this target would be under the new boundaries. Recall expert Joshua Spivak also added that an "unusual feature" in state law makes it easier to put a recall on the ballot: While most states require anyone who fills out a petition to be a registered voter in their district, the Badger State mandates only that signatories be "eligible" voters.

Vos, though, is hoping his enemies have failed to gather enough signatures and says his team plans to review each petition. Scott Bauer of the Associated Press writes that the bipartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission has a total of 31 days to conduct its own review, though its decision can be challenged in court.

If the recall campaign qualifies, a primary would be held six weeks later, with a general election four weeks after that. (In the unlikely event that no primaries are necessary, the recall would take place on the day that primaries would have taken place.)

P.S. While Vos is on the outs with Big Lie spreaders now, the Republican has a long history of advancing conspiracy theories about elections. Vos responded to Democrat John Lehman's 819-vote victory over GOP state Sen. Van Wanggaard in a June 2012 recall by claiming, "Unfortunately, a portion of [the vote] was fraud." The soon-to-be speaker, though, acknowledged he "did not personally witness any voter fraud" in the campaign, which gave Democrats control of the upper chamber for a few months before Republicans won it back that fall.

Election Night

Mississippi: Tuesday is primary night in Mississippi, but none of the state's members of Congress appear to be in any danger of losing either renomination or the general election.

The most eventful race is the GOP primary for the 4th Congressional District, where self-funding perennial candidate Carl Boyanton has been airing animated ads depicting freshman Rep. Mike Ezell as a "busy bee" who's too close to special interests. (One even features a rhyming jingle.)

Boyanton, however, failed to break out of the single digits in either 2020 or 2022, so it would be a surprise if he gave Ezell a hard time on Tuesday. A third candidate, Michael McGill, is also in, though his presence would only matter if no one earned the majority of the vote needed to avert an April 2 runoff.


MI-Sen: Former Rep. Mike Rogers picked up the "Complete and Total Endorsement" of Donald Trump on Monday, a move that likely shortcircuits any prospect of a strong MAGA-flavored candidate entering the August GOP primary against the NRSC favorite. Rogers himself mulled challenging Trump in this year's presidential race, but the former congressman has spent his Senate bid cozying up to the man whose time he once said had "passed."

MN-Sen: SurveyUSA shows Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar with a 49-33 advantage over Republican Joe Fraser, a banker and Navy veteran who launched a campaign in January. This poll for the ABC affiliate KSTP, which is the first look we've had at this matchup, also shows Joe Biden ahead 42-38 in Minnesota.

NJ-Sen: Rep. Andy Kim won the Ocean County Democratic convention 86-13 on Saturday against former financier Tammy Murphy. Kim represented about half of this longtime GOP bastion under the congressional map that was in place when he won his first two terms in the House, though now it's split between two Republican-held districts, the 2nd and the 4th.

Senate: The Democratic group Senate Majority PAC announced Monday that it has reserved a total of $239 million in TV advertising in four additional states:

  • Arizona: $23 million
  • Michigan: $14 million
  • Pennsylvania: $42 million
  • Wisconsin: $14 million

The super PAC also said it had booked $65 million to defend Sen. Sherrod Brown in Ohio, which is a bit more than the $61 million the GOP firm Medium Buying relayed last month. SMP previously reserved $45 million in Montana and $36 million in Nevada. All seven of these states are held by members of the Democratic caucus, including Arizona, where independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema is not seeking reelection.


IN-Gov: Sen. Mike Braun has publicized a late February internal from Mark It Red that gives him a 41-12 advantage over Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch ahead of the May 7 Republican primary for governor, which is similar to the 40-13 spread the firm found in December.


AZ-02: Former Yavapai County Supervisor Jack Smith filed paperwork with the state on Friday for a potential August primary bid against freshman Rep. Eli Crane, who was one of the eight House Republicans who voted to end Kevin McCarthy's speakership last year. Smith, who does not have the most helpful name for a Republican candidate seeking office in 2024, has not said anything publicly about his plans. The filing deadline is April 1.

Politico reported last month that McCarthy's network planned to target Crane in northeastern Arizona's reliably red 1st District. There's no word yet, though, whether the former speaker sees Smith, who resigned from office in 2019 to become state director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Development program, as a strong option.

CA-20: NBC projects that Republican Assemblyman Vince Fong has secured first place in last week's top-two primary to succeed his old boss, former Rep. Kevin McCarthy. Fong, who served as McCarthy's district director before winning a seat in the legislature in 2016, leads with 38% as of Tuesday morning. Another Republican, Tulare County Sheriff Mike Boudreaux, holds a 25-22 advantage over Democrat Marisa Wood for second.

It's not clear how many ballots remain to be tabulated, though. NBC estimates that 65% of the total vote has been counted, but the Associated Press places the proportion at just 62% reporting. The AP has almost 1,500 more votes tallied than NBC even as it reports that a lower percentage of the vote is in.

Note that the first round of the special election for the remaining months of McCarthy's term will take place on March 19. Donald Trump, who like McCarthy backs Fong, carried this Central Valley seat 61-36.

Georgia: Candidate filing closed Friday for Georgia's May 21 primaries, which will mark the first time that the state's new congressional map will be used, and you can find a list of contenders available here. A June 18 runoff will take place in contests where no candidate wins a majority of the vote. The state also conducts a general election runoff between the top two vote-getters on Dec. 3 if no candidate receives a majority on Nov. 5, though that's unlikely to come into play in any congressional races this year.

There was one notable development just ahead of the filing deadline when state Rep. Mandisha Thomas became the third and final Democrat to launch a campaign for the new 6th Congressional District, a safely blue seat in the western Atlanta suburbs. Thomas, though, will face a challenging battle against 7th District Rep. Lucy McBath, a nationally known gun safety activist who ended 2023 with $1 million at her disposal. Cobb County Commissioner Jerica Richardson is also running, but she finished last year with a mere $4,000 banked.

MO-03: State Rep. Justin Hicks announced Monday that he was joining the August Republican primary to replace retiring GOP Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer. The launch comes several months after Max Calfo, a former Jim Jordan staffer who was challenging him for renomination, shared what he claimed were court documents from St. Louis County dating to 2010 in which a woman accused the then-17-year-old Hicks of trying to choke her.

"The restraining order's true," the woman, whose name has not been shared publicly, told the St. Louis Post Dispatch's Jack Suntrup in November. The county's Circuit Court would not confirm the existence of the records, however, though a spokesperson informed Suntrup that the forms posted by Calfo appeared to match those used by the court at the time. Hicks does not appear to have responded to the allegations, though Calfo claims the state representative is now suing him.

NY-03: Politico reports that the Nassau County Republican Committee has endorsed former Assemblyman Mike LiPetri, who does not appear to have shown any prior public interest in taking on Democratic Rep. Tom Suozzi. LePetri ran for the open 2nd District in 2020 under a prior map but lost the primary 63-36 against Andrew Garbarino, his then-colleague and the eventual general election winner.

Politico says that, while the Nassau GOP only announced its support for LiPetri late Sunday, party chair Joe Cairo gave a heads-up to the other notable Republican running in the June primary, Air Force veteran Greg Hach. Hach quickly used that information to blast LiPetri on Friday as an "Anti-Trumper" who was "anointed by the local back-room political machine" and has "financial ties" to George Santos. But even though LiPetri fired off nine different tweets that same day, he only confirmed he was running to Newsday on Monday evening.

SC-01: Donald Trump on Saturday endorsed Rep. Nancy Mace, whom he'd unsuccessfully tried to defeat in the GOP primary last cycle. The congresswoman that Trump called "an absolutely terrible candidate" in 2022, however, has used the ensuing two years to remake herself into a diehard MAGA defender. Mace does not appear to have a similar reconciliation with Kevin McCarthy, whom she voted to oust as speaker in October.

Mace faces a June primary challenge from former state cabinet official Catherine Templeton, whom the incumbent labeled "McCarthy's puppet" last month. Dan Hanlon, who is Mace's former chief of staff, filed FEC paperwork in late January, but he still has not said anything publicly about this race. The candidate filing deadline is on April 1.

TX-23: Republican Rep. Tony Gonzales on Monday unveiled an endorsement from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, one of the most powerful far-right politicians in Texas, ahead of his May 28 primary runoff against gun maker Brandon Herrera, whom he led 45-25 in the first round of voting. Patrick's stamp of approval could be a welcome asset for Gonzales a year after the state party censured him for, among other things, voting to confirm Joe Biden's victory in the hours after the Jan. 6 attacks.

WA-06: State Sen. Emily Randall on Monday unveiled endorsements from two Democratic congresswomen who represent neighboring House seats, Rep. Marie Gluesenkamp Perez of the 3rd District and Rep. Marilyn Strickland of the 10th. Retiring Rep. Derek Kilmer, whose seat Randall is seeking, previously endorsed the other major Democrat in the race, Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz.

Ballot Measures

MO Ballot, MO-Sen, MO-Gov: A new poll from the GOP firm Remington Research Group for the local tip-sheet Missouri Scout finds a 42-26 plurality in favor of amending the state constitution "so that future constitutional amendments would need a statewide majority vote and a majority vote in a majority of congressional districts to take effect."

Note that this poll sampled November general election voters even though the proposed constitutional amendment would likely appear on the August primary ballot (should lawmakers actually pass the measure).

In the Senate race, Remington also finds GOP incumbent Josh Hawley outpacing the Democratic frontrunner, Marine veteran Lucas Kunce, 53-39. GOP Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft likewise holds a similar 53-36 advantage in a hypothetical race for governor against state House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, though both candidates face contested primaries this summer.

Prosecutors & Sheriffs

Cook County, IL State's Attorney: Attorney Clayton Harris has publicized an endorsement from Rep. Chuy Garcia, a high-profile progressive who is also one of the most prominent Latino politicians in the Chicago area, ahead of next week's Democratic primary.

Ad Roundup

Campaign Action

GOP senator who voted to acquit Paxton wants Senate to consider reopening impeachment proceedings

By Patrick Svitek, The Texas Tribune

Sign up for The Brief, The Texas Tribune’s daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.

A Republican state senator who voted to acquit Ken Paxton in his impeachment trial last year wants the Senate to consider restarting proceedings now that the attorney general is no longer fighting the whistleblower claims in court that were central to the trial.

The bombshell request came in a letter Thursday from retiring state Sen. Drew Springer to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and his Senate colleagues.

“At this stage, and the point of this letter, I am asking the Senate whether there is a legal mechanism to reopen the impeachment proceedings,” Springer wrote. “Failure to at least consider this possibility runs the risk of AG Paxton making a mockery of the Texas Senate.”

Springer’s letter came days after Paxton announced he would not contest the facts of the whistleblower lawsuit in an attempt to end it without having to testify under oath. The lawsuit was filed in 2020 by a group of former top deputies who said they were improperly fired for telling federal authorities they believed Paxton was abusing his office to help a wealthy friend and donor, Nate Paul.

Paxton’s recent reversal in the whistleblower lawsuit was especially striking because one of the articles of impeachment that he was acquitted on alleged that he violated the Texas Whistleblower Act. Springer wrote that Paxton “completely changed his position in less than four months.”

A spokesperson for Patrick, who served as judge in the trial, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Paxton dismissed Springer's letter in a statement to the Tribune.

"Springer has to leave the senate because he was such a bad senator, wasn’t going to get re-elected, and needed a job," Paxton said. "Why should anyone listen to his sour grapes."

After Springer released his letter, a Democratic senator who voted to convict Paxton, Sen. Sarah Eckhardt of Austin, said on X that she supports "reopening the impeachment proceedings" in light of Paxton's latest legal maneuvering.

In his latest move to end the lawsuit, Paxton also said he would accept any judgment, potentially opening up taxpayers to more than the $3.3 million sum that was in a tentative settlement deal last year. Springer said Paxton has “essentially written a blank check” at the taxpayers’ expense and that he should have to answer questions under oath if he seeks any funding approval from the Legislature.

Despite his reversal, Paxton has not been able to wriggle out of the lawsuit in Travis County district court. As of now, he is required to sit for a deposition on Feb. 1.

Springer’s letter comes as he is freer from political consequences than most of his GOP colleagues because he is not seeking reelection. But his term is not over until January 2025, giving him a voice in the Senate for nearly another year.

Springer was one of 16 GOP senators who voted to acquit Paxton on all impeachment articles — and keep him in office — at the trial in September. Springer seemed especially conflicted with the decision after facing political threats in his solidly red district.

In the race to succeed Springer, Paxton has endorsed Carrie de Moor, a Frisco emergency room physician who surfaced as a potential challenger while the trial was still underway. Springer is backing one of de Moor’s rivals, Brent Hagenbuch, the former Denton County GOP leader. Patrick has also endorsed Hagenbuch.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Campaign Action

From RaTmasTer to kingmaker: How Jonathan Stickland trolled his way to Texas GOP power

By Robert Downen 

The Texas Tribune

Sign up for The Brief, The Texas Tribune’s daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.

Before his unlikely rise to becoming one of Texas' most influential conservative powerbrokers, Jonathan Stickland was RaTTy — short for “RaTmasTer,” the moniker by which he’d torment his many online friends and enemies.

He was barely a teenager when he first started lurking on fantasy football and online gaming forums, dipping his adolescent toe into the internet’s hate-filled, primordial soup. By the mid-2000s — and after dropping out of high school, briefly following a girlfriend to Illinois and moving back to North Texas to smoke weed and work in pest control — Stickland had gained minor infamy for his vicious insults and provocations.

“The entire scene was pretty toxic back then,” said Adam Whitmer, who started playing Warcraft games with Stickland under the name “MaDrAv” two decades ago. “Racial, homophobic and xenophobic slurs were the insults of the era. However, we tended to either instigate it or take it too far. Our team's reputation was only surpassed by RaTTy's individual reputation.”

Stickland was in his 20s and struggling financially, with a new baby and a young wife. He was a troll. But instead of growing out of it, as many do, Stickland would go on to make a career of it — one that would later put him on the map in Texas politics and eventually help ignite a civil war between the Texas GOP’s far-right and more moderate wings.

Stickland served four antagonizing terms in the Texas House, passing just one bill but garnering constant headlines for his stunts and behavior. His antics only endeared him to Texas’ Tea Party movement and its ultrarich funders, who by then had coalesced around an intense hatred of government and the “gum-it-up-at-all-costs” approach to legislating that Stickland helped normalize among broad swaths of today’s Republican Party.

By the time he announced his retirement from the Legislature in 2019, Stickland was a folk hero among the state’s grassroots conservatives, and quickly parlayed his acclaim into a job leading a prolific political action committee, Defend Texas Liberty, that has sought to purge the Texas GOP of moderates and push the party toward more hardline anti-LGBTQ+ and anti-immigration stances.

With Stickland at the helm, Defend Texas Liberty has unapologetically courted controversy, elevating a stable of far-right activists while doling out $3 million to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick before he presided over the impeachment trial of their longtime ally, Attorney General Ken Paxton. In the wake of Paxton’s acquittal, Stickland vowed scorched-earth primary campaigns against House Speaker Dade Phelan and other Republicans, and prepared to cleanse the party of anyone not in lockstep with his hardline, far-right vision.

“You and your band of RINOs are now on notice,” Stickland tweeted at Phelan amid Paxton’s acquittal in September. “You will be held accountable for this entire sham. We will never stop.”

Stickland was still gearing up for retribution three weeks later, when The Texas Tribune reported that he had hosted notorious white supremacist and antisemitic internet provocateur Nick Fuentes at his office for nearly seven hours — a major scandal that rapidly escalated Republican infighting, raised concerns about the party’s proximity to neo-Nazis, led to new revelations about racist trolls in Stickland’s orbit and prompted unsuccessful attempts to drive him from the party.

Four months later, neither Stickland nor his group has explained the meeting with Fuentes. Stickland declined multiple interview requests and did not respond to a detailed list of questions for this story.

On the forums that Stickland once trolled, though, the reaction was feigned shock. Whitmer — who’d followed Stickland’s meteoric rise to power — said he was similarly unsurprised where life took his old Warcraft teammate.

“Once I saw how he acted and carried himself, how he spoke, the waves he caused, I knew that was just the adult version of RaTTy,” Whitmer said. “He may have grown up, but he never really changed.”


Stickland was born in Plano in 1983 and raised in the Southern Baptist tradition. At 14, he began visiting online fantasy football boards, quickly adapting to the casual misogyny, homophobia and racism that were often characteristic of early forum culture.

Throughout the 2000s, Stickland was a bombastic and committed member of the forums, using his more than 3,300 posts to troll his detractors and regale his fellow fantasy footballers with demeaning stories about “dumb focking Asians” and “half naked wimmens” with “sensational knockers” or, in one instance, give a play-by-play of his panicked attempt to pass a drug test for a job via an over-the-counter detox drink that gave him a blue tongue and “bunghole in disarray.”

In Warcraft circles, he was a persistent antagonist, said Whitmer, who provided a link to one 2006 outburst in which Stickland appears to tell his “homosexual,” “euro trash” and “terrorist” opponents to slit their wrists before adding his signature sign-off: “I AM A LEGEND.”

“That was Jonathan,” Whitmer said. “Everyone knew that if you played RaTTy, you were in for a barrage of insults.”

Meanwhile, on the fantasy football forums, Stickland continued to provide his online compatriots with mundane life updates that showed a different side of him: That of a new husband and father, struggling to save money for the down payment on a modest home while making two-hour, roundtrip drives between his pest control job and the apartment he shared with his new wife, infant child and dog. It was a rough stretch, but Stickland seemed content.

“I do enjoy it quite a bit,” he said of his job in September 2007, before then advising other fantasy football users on how to combat pest infestations or use fox urine to scare away skunks.

Then, in December 2007, Stickland tumbled down a fateful rabbit hole. “I decided yesterday after some research and watching some clips on YouTube that I am now voting for Ron Paul 08! Just in case anyone gives a shiat,” he wrote about the Republican congressman from Texas who had previously run for president as a Libertarian.

Two days later, Stickland was back to his old habits, bragging about infiltrating an unsuspecting forum of insect hobbyists, where he posted a link to Lemon Party, a graphic porn website that was a favorite of 2000-era internet trolls.

A few weeks later, Stickland returned to the forums to announce that he had given his first political donation — to Paul — and volunteered to canvas for his presidential campaign. Stickland was hooked by Paul’s promises to, in Stickland’s words, “abolish the IRS,” “build a fence and shoot anyone who crosses it,” “end abortion rights'' and “limit government by cutting almost every single board we could name.”

As Paul’s longshot bid faltered in the months after, Stickland grew increasingly angry about the two-party system that he believed existed only to protect establishment politicians and encroach on civil liberties.

“We will not hand you the White House when you attempt to shove ###### down my throat in the form of a John McCain,” he wrote in one heated, February 2008 argument with a fellow fantasy footballer. “Piss off and give me my party back.”

His rage only grew over the next two years, as was clear from his occasional, all-caps rants about government surveillance or his warnings of a coming apocalypse for which Americans must prepare to defend themselves.

Then, in 2011, Stickland attended a town hall in Tarrant County with U.S. Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Lewisville, and, in a move that would change his life, decided to confront the Republican congressman over his recent vote to raise the debt limit. Also in the crowd that day was Julie McCarty, then-leader of Tarrant County’s nascent Tea Party. A few days after, Stickland later recalled, he was eating a midnight bowl of ice cream when he received an email from McCarty, asking if he’d consider running for office.

“My wife was leaning over me and started laughing,” he later told the Austin American-Statesman. “Then she said, ‘Crap, you might be able to do that.’”

Stickland prayed on it, agreed to throw his hat in the ring and started knocking on more than 7,000 doors — losing 50 pounds along the way. Backed by McCarty and other Tea Party-aligned groups, he cruised to victory in the Republican primary and then trounced his opponent, a Libertarian Party candidate, in the 2012 general election for Texas House District 92.

Even he was surprised by his fast rise, telling the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that he had never imagined “writing bills and amendments and all that stuff,” and was "watching quite a bit of video to see what a state representative actually does.”

He was 29, and headed to Austin with a promise to leave with the chamber’s most conservative voting record.

Bridge builder, bomb thrower

In the first weeks of the 2013 session, Stickland cast himself as a bridge builder, unwavering in his opposition to abortion or government expansion but still committed to bipartisanship. He collaborated with liberal, pro-abortion rights Sen. Wendy Davis on legislation to increase excused absences for schoolchildren with military parents; and in an interview at the time, he said Rep. Mary González — an El Paso Democrat and the House’s first openly-LGBTQ+ woman — was one of his “best friends.”

“I'm trying not to get too wrapped up in some of the political stuff,” Stickland said on his first day as a lawmaker. "Right now, I'm just focused on making a lot of friends, trying not to make any enemies, and talking to people about my legislative agenda and building coalitions."

In a recent interview, González acknowledged she was once friendly with Stickland, and that the two bonded as young newcomers to the statehouse. A decade later, she sees their relationship much differently.

“He capitalized on bipartisanship back then, but now attacks anyone who works towards bipartisanship,” she said.

As he reached across the aisle, Stickland also quickly showed his conservative bona fides, proving unafraid to critique veteran Republican lawmakers, including House Speaker Joe Straus. Stickland proposed legislation to give state tax breaks to “religiously-based businesses,” including Hobby Lobby, that faced fines for not providing contraception to workers under the Affordable Care Act. He joined dozens of GOP lawmakers in demanding that the Boy Scouts of America uphold its ban on gay members. He slammed his fellow Republican lawmakers as hypocrites after they sought a new law that’d allow them, but not everyday citizens, to carry handguns into hospitals, churches and bars. To the applause of civil liberty groups, Stickland successfully pushed for an amendment that tightened law enforcement’s access to private citizens’ emails.

And he hired as his chief of staff Tony McDonald, a recent University of Texas at Austin graduate who’d spent his college career trolling campus liberals with stunts such as an “affirmative action bake sale” that charged white students more for goods. Stickland stuck with McDonald amid criticism for blog posts in which he called for “literacy tests” for Black Obama voters, among other posts that were criticized as racist or homophobic, but described by McDonald as “hilariously awesome conservative things.”

By the end of his first session, Stickland had delivered on his promise to be the chamber’s most conservative member. He’d carved out his reputation as a sterling libertarian, eager to kill anything that didn’t align with the “liberty factory” that he nicknamed his office.

And, perhaps more importantly, he decided he preferred bomb-throwing to bridge-building.

"I didn't come down here to make a ton of friends,” Stickland said as the 2013 session winded down. “I came down here to fight for what I believe in.”

Big money

The next year, Stickland again cruised to reelection despite strong opposition from the state’s largest law enforcement groups, one of which labeled him “one of the worst state representatives in Texas history” over his opposition to a ban on the sale of the hallucinogen salvia, and to a bill that would have made it a misdemeanor for an adult to “knowingly cause physical contact with a child that a reasonable person would regard as offensive and sexual in nature.”

He returned to Austin in 2015 ready to outrage and battle. That session, Stickland was the lone vote opposed to a bill that made “revenge porn” a felony. He was removed from a committee meeting and later investigated by the Texas Rangers for listing witnesses who were not in Austin as supporters of his bill to ban red light cameras. When Planned Parenthood supporters rallied at the Capitol and tried to lobby lawmakers against cuts to a program that provided free breast and cervical cancer screenings to low-income women, Stickland hung a sign outside his office that proclaimed him a “FORMER FETUS.” And, to the ire of both sides of the aisle, he used the House floor to grandstand and prod lawmakers, later pushing video clips of those exchanges out to his social media followers.

In 2016, Stickland again won reelection, despite some of his past catching up to him. During the campaign, his opponent, local pastor Scott Fisher, unearthed some of Stickland’s old forum posts — including one in which the 25-year-old Stickland said “rape is non existent in marriage.” Fisher’s campaign also sought to link Stickland’s comments to his votes against expanding the rights of sexual assault survivors, which Stickland called “ludicrous.”

Stickland apologized for the posts, saying he had “been a different person for a very long time” and that it was “difficult to look back at how careless I was on the fantasy forums.”

The scandal did not shake his support among the grassroots and McCarty, who criticized Fisher for “attacking a brother in Christ for his past sins.”

By then, Stickland had already cemented his standing among grassroots conservatives, said Zachary Maxwell, who met Stickland around 2014 while working on the campaign of Sen. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville.

“He was seen as a uniter — somebody who’d been in the trenches for a long time, who knew the ins and outs and could aggregate information and donations,” recalled Maxwell, who later worked for Rep. Mike Lang, the then-leader of the conservative House Freedom Caucus. “I don’t think all that was true, but he certainly made people believe that.”

One of Stickland’s appeals, Maxwell said, was his mastery of “moneybombs” in which a handful of megadonors would match — or sometimes triple — the amount of money donated by smaller donors in one-day fundraising blitzes. The strategy helped Stickland raise gobs of money while touting himself as a grassroots, small-donor-supported outsider, Maxwell said.

Take, for example, an Oct. 14, 2016, “moneybomb” for Stickland: Ahead of the fundraiser, Stickland promoted the one-day drive by posting videos of him arguing against an ethics reform bill in the House that had been opposed by megadonors and dark money groups during the previous legislative session. After the 24-hour "moneybomb" ended, Stickland touted on Facebook that his campaign had raised $299,000 from 367 donors — no doubt an impressive haul, but less so upon closer examination. Campaign finance disclosures from that day show that roughly two-thirds of the funds came from just five ultrarich businessmen and conservative donors, led by Tim Dunn and Farris Wilks — the two West Texas oil billionaires who now fund Defend Texas Liberty.

Dunn, Wilks and the other three donors were at the time bankrolling a different political action committee, Empower Texans, that by 2015 had emerged as a major force in the Texas Legislature, donating millions of dollars to ultraconservative candidates — including Paxton as he successfully ran for attorney general — and pressing lawmakers to attack House leadership, namely then-Speaker Straus, from the right.

Stickland was Empower Texans' man in the House: During his first two years as a legislator, he received just $3,700 from the group and its funders. That number climbed to nearly $200,000 between 2013 and 2014. And from 2016 through 2018, they gave Stickland more than $850,000 — compared to $508,000 from all other donors combined. By the end of his career, Empower Texans and its main financiers gave Stickland $1.15 million — nearly half of the total contributions he received over his time as a lawmaker.

Maxwell, who later worked for Empower Texans, recalled a shift in Stickland as his ties to the group deepened. Both publicly and behind the scenes, Maxwell said, Stickland became a “total nuisance,” far more concerned with garnering outrage and annoying fellow legislators than he was with helping grassroots conservatives.

“At some point he realized this is a game,” Maxwell said. “He found that there was money in it as long as you keep your head down and beat the drum.”

In 2019, Stickland passed his very first bill — a ban on red light cameras — and soon after announced that he would not seek reelection, saying that he had "determined it is not in the Lord's will."

"Instead," he told supporters in an email, "I intend to dedicate more time to my family, my church, and my business."

Defend Texas Liberty

His retirement from the Legislature came at a pivotal moment for the state’s ultraconservative movement, which by then had been plagued by infighting and minor scandals. In 2019, McCarty was heavily criticized for Facebook posts in which she said she could "certainly understand" the motives of the racist gunman who murdered 22 people at an El Paso Walmart that year. Her group rebranded as the True Texas Project around the same time, and continues to work closely with Stickland.

In 2020, McDonald — the former Stickland chief of staff who went on to work for Empower Texans — was roundly criticized after the accidental release of unedited podcast audio in which he and Empower Texans vice president Cary Cheshire mocked Gov. Greg Abbott’s use of a wheelchair. Both were suspended. Not long after, Empower Texans was officially dissolved and its media website, Texas Scorecard, was spun off into a separate entity.

In March 2020, Defend Texas Liberty was registered with the Texas Ethics Commission.

Since then, Defend Texas Liberty and Stickland have functioned as the north star in a constellation of groups, movements and political offices that have received tens of millions of dollars from Dunn and Wilks, two West Texas oil tycoons who were key funders of Empower Texans. In 2022, Stickland also founded a consulting firm, Pale Horse Strategies, which has since received more than $830,000 from Defend Texas Liberty.

With Stickland at the helm, the state’s far right has vowed scorched-earth campaigns against those in the Texas GOP who they claim are RINOs — including sterling conservatives and one-time allies who’ve publicly defied Defend Texas Liberty, such as Reps. Briscoe Cain and Jeff Leach.

Chief among their enemies has been House Speaker Dade Phelan, who Stickland and his allies have perpetually accused of working with Democrats to hurt fellow Republicans. At the same time that he’s lobbed such accusations, Stickland has done exactly that — repeatedly trying to enlist a 20-year-old abortion rights activist, Olivia Julianna, to “collab” or amplify attacks against Phelan to her more than 1 million followers on various social media platforms.

“Thought we might both be able to appreciate Phelan stinks,” Stickland wrote in a message to Julianna along with a link to a video that claimed the speaker was drunk while presiding over House business in May.

“Get bent,” she replied, according to screenshots of direct messages she provided the Tribune.

Meanwhile, Stickland has continued to place a preeminence on outrage and trolling: He still works closely with McDonald; and gave a bonus to Shelby Griesinger, the current Defend Texas Liberty treasurer who has shared QAnon-adjacent conspiracy theories, after some of her social media posts were criticized as racist.

“Anytime progressive leftists are losing their minds I know you’ve done well,” Stickland wrote in an email to Griesinger, a screenshot of which she included on her TikTok. “Keep kicking the hornets next… Your Christmas bonus just got bigger.”

Stickland was similarly pleased after Ye, the rapper formerly known as Kanye West, posted a series of openly antisemitic screeds on X in 2022 that ended with him promising to go “death con 3 on JEWISH PEOPLE.”

“The left is freaking out, will overreact, and make things worse. Thankful for those 'challenging authority,' by asking questions,” Stickland wrote in a post the same day that tagged Ye and Elon Musk, who at the time was being criticized for X's failure to combat skyrocketing antisemitism.

Stickland's behavior continued through the end of last year: He and his allies recruited Kyle Rittenhouse, the gunman who fatally shot two Black Lives Matter protesters in 2020, to work for Pale Horse Strategies; hired two far-right activists with documented histories of antisemitic and white nationalist views; controversially partnered with a shadowy company that pays Gen Z influencers to do undisclosed political marketing; and supported anti-immigration activists who sent fortune cookies to lawmakers amid debate over a bill to ban Chinese dual citizens from owning property in Texas and, in December, sent mailers to voters in Phelan’s district that shamed him for associating with Muslims.

The tactics have consistently been criticized by fellow conservatives, who say that Stickland and his allies care far less about advancing conservative policy than they do creating chaos and bringing in “yes men” such as Bryan Slaton, the former Royse City representative who was removed from the House last year after getting a 19-year-old aide drunk and having sex with her.

“They do not want people that are actually effective,” said Sheena Rodriguez, founder of Alliance for a Safe Texas, which advocates for stronger border security. “The people that they put forward all look the same. They all sound the same. They're all nuts. They're not serious people.”

Rodgriguez first got involved with the state’s grassroots movement around 2020, when she attended a training held by True Texas Project. She eventually spun off her own group and, in late 2021, said she was recruited by Defend Texas Liberty to endorse Don Huffines, the former state senator and businessman who was challenging Abbott in the Republican primary. Rodriguez said she initially planned to endorse Huffines’ hardline anti-immigration campaign, but decided to stay neutral. Not long after, she said, she received a phone call from someone in the Defend Texas Liberty orbit, who told her that she’d been branded as “uncontrollable” by Stickland.

A few months later, she said, she was in the exhibit hall at the Texas GOP convention when she stumbled upon a booth with promotional materials and talking points that were noticeably similar to her group’s. Confused, Rodriguez said she introduced herself to the young, bearded man there, who identified himself as Chris Russo, founder of a new organization called Texans For Strong Borders.

“‘Who is funding this?’” she recalled asking Russo. “He was like, ‘The same people behind” Empower Texans.

Russo did not respond to a request for comment.


On a sunny Friday morning a year and a half after that Texas GOP convention, Russo steered his pickup truck into the parking lot of Pale Horse Strategies’ remote Tarrant County office. His passenger seat was empty; in the back seat, a scandalous passenger: Nick Fuentes.

[Leader of anti-immigration group Texans for Strong Borders also runs anonymous, hate-filled social media accounts]

By then, six years had passed since Fuentes attended the deadly “Unite the Right” rally at which tiki torch-waving neo-Nazis and fascists marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, killing one and leaving several counterprotesters maimed and bloodied. Soon after, Fuentes dropped out of Boston University to focus full time on his racist YouTube show, intermixing his antisemitic screeds with irony and humor that quickly drew a large following of young, far-right hatemongers united by their disdain for women and Jews.

Mirroring the Defend Texas Liberty playbook, Fuentes soon focused his energy on those within the GOP, hoping to pull the party and mainstream acceptability further to his views by attacking others from the right.

The strategy was “a hostile takeover of the Republican Party,” to quote Laura Loomer, a prominent white nationalist conspiracy theorist and Fuentes collaborator who Stickland praised in December.

When Fuentes arrived in Texas in October, he was greeted by old friends and young followers embedded in the Defend Texas Liberty orbit. Among them: Russo, who ran anonymous, bigoted social media accounts as his group helped push anti-immigration policies that were adopted by Texas lawmakers last year; and Ella Maulding, a die-hard Fuentes fan who'd recently parlayed her far-right online celebrity into a job coordinating social media for Pale Horse clients.

There, at the Pale Horse offices, Maulding stood in the parking lot making videos for Texans For Strong Borders while Rittenhouse and others unloaded furniture from a U-Haul and Fuentes and Russo sat inside. Later in the day, Stickland emerged from the building’s side door and climbed into his truck. His hair was grown long and and beard disheveled — preparation for an upcoming role as the Jewish narrator in a local play depicting the life of Jesus Christ — and Stickland was almost unrecognizable as he steered past a car with a reporter inside.

The truck’s license plate left no doubt who was driving.

“RATMSTR,” it read.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Campaign Action

Attorney General Ken Paxton’s long-delayed securities fraud trial set

By Patrick Svitek 

The Texas Tribune

Sign up for The Brief, The Texas Tribune’s daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.

Attorney General Ken Paxton’s long-delayed trial on securities fraud charges has been set for April 15.

State District Judge Andrea Beall scheduled the trial during a hearing Monday morning in Houston. Paxton attended the hearing but did not speak at it.

Paxton was indicted on the charges over eight years ago, months into his first term as the state’s top law enforcement official. The charges stem from accusations that in 2011 he tried to solicit investors in a McKinney technology company without disclosing that it was paying him to promote its stock. Paxton has pleaded not guilty.

The trial is a reminder that Paxton's legal problems persist even after the Texas Senate acquitted him last month in an impeachment trial on unrelated allegations. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick presided over that trial and has faced intense criticism for taking $3 million from a pro-Paxton group in the lead-up to the trial.

"Unlike the impeachment, this is going to be a fair trial," special prosecutor Kent Schaffer told reporters after the hearing. "This judge is not corrupt. This judge is not on the take."

The hearing was brief and did not settle one lingering pretrial issue: how much the special prosecutors should get paid. The judge also scheduled a February pretrial conference.

Paxton's lawyer Philip Hilder told reporters his side was "gratified" with the trial date and criticized the special prosecutors for their focus on their pay.

"It's show-me-the-money," Hilder said. "It's all about the money to them."

The prosecutors say they have not been paid since January 2016. A Paxton supporter filed a lawsuit challenging their fee schedule in the early months of the case, and both sides have been wrangling over the issue ever since.

The trial has been delayed for years over a number of pretrial disputes, including the prosecutors' pay and the venue. The case began in Paxton’s native Collin County but was moved to more neutral territory in Harris County at the prosecution’s urging.

Paxton faces two counts of securities fraud, a first-degree felony with a punishment of up to 99 years in prison. Paxton also faces one count of failing to register with state securities regulators, a third-degree felony with a maximum of 10 years in prison.

The impeachment trial centered on different allegations of bribery and malfeasance made by former top deputies in his office. When the House impeached Paxton in May, it included multiple articles of impeachment related to the securities case, but the Senate set those aside for the trial and dismissed them afterward.

While the prosecutors emphasized they expect a fairer trial than the one the Senate conducted, Hilder declined to draw any comparisons. The impeachment trial "was unrelated to what we're defending against," Hilder said.

The impeachment articles focused on allegations that Paxton misused his office to help his friend investigate claims that he was being targeted by federal and local law enforcement, in exchange for favors that included giving a job to a woman with whom he was having an affair.

While the Senate's acquittal was a political triumph for the third-term Republican, Paxton still has significant legal issues. In addition to the securities fraud case, he faces a federal investigation into the claims by his former top staffers, who allege he abused his office to help a friend and donor, Nate Paul.

In the securities fraud case, the prosecutors' pay may be the last major pending issue before the trial. In 2018, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals struck down the fee agreement, arguing that it fell outside legal limits for what such attorneys may be paid. The court ordered a previous Harris County judge overseeing the case to come up with a new payment schedule, but that never happened and the prosecutors have continued to go unpaid.

During the hearing Monday, Paxton lawyer Bill Mateja sought to propose an order addressing the pay issue from his side's perspective. But Beall repeatedly said she would decide on her own.

The judge did not indicate when she would make a ruling on the pay, according to one of the prosecutors, Brian Wice.

Wice said Paxton's lawyers are so focused on their pay because they have known "the only way to derail this prosecution was to defund it." Wice said he is owed "a lot" and Schaffer estimated he has "500 unpaid hours" dating back to 2016.

The prosecutors have previously raised the possibility they could withdraw from the case if they are not paid. Asked about that Monday, Schaffer said "we have to see what happens," while Wice promised he is "not going anywhere."

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Sign up to receive Daily Kos email action alerts

Here’s who gets money from Defend Texas Liberty, the PAC whose leader met with a white supremacist

By Patrick Svitek and Carla Astudillo 

The Texas Tribune

Sign up for The Brief, The Texas Tribune’s daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.

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 recipients

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.”

The donors

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.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Sign up to receive Daily Kos email action alerts

Conservative PAC leader’s meeting with white supremacist Nick Fuentes escalates GOP infighting

By Robert Downen 

The Texas Tribune

Sign up for The Brief, The Texas Tribune’s daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.

House Speaker Dade Phelan strongly condemned the leader of a major conservative PAC and demanded that elected officials — including Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick — return money they received from the group, one day after The Texas Tribune reported that it had recently hosted well-known white supremacist Nick Fuentes.

"This (is) not just a casual misstep,” Phelan said in a statement. “It’s indicative of the moral, political rot that has been festering in a certain segment of our party for far too long. Anti-Semitism, bigotry and Hitler apologists should find no sanctuary in the Republican party. Period. We cannot – and must not – tolerate the tacit endorsement of such vile ideologies.”

Shortly after, Patrick denounced Fuentes and anti-semitism, but accused Phelan — whose statement noted Hamas' attack on Israel on Saturday — of exploiting the war for “his own political gain.” He called on Phelan to resign as speaker before 1 p.m. on Monday, when the Texas House is expected to gavel in for a special session on school vouchers and other contentious legislation. Patrick's statement did not mention Stickland — or his ties to and financial support from Stickland's PAC.

Campaign Action

The Tribune reported Sunday that Jonathan Stickland, the leader of Defend Texas Liberty PAC and a related consulting firm, Pale Horse Strategies, hosted Fuentes outside Fort Worth for nearly 7 hours on Friday. Fuentes is an avowed admirer of Adolf Hitler, has called for “holy war” against Jews and said that "all I want is revenge against my enemies and a total Aryan victory.”

Acting on a tip, a Tribune reporter and photographer observed Fuentes and others — including Kyle Rittenhouse, who was acquitted of homicide after killing two Black Lives Matter protesters in 2020 — enter the one-story office of Pale Horse Strategies near Fort Worth. Republican Party of Texas Chair Matt Rinaldi also was inside the office for about 45 minutes, though Rinaldi told the Tribune that he had no idea that Fuentes was there, condemned him outright and said he wouldn’t meet with him “in a million years.”

Defend Texas Liberty is funded by two West Texas oil billionaires — Tim Dunn and Farris Wilks — who are also Attorney General Ken Paxton’s biggest donors. Earlier this year, the group made headlines after it gave $3 million in loans and donations to Patrick ahead of Paxton’s impeachment trial in the Texas Senate, over which Patrick presided.

Phelan — who has long been at odds with Patrick — directly called out Patrick in his statement, which comes as tension between the two have escalated to new heights in the wake of Paxton’s impeachment trial. Phelan also demanded Monday that “any elected official” who has received money from Defend Texas Liberty or its affiliated organizations “to immediately redirect every single cent of those contributions to a charitable organization of his or her choice.”

“Furthermore, I call upon elected officials and candidates to state unequivocally that they will not accept further contributions, including in-kind contributions, from the Defend Texas Liberty PAC,” Phelan said. “Recently, Lt. Governor Dan Patrick took $3 million from this organization. I expect him to lead the way in redirecting these funds.”

Phelan also called on the Texas GOP, which has taken $132,500 this election cycle, and Rinaldi to donate funds from Defend Texas Liberty even “if doing so would take the party into the red.”

Phelan continued, drawing a direct line between Fuentes’ visit to Texas and the violence that broke out in Israel over the weekend.

“The Republican Party, at its core, champions freedom, democracy, and shared values with nations like Israel,” he said. “...Every single elected official or candidate who has received funding from the Defend Texas Liberty PAC must publicly disavow their toxic affiliation."

Paxton and Rinaldi could not be immediately reached for comment.

Patrick, meanwhile, did not say whether he would return the $3 million given to him by Defend Texas Liberty. In the statement, he slammed Phelan for what he called a “disgusting, despicable, and disingenuous” political stunt.

“Nick Fuentes and his antisemitic rhetoric have no place in the United States. Those who spew such vile, loathsome, abominations will have to answer for it,” Patrick said. “For anyone to try to use these invectives for their own political gain is below contempt. I am calling on Dade Phelan to resign his position before the House gavels in this afternoon.”

Since 2021, Defend Texas Liberty has given nearly $15 million to ultraconservative candidates as it tries to unseat fellow Republicans, including Phelan, who it argues are not conservative enough. The group is a key part of a network of nonprofits, media companies, campaigns and institutions that Dunn and the Wilks brothers have given more than $100 million to push their ultraconservative religious and anti-LGBTQ+ views.

Phelan meanwhile is at least the second Republican to call on others to return donations. On Sunday, Rep. Jared Patterson, R-Frisco,said his fellow conservatives should publicly donate funds from Defend Texas Liberty “or their astroturf groups” to an “Israel-supporting charity.”

“Unfortunately, this isn’t unbelievable,” he said in response to the Tribune’s reporting.

Campaign finance records show that in 2022, Defend Texas Liberty donated more than $5 million to candidates who challenged more moderate, incumbent Republicans. Most of that money went to Don Huffines, a real estate developer and former state senator who unsuccessfully challenged Gov. Greg Abbott in the Republican primary.

Defend Texas Liberty has also bankrolled some of the most conservative members of the Legislature, including Reps. Tony Tinderholt of Arlington and Bryan Slaton of Royse City. Slaton was ousted from the Texas House in May after House investigators found that he gave alcohol to a 19-year-old aide and then had sex with her.

Fuentes’ visit to Pale Horse comes as the far-right of the Texas GOP continues to elevate extreme rhetoric, figures and conspiracy theories amid an ongoing civil was with Phelan and other more establishment members, and as antisemitism and hate crimes continue to skyrocket in the state and nationally.

Despite his open adoration for Hitler and his violent rhetoric, Fuentes has not been entirely cast out of right-wing circles. Hard-right Republicans, including U.S. Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Paul Gosar of Arizona, have spoken at Fuentes’ annual conference alongside avowed white supremacists.

Fuentes’ acolytes have also been employed in powerful positions in the GOP. In July, the presidential campaign of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis fired a staffer after it was revealed that he created and then shared a pro-DeSantis video that featured a Nazi sonnenrad. And, earlier this year, Ella Maulding moved from Mississippi to Fort Worth to work as a social media coordinator for Pale Horse Strategies.

Maulding has praised Fuentes as ”the greatest civil rights leader in history,” and her social media is replete with references to “white genocide” — a foundational ideology for neo-Nazi and other violent extremist movements.

Maulding was observed for several hours at the Friday meeting with Fuentes, and she spent some time outside recording a video for Texans For Strong Borders in which she called on Texas lawmakers to crack down on immigration when they meet for a special legislative session beginning Monday.

Texans for Strong Borders wants to stem both legal and illegal immigration. Its founder, Chris Russo, was seen driving Fuentes to the Friday meeting at Pale Horse Strategies.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Ken Paxton to file criminal complaints against Texas House impeachment managers

By Alejandro Serrano

The Texas Tribune

Sign up for The Brief, The Texas Tribune’s daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said Monday he plans to file criminal complaints against the group of state representatives who led the impeachment against him for releasing his personal information.

“The impeachment managers clearly have a desire to threaten me with harm when they released this information last week,” he said in a statement. “I'm imploring their local prosecutors in each individual district to investigate the criminal offenses that have been committed.”

The 12 House representatives being targeted by Paxton led the impeachment trial in the Senate after the House overwhelmingly voted to impeach Paxton in May. Last month the Senate acquitted Paxton of 16 articles of impeachment that alleged corruption and bribery.

In a statement Monday, Paxton accused the House impeachment managers of violating a new state law with an Oct. 2 release of documents related to the case. The new legislation cited by Paxton prohibits posting an individual’s personal information such as a home address or telephone number with the intent to cause harm to that individual or their family.

Campaign Action

Paxton said he plans to file the criminal complaints in each of the eight counties represented by the dozen impeachment managers. It is not clear which address is in question. Several of Paxton's addresses are available through already-published public records, often found online from any location through local municipalities' appraisal district databases.

House lawyer Rusty Hardin, who prosecuted Paxton, said Monday that the documents released last week contained the same information that was included in other documents that had already been filed or were admitted into the impeachment trial without objection.

He also said that the information about Paxton's residence is available through public records, and has been for years. Further, he said the release of documents was not conducted with an intent to cause harm to Paxton as he alleged — it was "simply a repeat of public information to anyone that wants to look into it."

If Paxton makes good on his pledge to file the criminal complaints, Hardin said his Houston law firm will consider countering with a criminal complaint against Paxton for making a false report to police.

"This is the exact kind of bullying, uninformed vengeful act that we predicted if the attorney general was not impeached," Hardin said. "He's trying to misuse the criminal justice system to cower and punish people who sought to impeach him under the law. It's just one more outrageous, vengeful act by a man who has no business being attorney general."

This is a developing story.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Dan Patrick defends taking $3 million from pro-Paxton group ahead of trial

By Patrick Svitek 

The Texas Tribune

Sign up for The Brief, The Texas Tribune’s daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has defended taking $3 million from a group supporting Ken Paxton in the lead-up to the attorney general’s impeachment trial that Patrick presided over as judge.

Patrick said in a TV interview published Wednesday that the controversy over the funding ignored that he took just as much from “the other side,” including donors aligned with Texans for Lawsuit Reform, which Paxton has declared as a political enemy. Patrick gave the explanation, which was heavily caveated, in an interview four days after his Senate voted to acquit Paxton.

“[The $3 million] got headlines because people wanted to make it a headline … but I also raised almost the same amount of money from people who may not be anti-Paxton, but they weren’t out there being pro-Paxton,” Patrick said in the interview with WFAA, the ABC affiliate in Dallas. “There are a few exceptions, because some of the people supporting TLR also supported Ken Paxton.”

The funding in question came in late June, when statewide officials and state lawmakers had a 12-day window to raise money before the first reporting deadline since the regular legislative session. Patrick reported a $1 million donation and $2 million from Defend Texas Liberty PAC, a group that had led the charge to attack House Republicans who voted to impeach Paxton. A leader with the PAC later threatened political revenge against any senator who sided against Paxton in his trial.

The money grabbed attention because the Senate was gearing up for the trial at the time — the chamber approved trial rules June 21 — and Patrick had little need for the money. He is not up for reelection until 2026, he already had over $16 million in the bank as of last year, and he had also never gotten nearly as much money from Defend Texas Liberty before.

Patrick declined to comment on the $3 million in pro-Paxton money when it became public. A day earlier, he had issued a sweeping gag order ahead of the trial.

While Patrick did raise roughly $3 million more on the same fundraising report, it is difficult to verify how much was actually from the “other side” in the Paxton trial. TLR is a powerful tort reform group that has become synonymous with the GOP establishment in Austin; it heavily funded one of Paxton’s 2022 primary challengers and had urged senators to reject pretrial motions to dismiss his impeachment case.

TLR itself only gave $25,000 on Patrick’s latest campaign finance report, while its co-founder, Richard Weekley, gave $50,000.

It is true that some of Patrick’s biggest donors in late June — beside Defend Texas Liberty — were also aligned with TLR. For example, Patrick received $150,000 from real estate developer Ross Perot Jr., who had cut a $1 million check to TLR less than two months earlier.

But some of Patrick’s largest donors beyond Defend Texas Liberty were also not TLR allies. Patrick got $100,000 from Midland oilman Douglas Scharbauer, who has not given anything to TLR this year, according to the latest records. Furthermore, Scharbauer was Paxton’s second largest individual donor on the attorney general’s late June report, the first since he was impeached.

Patrick’s invoking of TLR was notable given that Paxton has pilloried the group as a force behind his impeachment. They have denied any involvement in initiating it.

Patrick backed up TLR as he sought to explain the money he got from the “other side.”

“I don’t believe they were involved in this at all, but they’re seen as, They wanted a trial and they supported other people against Ken Paxton, so anybody supporting TLR, would be thought to be [anti-Paxton],” Patrick said. “I know that’s not the case. They all weren’t.”

Disclosure: Texans for Lawsuit Reform and Ross Perot Jr. 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.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Political warnings and accusations of misconduct: 6 main themes emerge in Paxton’s impeachment trial

By Chuck Lindell

The Texas Tribune

Sign up for The Brief, The Texas Tribune’s daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.

"Political warnings and accusations of misconduct: 6 main themes emerge in first week of Ken Paxton’s impeachment trial" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

The first week of suspended Attorney General Ken Paxton’s history-making impeachment trial closed Friday with only four prosecution witnesses taking the stand in the first four days.

Even so, the broad strokes of the cases being presented by lawyers for the House impeachment managers and Paxton’s defense team emerged in Tuesday’s opening statements and during frequently tedious, sometimes contentious questioning of witnesses.

Among the many subplots, these themes are likely to guide a trial that could take several additional weeks — ending when senators deliberate in private and emerge to cast votes that will determine whether the three-term Republican will return to work or be permanently removed from office.

Paxton attended the opening hours of his trial on Tuesday, during which senators overwhelmingly rejected his attempts to dismiss the articles of impeachment and his lawyer entered not guilty pleas on his behalf. He was absent the rest of the week.

The trial is set to resume Monday at 9 a.m.

Defense team challenges loyalty, evidence

Under trial rules adopted by the Senate, prosecutors began presenting their case first, and they chose to lead with three former high-ranking officials of the attorney general’s office — all of whom reported Paxton to the FBI on Sept. 30, 2020 before quitting or being fired.

Three Paxton lawyers split cross examination of the opening witnesses, and all three hit on similar themes.

Lead defense lawyer Tony Buzbee equated reporting Paxton to the FBI as an act of betrayal. By going behind the attorney general’s back, he said, Paxton was deprived of the opportunity to answer questions that could have cleared matters up.

“You went to the FBI uninformed, isn’t that true?” Buzbee asked Jeff Mateer, Paxton’s former second in command and the first prosecution witness.

“I would not say that, sir,” Mateer replied Tuesday.

[Who’s who in the Ken Paxton impeachment trial, from key participants to potential witnesses]

Defense lawyer Mitch Little picked up the theme during his aggressive questioning of the third prosecution witness, Ryan Vassar, former deputy attorney general for legal counsel, on Thursday.

In an extensive back and forth, Little suggested that Paxton was due the courtesy of a warning after nurturing Vassar’s career. More importantly, Little added, failing to let Paxton address their concerns left Vassar and other whistleblowers uninformed when they met with FBI agents to accuse Paxton of criminal acts.

Little said the whistleblowers had no direct knowledge, let alone evidence such as invoices, of wrongdoing regarding allegations that Austin real estate investor Nate Paul offered bribes by paying to renovate Paxton’s home and employing the woman Paxton was dating outside of his marriage.

“You went to the FBI on Sept. 30 with your compatriots and reported the elected attorney general of this state for a crime without any evidence, yes?” Little asked.

Vassar tried to qualify his answer several times, but Little repeatedly objected, stating it was a yes or no question.

“That’s right, we took no evidence,” Vassar finally stated.

On Friday, Rusty Hardin, a lawyer for the impeachment managers, sought to clear up the impression left by Vassar.

Vassar said he believed Little was referring to “documents, documentary evidence,” adding that he intended the FBI to find the truth, not conduct his own investigation.

“Did you give the FBI evidence?” Hardin asked.

“Our experience was evidence,” Vassar replied. “But we did not conduct our own investigation to provide documentary evidence of what we had learned. … I believed that I was a witness to criminal activity that had occurred by General Paxton.”

Prosecutors focus on “egregious misconduct”

State Rep. Andrew Murr, R-Junction, gave the opening statement on behalf of the House impeachment managers. He promised senators would hear testimony portraying Paxton as obsessed with helping Paul — who was under state and federal investigation for his business dealings — despite warnings and objections from his top lieutenants at the agency.

Paxton engaged in “egregious misconduct,” he said.

“The state’s top lawyer engaged in conduct designed to advance the economic interests and legal positions of a friend and donor to the detriment of innocent Texans,” Murr said, adding that Paxton “turned the keys of the office of attorney general over to Nate Paul.”

Ryan Bangert, Paxton’s former deputy first assistant attorney general, testified Wednesday and Thursday that Paxton took an unusual interest in matters involving Paul, such as pressing to overrule two agency decisions that denied Paul access to documents related to an active investigation into Paul’s businesses.

“We were devoting far more resources to Nate Paul than we ever should have,” Bangert said.

“I was deeply concerned that the name, authority and power of our office had been, in my view, hijacked to serve the interests of an individual against the interests of the broader public,” Bangert added. “It was unconscionable.”

[“Operation Deep Sea”: How Nate Paul pulled the strings in the attorney general’s office to investigate his enemies]

On Friday, impeachment lawyers called their fourth witness, David Maxwell, Paxton’s former director of law enforcement. Maxwell was out of state when seven senior agency officials reported Paxton to the FBI in 2020. Instead, Maxwell took his concerns to other law enforcement officials and was later fired from the agency.

Maxwell said he found Paul’s complaint to be “absolutely ludicrous,” including claims that search warrants were improperly altered in a web of conspiracy that included a federal magistrate judge.

As a result, Maxwell said, he urged Paxton to drop his interest in Paul. “I told him that Nate Paul was a criminal … and that, if he didn’t get away from this individual and stop doing what he was doing, he was going to get himself indicted.”

Defense: Paxton did not exceed his authority

Defense lawyers, in opening statements and in questions to prosecution witnesses, pushed back on claims that Paxton acted illegally when he pressed his agency’s lawyers and employees to take actions that were helpful to Paul.

When Vassar testified that Paxton broke internal rules on hiring outside lawyers to appoint Houston attorney Brandon Cammack to investigate Paul’s complaint, Little pointed to state law to argue that Paxton — as the elected leader of the attorney general’s office — had the power to approve Cammack’s contract.

Defense lawyer Dan Cogdell, in opening statements Tuesday, said Paxton hired Cammack in understandable frustration because employees of the attorney general’s office “did little to nothing” to investigate Paul’s serious complaint that his home and business had been improperly searched by state and federal officials.

Similarly, several Paxton lawyers disputed allegations that Paxton improperly directed his agency’s lawyers to intervene in an Austin charity’s lawsuit against Paul, arguing that he had clear authority to run his agency.

Prosecutors push back on several fronts

Under questioning from House impeachment lawyer Dick DeGuerin, Maxwell pushed back on claims that Paul’s complaints had been brushed off without proper investigation. A forensic analysis of the search warrants found nothing to support Paul’s claim that the documents had been improperly altered, he said.

After Buzbee opened his case by stating that “nothing of significance” had been exchanged between Paxton and Paul, lawyers for the House impeachment team pressed their witnesses to explain how Paul benefited from Paxton’s repeated interventions.

A legal opinion, published with unusual speed at 1 a.m. on a Sunday in 2020, took a highly unusual position at Paxton’s insistence, Bangert testified. The attorney general’s office had led efforts to reopen Texas several months into the pandemic, yet Paxton demanded that the opinion say local COVID-19 safety rules barred property foreclosure sales.

Only later did it become known that Paul’s lawyer referred to the agency’s opinion letter to avoid foreclosure sales of several Paul properties two days later, Bangert said.

Buzbee warns of potential political consequences

In opening statements laying out Paxton’s case, Buzbee sounded a political warning.

Impeachment could become a common tactic of political retribution if Paxton — a leading conservative legal voice on abortion, immigration and other key issues — were to be convicted and removed from office, he argued.

“Let’s be clear. If this misguided effort is successful … the precedent it will set would be perilous for any elected official in the state of Texas,” Buzbee said.

Buzbee also argued that impeachment thwarted the will of Texas voters.

“Texans chose at the voting booth who they wanted to be their attorney general … but because of what this House has done, only 30 [senators] out of almost 30 million will decide if Ken Paxton is allowed to serve in the office he was voted into,” he said. “That’s not how it’s supposed to work. That’s not democratic.”

Impeachment team counters with its own political focus

Murr rejected arguments that impeachment violated democratic principles, saying the framers of the Texas Constitution did not believe elections alone could protect the public from abusive office holders.

“It’s too easy to use the powers of office to conceal the truth,” Murr said in opening statements. “The voters did not, and do not, know the whole truth” because Paxton went to great lengths to conceal his misconduct, he added.

Impeachment lawyers also focused on the ultraconservative political beliefs held by their first three witnesses — all attorneys who praised Paxton’s priorities that, as one put it, turned the Texas attorney general’s office into a beacon of the conservative legal movement.

Mateer worked on Capitol Hill for two Texas Republican stalwarts, Tom DeLay and Dick Armey, and is now chief legal officer of First Liberty Institute, a Christian legal defense organization that focuses on religious liberty issues. His nomination for federal judge by President Donald Trump was thwarted by controversy over statements critical of transgender youth.

Bangert is a senior vice president for the Alliance Defending Freedom, a legal advocacy group focused on religious freedom and limiting abortion and LGBTQ+ rights, and he had previous ties to the Christian Coalition.

Vassar worked for notable conservative judges, including Don Willett, a former Texas Supreme Court justice named to a federal appeals court by Trump. Vassar also was a summer fellow for former Republican Gov. Rick Perry.

Paxton has blamed the impeachment on political opposition to his deeply conservative principles, but Mateer, Bangert and Vassar testified that they reluctantly took their concerns to the FBI after concluding that Paxton was misusing his authority on Paul’s behalf.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.