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

By Robert Downen 

The Texas Tribune

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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

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Texas GOP executive committee rejects proposed ban on associating with Nazi sympathizers

By Robert Downen 

The Texas Tribune

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Two months after a prominent conservative activist and fundraiser was caught hosting white supremacist Nick Fuentes, leaders of the Republican Party of Texas have voted against barring the party from associating with known Nazi sympathizers and Holocaust deniers.

In a 32-29 vote on Saturday, members of the Texas GOP’s executive committee stripped a pro-Israel resolution of a clause that would have included the ban. In a separate move that stunned some members, roughly half of the board also tried to prevent a record of their vote from being kept.

In rejecting the proposed ban, the executive committee's majority delivered a serious blow to a faction of members that has called for the party to confront its ties to groups that have recently employed or associated with outspoken white supremacists and extremists.

In October, The Texas Tribune published photos of Fuentes, an avowed admirer of Adolf Hitler who has called for a “holy war” against Jews, entering and leaving the offices of Pale Horse Strategies, a consulting firm for far-right candidates and movements.

Pale Horse Strategies is owned by Jonathan Stickland, a former state representative and at the time the leader of a political action committee, Defend Texas Liberty, that two West Texas oil billionaires have used to fund right-wing movements, candidates and politicians in the state — including Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Attorney General Ken Paxton.

Matt Rinaldi, chairman of the Texas GOP, was also seen entering the Pale Horse offices while Fuentes was inside for nearly 7 hours. He denied participating, however, saying he was visiting with someone else at the time and didn’t know Fuentes was there.

Defend Texas Liberty has not publicly commented on the scandal, save for a two-sentence statement condemning those who've tried to connect the PAC to Fuentes’ “incendiary” views. Nor has the group clarified Stickland's current role at Defend Texas Liberty, which quietly updated its website in October to reflect that he is no longer its president. Tim Dunn, one of the two West Texas oil billionaires who primarily fund Defend Texas Liberty, confirmed the meeting between Fuentes and Stickland and called it a “serious blunder,” according to a statement from Patrick.

In response to the scandal — as well as subsequent reporting from the Tribune that detailed other links between Defend Texas Liberty and white supremacists — nearly half of the Texas GOP’s executive committee had called for the party to cut ties with Defend Texas Liberty and its auxiliary groups until Stickland was removed from any position of power, and a full explanation for the Fuentes meeting was given.

The proposed demands were significantly watered down ahead of the party’s quarterly meeting this weekend. Rather than calling for a break from Defend Texas Liberty, the faction proposed general language that would have barred associations with individuals or groups “known to espouse or tolerate antisemitism, pro-Nazi sympathies or Holocaust denial.”

But even that general statement was too much for the majority of the executive committee. In at-times tense debate on Saturday, members argued that words like “tolerate” or “antisemitism” were too vague or subjective. The ban, some argued, was akin to “Marxist” and “leftist” tactics, and would create guilt by association that could be problematic for the party, its leaders and candidates.

“It could put you on a slippery slope,” said committee member Dan Tully.

Rinaldi abstained from voting on the ban, but briefly argued that antisemitism is not a serious problem on the right before questioning what it would mean to "tolerate" those who espouse it. "I don't see any antisemitic, pro-Nazi or Holocaust denial movement on the right that has any significant traction whatsoever," he said.

Supporters of the ban disagreed. They noted that the language was already a compromise, didn’t specifically name any group or individual and would lend credence to resolutions in which the Texas GOP has generally condemned antisemitism and restated its support for Israel.

“To take it out sends a very disturbing message,” said Rolando Garcia, a Houston-based committee member who drafted the language. “We’re not specifying any individual or association. This is simply a statement of principle.”

Other committee members questioned how their colleagues could find words like “antisemitism” too vague, despite frequently lobbing it and other terms at their political opponents.

“I just don’t understand how people who routinely refer to others as leftists, liberals, communists, socialists and RINOs (‘Republicans in Name Only’) don’t have the discernment to define what a Nazi is,” committee member Morgan Cisneros Graham told the Tribune after the vote.

House Speaker Dade Phelan similarly condemned the vote Saturday evening, calling it “despicable.”

The Texas GOP executive committee “can’t even bring themselves to denounce neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers or cut ties with their top donor who brought them to the dance,” Phelan wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter. “There is a moral, anti-Semitic rot festering within the fringes of BOTH parties that must be stopped.”

For two months, Phelan and his staff have routinely and publicly sparred with some in the party – namely Rinaldi, a longtime political foe – over how to address the Fuentes scandal and extremism more broadly. After the Tribune first reported on the Fuentes meeting, Phelan called on fellow Republicans to redirect money from Defend Texas Liberty to pro-Israel charities, a request that quickly drew the ire of Patrick and others who accused Phelan of politicizing antisemitism and demanded he resign.

After subsequent reporting by the Tribune on Defend Texas Liberty's ties to white supremacists and other extreme figures, Patrick said he was "appalled" and that antisemitism is "not welcome in our party." He then announced that the he had invested the $3 million he recently received from Defend Texas Liberty in Israeli bonds.

Patrick reiterated that stance late Saturday night, calling the executive committee's vote "totally unacceptable" and saying that he is "confident" the board will reconsider the ban at its February meeting.

"This language should have been adopted – because I know that is our position as a Party," Patrick wrote on X. "I, and the overwhelming majority of Republicans in Texas, do not tolerate antisemites, and those who deny the Holocaust, praise Hitler or the Nazi regime."

Saturday’s vote is the latest sign of major disunity among the Texas GOP, which for years has dealt with simmering tensions between its far-right and more moderate, but still deeply conservative, wings. Defend Texas Liberty and its billionaire backers have been key players in that fight, funding primary challenges to incumbent Republicans who they deem insufficiently conservative, and bankrolling a sprawling network of institutions, media websites and political groups that they’ve used to incrementally pull Texas further to the right.

The party’s internecine conflict has exploded into all-out war since the impeachment and acquittal of Paxton, a crucial Defend Texas Liberty ally whose political life has been subsidized by the PAC’s billionaire funders.

After Paxton’s acquittal, Defend Texas Liberty vowed scorched-earth campaigns against those who supported the attorney general’s removal, and promised massive spending ahead of next year’s primary elections. (Before the Saturday vote, executive committee members separately approved a censure of outgoing Rep. Andrew Murr, R-Junction, over his lead role in the investigation and impeachment of Paxton.)

News of the Fuentes meeting has only complicated Defend Texas Liberty's retribution plans, as infighting intensifies and some Republicans question whether the group and its billionaire funders should have so much sway over the state party.

Meanwhile, Defend Texas Liberty's allies and beneficiaries have tried to downplay the scandals and discredit the Tribune's reporting, claiming the Fuentes meeting was a one-off mistake or attacking critics as RINOs, in bed with Democrats to suppress true conservatives.

Ahead of Saturday’s vote, Defend Texas Liberty-backed Reps. Nate Schatzline, R-Fort Worth, and Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington, briefly spoke to the executive committee.

The day prior, Sen. Bob Hall — an Edgewood Republican who has received $50,000 from Defend Texas Liberty — was also at the Austin hotel where executive committee members were meeting, and in a speech condemned attempts to cut ties with the group based on what he called “hearsay,” “fuzzy photographs” and “narratives.”

“If you want to pass a resolution, I would make it positive,” Hall said to executive committee members on Friday. “We don’t need to do our enemy’s work for them.”

Hall reiterated that stance in an interview with the Tribune, calling the Fuentes meeting a “mistake” but claiming that there was “no evidence” that Stickland or Defend Texas Liberty are antisemitic. “I've had meetings with transgenders, gays and lesbians,” Hall said. “Does that make me a transgender, gay or a lesbian?”

Asked if he was comparing gay people to white supremacists or Hitler admirers like Fuentes, Hall responded: “I’m talking about people who are political hot potatoes.”

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

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The Texas GOP has a serious antisemitism problem

By Robert Downen The Texas Tribune

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Faced with ongoing scandals this month involving his allies' ties to antisemitic extremists, the leader of the Republican Party of Texas has come out strongly—to attack other conservatives who’ve criticized his friends.

For three weeks, Texas GOP Chair Matt Rinaldi has been defiant in the face of calls from members of his own party to cut ties with Defend Texas Liberty leader Jonathan Stickland, who recently hosted avowed white supremacist Nick Fuentes at his office for nearly seven hours. And he’s gone after those who’ve been critical of Defend Texas Liberty, a political action committee that is funded by two of the Texas GOP’s most prolific donors.

Separately, Rinaldi is at the center of a parallel controversy involving a group for young conservatives that he recently embraced despite warnings about its leaders’ openly antisemitic views and ties to white nationalist figures.

[Nick Fuentes is just the latest white supremacist embraced by Defend Texas Liberty]

For some Republicans, the dual scandals have raised serious questions about the party’s willingness to denounce racists — and its leader’s proximity to those who embrace them.

“He has put his friends’ interests above what is in the best interest of the party,” said Mark McCaig, an attorney and chair of the Texas Republican Initiative. “He is more concerned about protecting them and their gang.”

To be sure, Rinaldi was quick to distance himself from Fuentes. The Texas Tribune spotted Rinaldi earlier this month at the office building where Fuentes, an Adolf Hitler admirer who has called for a “holy war” against Jews and encouraged his followers to beat women, was being hosted by Stickland.

Asked about the Oct. 6 meeting, Rinaldi told the Tribune that he had no idea Fuentes was inside and would never meet with him. As for Stickland? Rinaldi said he would wait until more facts came out before commenting on his longtime political kin.

“I’m not going to make assumptions based on what I'm told by a reporter,” he said on Oct. 8.

Since then, neither Rinaldi nor the Republican Party of Texas has commented on Stickland, even as other major figures — including Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Kyle Rittenhouse — have issued statements that confirmed the Tribune’s reporting. Nor has Rinaldi responded to concerns from fellow Republicans and some party executive committee members who’ve called for a break with Defend Texas Liberty, which has donated $257,000 to the party since 2021.

Instead, Rinaldi has reserved his ire for House Speaker Dade Phelan, accusing the Beaumont Republican of politicizing antisemitism before demanding his resignation. Phelan has also demanded Rinaldi step down as the party’s leader and give money the Texas GOP received from Defend Texas Liberty to pro-Israel charities.

Since news of the Fuentes meeting broke, Rinaldi has posted or amplified attacks on Phelan or the Texas House on X, formerly Twitter, more than 40 times. He has not, however, publicly criticized Stickland or Defend Texas Liberty at all — even as new information continues to emerge about their close ties to white supremacists.

[Here’s who gets money from Defend Texas Liberty, the PAC whose leader met with white supremacist Nick Fuentes]

On Monday, the Tribune reported that, in just the last month, at least five current and former Fuentes associates have worked with groups that are closely tied to Stickland, Rinaldi and Defend Texas Liberty. That includes True Texas Project, whose leaders have sympathized with the racist gunman who murdered 22 people at an El Paso WalMart in 2019, and who are set to host Rinaldi for a fundraiser and softball game this weekend.

On Wednesday, the Texas Observer reported that a swastika-clad neo-Nazi who was spotted handing out antisemitic flyers in Fort Worth this month had previously interned for Luke Macias, a longtime GOP consultant and Rinaldi ally who just replaced Stickland as president of Defend Texas Liberty, according to the group’s website.

And this week, the Tribune reported that the president of Texans For Strong Borders, Chris Russo, has for years been a prominent figure in Fuentes’ racist movement, and has continued to post on anonymous, hate-filled social media accounts as his group —with help from Rinaldi and Defend Texas Liberty — has emerged as an influential voice that’s pushed lawmakers to crack down on legal and illegal immigration.

Rinaldi and the Texas GOP did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.

‘A moral obligation’

The controversies come amid an internecine fight between the state’s far right and the Texas GOP’s more moderate, but still deeply conservative, wing. That strife has exploded into all-out war since the impeachment and acquittal of Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Rinaldi ally who has received nearly $4.65 million from West Texas oil billionaires Tim Dunn and Farris and Dan and Farris Wilks. Those billionaires also fund Defend Texas Liberty and, before that, bankrolled Rinaldi’s career in the Texas House.

Defend Texas Liberty has been one of the most important players in the state party’s ongoing civil war. Campaign finance records show that, since 2021, it has given nearly $15 million to right-wing movements and candidates. The group made headlines this summer after giving $3 million to Patrick, months before he presided over Paxton’s impeachment trial. Defend Texas Liberty also gave $3.6 million to Don Huffines, a former state senator who helped push Gov. Greg Abbott to the right by attacking him on immigration and other issues during last year’s Republican primary.

Meanwhile, the Texas GOP’s far right has continued to embrace groups and individuals that others have warned are a bridge too far. Fuentes was the best-known of those extreme figures; but his visit and the ensuing controversy were punctuated by a separate-but-related, scandal involving the party and white supremacists.

That ordeal dates back to August, when the 66-year-old Texas Young Republican Federation voted to end its partnership with the Texas GOP until Rinaldi — who the group accused of initiating a “smear campaign” and partnering with far-right figures to undermine their newly-elected leadership — was removed from his position.

Things escalated last month, when Rinaldi pushed for the Texas GOP to bring a newly-formed spinoff group into the party despite warnings that its leaders included avowed white nationalists.

The warnings proved to be right: Days after the Tribune first reported on Fuentes’ visit with Stickland, an independent journalist reported that leaders of the new young Republicans group had praised Hitler online, and published photos of some of its leaders outside of an event for Fuentes’ vitriolically antisemitic “groyper” movement.

“There was a time in my life when I hated Nick Fuentes and his white supremacy views,” one of the group’s leaders, Rylie Rae, reportedly wrote on social media last year. “Now I recognize that he is one of the smartest people in our country and we need white nationalism. Oh how the tides have turned.”

Responding to the controversy, the new group’s leadership said in a statement that it “condemns bigotry in all forms” and had removed the individuals in question.

But before that, other young Republicans said they made clear to Rinaldi and the leaders of the new group that they were in bed with extremists. Those concerns were rebuffed, a move that one person said is emblematic of a broader problem and power struggle that has allowed extremists to flourish in Republican circles.

“There is a tendency among the populist right to essentially say, ‘It doesn’t matter how awful the person is, as long as they are on our side,’“ said Matt Wiltshire, finance director for the Young Republican National Federation. “We believe that we have a moral and ethical duty to be uncompromising in our stance that there is right and there is wrong.”

One of those removed was Konner Earnest, who led the group’s Parker County chapter and also recently became involved with the European American Community, a white nationalist group that argues American citizenship should be based on European ancestry.

Earnest has other ties to Rinaldi and Defend Texas Liberty: He was spotted outside the Fuentes meeting with Stickland, and has appeared in videos for Russo’s Texans For Strong Borders, which has received considerable financial support from Defend Texas Liberty. Earnest has also written anti-immigration articles for Texas Scorecard, a prominent right-wing media website that is financed by Defend Texas Liberty’s billionaire funders.

Rinaldi does not appear to have released any public statement or made any comment on social media about the young Republicans scandal.

Meanwhile, the Texas GOP’s executive committee remains at an impasse over how to respond to the party’s ongoing white supremacist problem.

Last week, after Stickland was quietly removed as Defend Texas Liberty’s president, roughly one-third of the executive committee's 64 members, including Vice Chair Dana Myers, signed a letter saying that the party had a “moral obligation to speak boldly, publicly, and clearly on this matter” and demand an explanation for the Fuentes meeting.

“Fuentes' views and Stickland’s tactics are abhorrent and totally antithetical to the principles of the Republican Party of Texas and to the conservatives who have trusted [Defend Texas Liberty] for the cause of liberty and patriotism,” they wrote. “Whether this was caused by a lapse in judgment, conscious disregard, poor leadership, or a faulty moral compass –– Stickland and [Defend Texas Liberty] must ultimately accept responsibility.”

The members also called on the Texas GOP — as well as its donors — to cut all ties with Defend Texas Liberty and the myriad groups it funds until Stickland is "removed and disassociated from [Defend Texas Liberty] and its benefactor organizations and a full accounting of the meeting is provided."

Since then, the party’s disagreements have continued to escalate in public view, as Rinaldi and his allies remain largely silent on the scandal. Two weeks ago — and after a Tribune reporter reached out to more than a dozen members of the party’s executive committee regarding Defend Texas Liberty — the Texas GOP removed contact information for executive committee members from its website.

The Texas GOP did not respond to a request for comment on the move, which has been publicly blasted as an attempt to keep members from being contacted by the public.

“You don’t stand for ‘we the people’ unless they have access to you,” said Cat Parks, a former executive committee member and vice chair of the Texas GOP. “It’s not like controversy didn’t happen during my tenure.”

For now, it’s unclear what comes next for the Texas GOP and its relationship with Defend Texas Liberty, which released a two-sentence statement saying it opposes Fuentes’ “incendiary” views but has yet to provide any other details on the meeting. Stickland may no longer be leading the group, but his removal is likely cosmetic given that he also owns Pale Horse Strategies, a consulting firm that is used heavily by Defend Texas Liberty-funded groups and candidates.

Members of the party’s executive committee have said as much this week, and reiterated their calls for the party to speak out against Defend Texas Liberty and Stickland.

The Texas GOP “must renounce [Defend Texas Liberty] until a full explanation of the Fuentes meeting is provided, those responsible are held accountable and there’s new entirely new leadership (not just the same players swapping job titles),” executive committee member Rolando Garcia wrote this week on social media.

“Don’t excuse the inexcusable just to spite your political enemies,” he added.

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

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

By Robert Downen 

The Texas Tribune

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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.

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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