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

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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.

Texas GOP leaders reverse course, ban antisemites from party


By Robert Downen, The Texas Tribune

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The Republican Party of Texas’ executive committee voted Saturday to censure House Speaker Dade Phelan and passed a resolution stating that the party will not associate with antisemites — a reversal from December, when a similar measure was narrowly and controversially defeated following outcry over a major donor group’s ties to white supremacists.

The antisemitism resolution, which passed unanimously with two abstentions, came four months after The Texas Tribune reported that Jonathan Stickland, then the leader of Defend Texas Liberty, had hosted infamous white supremacist and Adolf Hitler admirer Nick Fuentes for nearly seven hours in early October.

Subsequent reporting by the Tribune uncovered other, close ties between avowed antisemites and Defend Texas Liberty, a major political action committee that two West Texas oil tycoons have used to fund far-right groups and lawmakers in the state. Defend Texas Liberty is also one of the Texas GOP’s biggest donors.

In response to the Fuentes meeting, Phelan and 60 other House Republicans called on party members to redirect any funds from Defend Texas Liberty to pro-Israel charities — demands that were initially rebuffed by some Republicans, including Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who later announced that he was reinvesting the $3 million he received from Defend Texas Liberty into Israeli bonds.

Nearly half of the Texas GOP’s executive committee also demanded that the party cut all ties with Stickland, Defend Texas Liberty and its auxiliary organizations until Stickland was removed and a full explanation for the Fuentes meeting was provided. Stickland was quietly removed as Defend Texas Liberty’s president in October, but is still the leader of an influential consulting firm, Pale Horse Strategies, that works with Defend Texas Liberty clients.

Defend Texas Liberty has yet to provide more details on its links to Fuentes or Fuentes associates — including the leader of Texans For Strong Borders, an anti-immigration group that continues to push lawmakers to adopt hardline border policies.

The tensions came to a head in December, when the Texas GOP’s executive committee narrowly defeated a resolution that would have banned the party from associating with antisemites, Holocaust deniers or neo-Nazis — language that some members of the executive committee argued was too vague, and could complicate the party’s relationship with donors or candidates.

The need for such a measure was also downplayed at the time by Texas GOP Chair Matt Rinaldi, who abstained from voting but argued there was no "significant" antisemitism on the right. Rinaldi is a longtime ally of Defend Texas Liberty who was seen outside of the one-story, rural Tarrant County office where Fuentes was being hosted. Rinaldi later denied meeting with Fuentes and condemned him. Last month, the Tribune also reported that, at the same time that he was attacking critics of Defend Texas Liberty over the Fuentes meeting, Rinaldi was working as an attorney for Farris Wilks, one the two West Texas oil billionaires who fund Defend Texas Liberty.

After the measure was defeated in December, Patrick also put out a lengthy statement in which he condemned the vote and said he expected it to be revisited by the Texas GOP’s executive committee at its next meeting.

The executive committee did as much on Saturday, passing a resolution that stated that the party “opposes anti-Semitism and will always oppose and not associate with individuals or groups which espouse anti-Semitism or support for attacks on Israel.”

The resolution’s language is significantly watered down compared to proposals from late last year, which specifically named Stickland and Defend Texas Liberty or sought to ban those who espouse — as well as those who “tolerate” — antisemitism, neo-Nazi beliefs or Holocaust denial. Since then, Defend Texas Liberty’s funders have spun off a new political action committee, Texans United For a Conservative Majority, that has been active in this year’s primaries.

Separately, the executive committee also voted 55-4 to censure Phelan over, among other things, his role in the impeachment of Attorney General Ken Paxton, his appointment of Democrats to chair House committees and for allegedly allowing a bill on border security to die in May. Phelan was not at the committee meeting.

Phelan’s spokesperson, Cait Wittman, slammed the censure on Saturday, as well as the executive committee’s previous failure to ban antisemites from the party and what she said was its delayed response to last year’s scandal involving Bryan Slaton, a Republican state representative who was expelled from the Texas House in May after getting a 19-year-old aide drunk and having sex with her.

“This is the same organization that rolled out the red carpet for a group of Neo-Nazis, refused to disassociate from anti-Semitic groups and balked at formally condemning a known sexual predator before he was ousted from the Texas House,” Wittman wrote on X. “The (executive committee) has lost its moral authority and is no longer representative of the views of the Party as a whole.”

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.

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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 texastribune.org.

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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 texastribune.org.

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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 texastribune.org.

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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.

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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.

Joe Kent’s numerous far-right associations inevitably drag WA Republicans into abyss with him

Hardcore MAGA candidates on the fall ballot present a dilemma for Republican Party officials in blue states: As their nominees, party leaders are obligated to get behind them and offer at least nominal logistical support, but their inevitable extremism threatens to taint every other Republican by association since the bulk of those candidates are furiously working to downplay the GOP’s MAGA radicalism. Inevitably, the extremism wins out.

Exhibit A is Joe Kent, the GOP congressional nominee in southwestern Washington state’s 3rd Congressional District. Kent’s long-running propensity for associations with right-wing extremists—including Proud Boys and white nationalists—wound up casting a shadow over the state Republican Party this week when it was revealed that a neo-Nazi who interviewed Kent for his podcast had also been hired, and then abruptly fired, as a campaign worker by the Washington GOP.

Greyson Arnold, who runs a white nationalist media outlet called Pure Politics (booted from Twitter, but still present on Telegram) based in Arizona, not only interviewed Kent for his podcast in person in a small town in Washington, but actively campaigned for awhile for both Kent and the Republican Party, Daily Beast’s Zachary Petrizzo reports.

The Washington GOP cut Arnold a check for $821.87 on July 15 for his campaign work. But a state Republican spokesperson said he had been fired shortly after being hired.

“When the Washington State Republican Party became aware of this individual staffer’s conduct and views expressed on social media, we terminated the employee,” Communications Director Ben Gonzalez told Petrizzo. “He no longer works for the party. The stated viewpoints in question do not reflect the values of the Republican Party.”

CNN’s Andrew Kaczynski had previously reported that not only had Arnold been photographed with Kent at an April fundraiser, he also canvassed for GOP candidates with Washington State Young Republicans. At a Trump rally in Michigan, he was photographed wearing a Joe Kent shirt. In April, according to the Seattle Times’ Jim Brunner, Arnold also posted a photo taken at a King County Republican Party fundraiser, saying he was there “after a personal invite.” Arnold was also photographed with Kent at his victory party in July.

Arnold apparently traveled to Yelm—a small town south of Olympia—for a Kent campaign event in July to interview him there, and had to ask Kent what town they were in. They eagerly conversed about the “America First agenda”—which Republican officeholders like Paul Gosar, Matt Gaetz, and Marjorie Taylor Greene use to describe their Trumpian caucus in the House, but which also indicates their allegiance to Nicholas Fuentes’ white nationalist organization of the same name, and with which all of them have associated. Gosar in particular has become white nationalists’ favorite Congress member, and Kent told Arnold that he had been getting advice from Gosar while visiting Arizona.

“Paul Gosar has been excellent, obviously immigration—border state down there. He took me down to the border, so I got a firsthand feel of all the crises we face there,” said Kent. “Representative Gosar also has some awesome legislation he’s proposed about getting rid of a lot of the legal immigration.”

On his “Pure Politics” Telegram channel, as well as his now-suspended Twitter account, “American Greyson” (as he refers to himself) has shared posts describing Nazis as the “pure race,” and complaining that Americans should have sided with the Germans in World War II. He also has referenced antisemitic conspiracy theories, claiming there were “Jewish plans to genocide the German people,” and shared a quote saying that the “Jewish led colored hordes of the Earth” were attempting to exterminate white people. Arnold has advocated shooting refugees and killing undocumented immigrants.

Arnold also praised Hitler on Twitter: “He is definitely a complicated historical figure which many people misunderstand, the events of Weimar Germany are not taught for a reason,” he wrote.

When the association became public, Kent’s campaign tried desperately to create distance between the candidate and Arnold. Spokesperson Matt Braynard at first told Kaczynski that the campaign “does not do background checks on the thousands of people who’ve asked to take selfies with Joe.”

Then, when the video of the Yelm interview—in which it was fairly clear the two were acquainted, and it’s unclear how or why Arnold would have made it to the locale without help from the campaign or Kent—Braynard retorted: “Joe Kent had no idea who that individual was when he encountered him on the street and Joe Kent has repeatedly condemned the statements that the individual is accused of making.”

The campaign added that Arnold “is not in any way part of our campaign nor would we allow our campaign to be associated with someone who has that background. We also have no record of any contribution from that individual and if we had received one, we’d return it.”

Arnold created a stir in Oregon in 2021 when he interviewed one of the state’s top Republican officials, Solomon Yue, for his podcast. Yue promised on the podcast to use his influence within the GOP to promote “America First” candidates. “If somebody like the NRCC (National Republican Congressional Committee) came to us, asking for favors both in terms of money and in terms of a boots on the ground, I would have leveraged that,” Yue told Arnold. “I would ask, ‘What are you going to give to me in return,’ right? In return, you cannot support, in the primary, you can’t support your incumbents. You have to allow people to decide, and Republican voters to decide.”

Campaign Action

Arnold is one of Fuentes’ top lieutenants in America First. However, in February, Kent got into a well-publicized spat with Fuentes after the latter’s infamous America First PAC convention at which a number of Republicans spoke. Fuentes also caught considerable attention for praising Russia’s Vladimir Putin and comparing him favorably to Adolf Hitler.

These remarks sent Kent—who has continuously embraced the America First label, and reportedly had conversed with Fuentes about social media strategy—running for cover. Fuentes went on his popular podcast and described the call with Kent. One of Kent’s Republican opponents called on him to denounce the association with Fuentes.

Kent, who has a Twitter following of 125,000, claimed his opponents were “spreading lies about me,” and insisted that he condemned Fuentes’ politics. He said he didn’t seek the white nationalist’s endorsement “due (to) his focus on race/religion.”

About a month before the dispute broke out, Kent had been interviewed by David Carlson of the Groyper-adjacent white nationalist group American Populist Union (which shortly thereafter rebranded itself as American Virtue), a kind of competing far-right organization that embraces most of the ideological fundamentals of white nationalism but tries to eschew the incendiary rhetoric of groups like Fuentes.

After the feud broke out with the Groypers—culminating in Fuentes taunting Kent, “You’re not for white people. You’re not for America. You’re not for Christianity. You’re not for our heritage”—Carlson reinterviewed Kent, who repeated his reasons for distancing himself from Fuentes, more for strategic reasons than ideological ones. He told Carlson:

Yeah, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with there being a white people special interest group. They have to be very careful about the way they couch that and the way they frame that, obviously in terms of messaging and in terms of getting credibility. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. As far as me running as a candidate, running out there and saying this is all about white people, that does not seem like a winning strategy.

Moreover, Kent’s associations with conspiracists and far-right activists, including white nationalists, are extensive and varied. This is particularly the case with Kent’s long association with Joey Gibson, the founder and leader of the street-brawling group Patriot Prayer, which has an extensive history with a rotating cast of violent extremists and white nationalists. Many of Kent’s early campaign appearances—including a January 2022 rally against the COVID-19 vaccine based on misinformation—featured Gibson joining him on stage as a speaker.

By that summer Kent had formed an alliance with Gibson, both appearing at various COVID-denialist events as speakers, including an “Unmasked Unjabbed Uncensored Rally” at Vancouver’s Esther Short Park in August. Kent also was photographed socializing with Gibson and several of his Patriot Prayer cohorts at an August gathering at Cottonwood Beach near Washougal to honor the memory of Aaron “Jay” Danielson, a member of the group who had been shot to death a year beforehand by a Portland resident who was tracked down and killed in short order. Kent also shows up in a Patriot Prayer group selfie taken by one of Patriot Prayer’s more notorious figures, Tusitala “Tiny” Toese, currently awaiting trial on multiple felony assault counts.

Gibson regularly promoted Kent’s campaign on social media. After Gibson spoke at a Kent fundraiser 2021, Kent lavished him with praise, explaining that Gibson “defended this community when our community was under assault from antifa.”

Campaign finance disclosures reveal Kent recently paid $11,375 for “consulting” over the past four months to Graham Jorgensen, who was identified as a Proud Boy in a law enforcement report and was charged with cyberstalking his ex-girlfriend in 2018. The charges were dismissed in late 2019. But a judge in Vancouver, Washington, issued an order of protection requiring Jorgensen to stay away from her, records show.

Donald Trump endorsed Kent in June, largely because he had openly condemned the vote by the incumbent Republican, Jaime Herrera-Beutler, to impeach him in February 2021. Within a matter of weeks, he had financial backing from pro-Trump billionaires like Steve Wynn and Peter Thiel.

Kent began appearing on a variety of far-right programs with nationwide reach. He was a guest of Infowars’ Owen Shroyer on two occasions. He started appearing regularly on ex-Trump aide Stephen Bannon’s War Room podcast. On one of those occasions, he promoted his and Gibson’s January 2022 rally against “COVID tyranny” and the “forced quarantine.”

After Kent defeated Herrera-Beutler in the July primary, he began working hard to cover up these connections. He now faces a Democratic opponent, Marie Glusenkamp Pérez, who finished with the most votes in the top-two primary. However, Kent will be favored in a district that has trended Republican over the past couple of decades.

Gluesenkamp Perez said the November race will be “a national bellwether for the direction of our country,” and denounced his ties to far-right nationalists, saying his “unapologetic extremism and divisive approach demonstrate he is unfit for public office.”

For his part, Kent has simply doubled down. Appearing on Bannon’s podcast in August, he declared: “We are at war.”

“The left isn’t the left of 10, 15 years ago,” Kent went on. “These guys don’t care about winning arguments anymore. … It’s a total, full-frontal assault, and they’re going after every one of us.”

“So what we have to do when we take back power … we have to play smash-mouth.”

Establishment Democrats, however, do not appear to be prepared for such tactics, considering that they have been slow to rally behind Gluesenkamp Pérez. The Democratic Central Campaign Committee, for example, has not invested in her campaign even though it’s rated a tossup by many pollsters and would be a prime opportunity for Democrats to take a Republican seat. A number of prominent Republicans have announced their support for the Democrat in the race.

“On the issues of the day, [Kent] is a radical extremist, and he continues to show poor judgment with the people he associates with,” GOP fundraiser David Nierenberg said. “I don’t want to be represented by somebody like that.”

Washington’s attorney general, Bob Ferguson, has been campaigning heavily for Gluesenkamp Pérez. Noting the size and energy of her campaign rallies, as well as her quality as a candidate, he told Crosscut’s Joseph O’Sullivan that abandoning the field would be “a mistake.”

“I'd encourage them to consider what folks on the ground here see,” Ferguson said. “And what I see is a race that's winnable.”

Fight the tide of Republican extremism with a better Democrat, Marie Gluesenkamp Pérez. Pitch in to her 2022 victory fund.

After an eruption of even more scandals among Republican Senate candidates, FiveThirtyEight’s Nathaniel Rakich returns to The Downballot to discuss the effect these sorts of scandals can have on competitive races; whether Democrats stand a chance to keep the House; and the different ways pollsters create likely voter models.