AUSTIN — Staunchly conservative mega donors Tim Dunn and Farris Wilks have begun bankrolling favored candidates in contested House GOP primaries in Tarrant County and the exurbs to the southeast of Dallas, according to newly filed campaign finance reports.
Dunn, the Midland oilman who has used his checkbook and the insurgent group Empower Texans to roil state Republican politics for a decade, is targeting fewer House GOP incumbents than in past cycles.
But he and Wilks — who with his brother Dan became a billionaire with the rise of “fracking,” a few years ago began pouring money into state races — showed their hands last month with seemingly coordinated moves.
On the same days, both Dunn and Farris Wilks – in one case, joined by his wife Jo Ann Wilks – donated $75,000 to Republican Jeff Cason of Bedford, who has outgoing Rep. Jonathan Stickland’s blessing to succeed him in a Mid Cities district, and to Republican Bryan Slaton of Royse City.
Slaton is in a second rematch against nine-term Rep. Dan Flynn, a Van Republican who beat him in 2018 by only 775 votes out of nearly 23,000 cast in House District 2 in Hopkins, Hunt and Van Zandt counties.
In 2016, Flynn eked out a primary victory over Slaton by an even narrower margin – 581 votes out of more than 29,000 cast.
With their two checks to Slaton on Jan. 7, Dunn and the Wilkses virtually matched the $151,500 Flynn had raised this cycle, including $5,000 from Texas Forever Forward, former Speaker Joe Straus’ political action committee. Flynn was a committee chairman under Straus and again under current Speaker Dennis Bonnen.
Through Jan. 23, the end of the reporting period, Slaton raised about $155,000. But he had about $147,000 in cash, while Flynn had about $32,000. A third Republican hopeful, Dwayne “Doc” Collins of Ben Wheeler, has raised just under $14,000.
Two area battles ‘heating up’
Only 10 GOP House incumbents drew primary challengers this year, as state Republican leaders sought to quell infighting and rally the party to defend its 83-67 majority so it can continue to dominate political map-drawing next session. Last cycle, 27 GOP incumbents faced intraparty challengers.
Luke Macias, a GOP consultant who frequently has been allied with Dunn and Sullivan, noted that staunch conservatives are targeting Flynn and four-term GOP Rep. J.D. Sheffield of Gatesville in District 59.
“There’s a couple of battles that are heating up,” said Macias, who doesn’t represent Sheffield’s two challengers but is cheering for them because he deems the Straus-backed doctor as too moderate. “We’re going to run through the tape.”
In the race to replace Stickland in northeast Tarrant County’s District 92, Cason and Democrat Jeff Whitfield raised the most, though both face competition on March 3.
Cason, who’s the North American sales manager for a Swedish metallurgy firm, has raised about $244,000 and has about $120,000 in the bank. Dunn and Farris Wilks wrote their $75,000 checks to him on Jan. 2. Former Bedford Mayor Jim Griffin has raised about $40,000 and has loaned his campaign $50,000. Taylor Gillig of Arlington, the third Republican in the race, has raised about $4,000.
Whitfield, a lawyer who is pro bono coordinator with Kelly Hart, a prominent Fort Worth firm, has raised about $124,000. Steve Riddell of Euless, who lost to Stickland by just more than 2 percentage points in November 2018, has raised about $35,000.
Aggie Rick Perry to the rescue
In District 60, which stretches from Granbury west nearly to Abilene, there’s a four-way battle to replace staunchly conservative Rep. Mike Lang, who was a favorite of the Wilks brothers and Empower Texans and its leader Michael Quinn Sullivan.
Farris Wilks (right) and his brother Dan Wilks (left) laugh with their sister Beth Maynard while telling a story about her time working for their company
Farris Wilks (right) and his brother Dan Wilks (left) laugh with their sister Beth Maynard while telling a story about her time working for their company(Ronald W. Erdrich / Abilene Reporter-News)
Jon Francis, who is Farris and Jo Ann Wilks’ son in law, raised only about $16,000 last month. But late last year, Francis pulled in a staggering $610,000. Farris and Jo Ann Wilks each chipped in $250,000.
Veterinarian and Texas A&M graduate Glenn Rogers, whom Rick Perry is coming in to campaign for later this week, has raised almost $162,000 and loaned his campaign another $50,000. Granbury lawyer Kellye SoRelle has raised about $14,000 and Mineral Wells Mayor Christopher Perricone, less than $1,000.
In Sheffield’s District 59, Stephenville businessman Cody Johnson, owner of the Twisted J Live country music venue, has raised about $109,000 and loaned his campaign $1,165,000. Sheffield has raised just more than $151,000, with heavy support from fellow doctors and $5,000 from Straus’ PAC. Stephenville lawyer Shelby Slawson has received nearly $47,000 in contributions, including $1,000 on Jan. 23 from Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, who used to be the area’s state representative. Slawson has loaned her campaign $50,000.
Francis’ reports to the Texas Ethics Commission read like an Empower Texans thank-you list.
Donors include Midland oilman Kyle Stallings and Odessa oilfield construction and services entrepreneur Dick Saulsbury. Also chipping in were the Huffines brothers of Dallas, Don and Phillip; former Sen. Konni Burton, now chief executive of the conservative news website The Texan; as well as Northeast Tarrant tea party activist Julie McCarty and Sullivan.
“It’s the conservative rock stars of Texas,” said Macias, who is advising Francis, Cason and Slaton.