AUSTIN — Gov. Greg Abbott was on the receiving end recently of some jokes about his use of a wheelchair — and his alleged kowtowing to liberal Texas cities on COVID-19.
Now, he’s going on offense.
In a two-week early voting period for the July GOP runoffs beginning Monday, Abbott’s using his broad popularity among Republican voters, lists of likely voters and elaborate campaign organization to try to propel three state or county-level candidates past rivals associated with Empower Texans.
In a fourth race on the July 14 ballot, he’s intervened to try to rescue a Texas House incumbent who’s labeled his challenger a puppet of the staunchly conservative group — though her association to Empower Texans is tenuous.
Abbott’s push comes just more than a week after Empower Texans operatives Tony McDonald and Cary Cheshire offended a wide array of Republicans, not to mention others, when their June 19 Texas Scorecard Radio podcast was mistakenly released with derogatory comments they made about Abbott when they thought they were off the air.
In their expletive-laced discussion, McDonald and Cheshire called Abbott “evil,” “a revolting piece of [expletive]” and joked about how they’d just made sly if potentially offensive references in their podcast to his paralysis and use of a wheelchair.
Empower Texans and its leader, Michael Quinn Sullivan, who since 2008 has become perhaps the most feared operative in the Texas GOP, have more bark than bite, countered Abbott strategist Dave Carney.
“Noise doesn’t equal clout,” Carney said. “Their track record is pretty spotty.”
He linked this month’s hot-mic episode involving McDonald and Cheshire to Sullivan’s secret audio recording last summer of a private huddle with Speaker Dennis Bonnen in which the speaker and his top lieutenant, Rep. Dustin Burrows, divulged plans to target 10 House Republicans in the 2020 primaries. The disclosure led to Bonnen’s announcement he’s leaving the Legislature and Burrows’ resignation as chairman of the House GOP Caucus.
“I’m surprised that people who live off secretly recording people were stupid enough to post an unedited podcast,” Carney said. “This shows how immature they are.”
Sullivan, who on the day his group’s botched podcast became public rebuked McDonald and Cheshire for “wrong and unacceptable” gibes at Abbott, did not respond to an email requesting comment on Carney’s criticism of his group’s past effectiveness and level of maturity. Nor did Sullivan reply to queries about whether the governor’s political mobilization would succeed.
On June 19, Sullivan suspended McDonald and Cheshire “from all public activities” of the group, and hinted they could face disciplinary action. However, he did not respond to a question about whether he’d taken any “internal action” against the two, as promised. Nor did Cheshire and McDonald respond to emailed queries.
The Abbott mobilization is underway, Carney said.
On Sunday afternoon, the governor announced he’s backing Palo Pinto County rancher and veterinarian Glenn Rogers in a hotly contested House GOP runoff in a district that runs from Granbury nearly to Abilene. Rogers’ foe is Wilks Development executive Jon Francis, whom Empower Texans endorsed — and whose election may be the group’s top priority in the 2020 cycle.
Francis, of Cisco, is the son-in-law of fracking billionaire Farris Wilks and his wife, JoAnn. They gave him $650,000 during the primary. Wilks and his brother Dan’s sudden bankrolling of Sullivan’s political causes in recent years — to the tune of millions — have made them almost coequals in influence at Empower Texans with Sullivan’s longtime mentor, Midland oilman Tim Dunn.
Abbott said of Rogers, “Glenn understands the importance of strengthening public education, protecting the unborn, securing the border and enacting pro-business policies.”
Just days before Abbott endorsed Rogers, he also stepped up efforts to rescue two GOP House incumbents who in past cycles were top targets of Empower Texans — nine-term Rep. Dan Flynn of Van and four-term Rep. J.D. Sheffield of Gatesville. Curiously, neither Flynn nor Sheffield’s runoff foe was endorsed by Empower Texans — though for Flynn’s challenger, Farris Wilks and Dunn had shelled out $75,000 apiece by March.
Sullivan’s back-to-back fights with Bonnen and Abbott have left the group, once despised mostly by centrists, even more isolated in Republican circles, the Rice professor said. He noted that Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, with whom Sullivan clashed over private gun-sale background checks last fall, said McDonald and Cheshire — and any Empower Texans officials who don’t condemn what they did — “are persona non grata in my book.”
Since he first ran statewide in 2014, Patrick has received about $1.2 million from Empower Texans, Dunn and Farris Wilks. As a gubernatorial candidate in those same six years, Abbott received nothing from Empower Texans and about $57,000 of cash or airplane rides from the two West Texas oilmen.
“The hot-mic episode of Tony McDonald and Cary Cheshire damaged the image of an organization whose image already wasn’t the best — but it damaged it in very conservative circles,” Jones said.
“Abbott is the unrivaled leader of the Texas GOP and he’s also someone who has pretty impeccable conservative credentials. Empower Texans already had been sort of attacking him, for bending to liberal cities and counties on COVID-19. Now, they’ve completely alienated him.”
Here’s a closer look at the four races Abbott is playing in:
House District 60
The Wilks brothers have given millions to several political action committees Sullivan either runs or is allied with, such as Texas Right to Life, in his ongoing attempt to defeat moderate House Republicans.
In a Facebook post last week, Rogers, 64, said, “Jon Francis and the Wilks Family see anyone who does not buy their hateful, divisive brand of ‘conservatism’ as a threat that must be silenced by any means.”
Francis called McDonald and Cheshire’s remarks about Abbott “absolutely unacceptable.” Rogers called Francis’ rebuke “weakly said.” Francis, without elaborating, shot back that Rogers doesn’t call out “the reprehensible behavior, lies and liberal positions of his supporters and the lobbyists bankrolling his campaign.”
Both Rogers and Pastors for Children, the political arm of Pastors for Texas Children, a group opposed to school vouchers, have called on Francis to repudiate Empower Texans.
“Empower Texans has wreaked nothing but chaos and havoc on Texas for too long,” said the Rev. Charles Johnson, who heads Pastors For Children, which is running radio ads demanding Francis reject the group’s endorsement. “Now, they show their true colors to be profanity and corruption.”
Carney, the Abbott adviser, said Rogers, a former school board member and Farm Bureau official, “has a unique perspective that would be great in the Legislature.” Former U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry and retiring U.S. Rep. Mike Conaway of Midland also have endorsed Rogers, Carney noted.
Two other statewide elected officials, though, Attorney General Ken Paxton and Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, are backing Francis.
House District 2
On Thursday, Flynn tweeted a new video in which he links opponent Bryan Slaton to the Empower Texans staff members’ anti-Abbott comments. Referring to how Slaton accepted $150,000 from Farris Wilks and Dunn, the web ad says they’re “the same West Texas billionaires funding vile attacks on Governor Abbott.”
The ad then replays Abbott’s endorsement of Flynn, 77, a rancher-businessman who is in a primary fight for the third time with Slaton, 43, of Royse City.
“All the people I’m talking to, they just can’t believe the language,” Flynn said in an interview, referring to Cheshire and McDonald’s “outtake” remarks.
Flynn said he just took a poll and Abbott enjoys an 87% approval rating in the district, which includes Greenville, Commerce, Sulphur Springs and Canton.
Slaton, who did not respond to an email and text, has been endorsed by Texas Right to Life and Texas Gun Rights.
Slaton received 93% of his contributions this year from Dunn, Wilks and the family of Dick Saulsbury of Odessa, a businessman and major Empower Texans backer.
House District 59
Sheffield, who was a Straus ally, and in those years an Empower Texans target, is trying to overcome a 15-point deficit from March, when he ran second to Stephenville lawyer Shelby Slawson.
On Friday, Abbott appeared in a new web video praising Sheffield, 59, a family physician, for serving “on the front lines of treating patients during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Sheffield has sought to seize on the hot-mic incident by alleging that Slawson is “funded by Empower Texans’ donors and allies” and directed by Prosper GOP Sen. Pat Fallon, whom he calls “an Empower Texans candidate and acolyte.”
On Saturday, Slawson, 43, branded Sheffield’s assertion “100% false.”
“I have never received any money or endorsements from Empower Texans; nor have I even met or spoken with them,” she said in a written statement. “When I saw the news about the hot mic, I immediately issued a statement of my disgust at the vulgar, despicable comments.”
While she received $17,000 from three donors outside the district who in the past have supported Sullivan’s political causes — Darlene Pendery of Flower Mound, Don Dyer of Austin and Monty Bennett of Dallas — Slawson said “the overwhelming majority” of her donors live in District 59, which stretches from Glen Rose to Brady.
Fallon said he can’t remember talking with Empower Texans for at least six years.
“Shelby Slawson is literally a rising conservative star,” he said, while Sheffield’s “just the most liberal Republican in Texas.”
Craig Murphy, Sheffield’s consultant, insisted Empower Texans-related donors are crucial to Slawson’s pro-school vouchers candidacy.
“Without their money, she would not have been able to come back from California to try to take a rural Texas district,” Murphy said.
Hood County commissioner, Precinct 3
In late December, Jack Wilson, 70, of Granbury, the former owner of a Fort Worth firearms training academy, returned fire against an attacker who killed two parishioners worshipping at the West Freeway Church of Christ in White Settlement.
On Monday, Abbott, who previously awarded a Medal of Courage to Wilson, endorsed him for Hood County commissioner against outgoing GOP Rep. Mike Lang of Granbury, one of Sullivan’s top allies in the Legislature. Lang, 59, a former law enforcement officer, has endorsed Francis, the Wilkses’ son-in-law, for the House seat he’s vacating.
In Lang’s 2016 and 2018 House races, he received more than $450,000 from Farris and JoAnn Wilks, and nearly $158,000 from the Empower Texans political action committee, according to his reports to the Texas Ethics Commission.
“Jack is a true Texas hero” with “conservative values,” Abbott said of Wilson in a statement.
Carney, the head of the governor’s political operation, conceded “endorsements are not the silver bullet or anything.”
In all of the races, Texans for Greg Abbott will deploy “digital advertising to our universe, texting to our folks and emails” — but not radio or cable-TV ads, Carney said. Turnout is likely to be low, he added.
“Hopefully, they’ll get out there and vote and support the governor’s candidates,” Carney said.