With the attorney general’s impeachment trial set for September, supporters have risen to Paxton’s defense, fueled by the deep pockets of oil-rich West Texas donors.
And, until last month, no state politician had received more money from those groups than Paxton, who has in turn used his office to push ultraconservative priorities while declining to defend state agencies in numerous lawsuits filed by groups connected to Dunn and the Wilks brothers, including those seeking to undermine the state’s campaign finance laws.
Now, with the clock ticking toward Paxton’s September impeachment trial before the Texas Senate, Stickland and his far-right friends are fighting hard and spending big to protect their most important ally — and to stave off a major loss amid their ongoing fight for control of the Texas GOP.
Those losses, coupled with intraparty animus, have raised the groups’ stakes in the Paxton trial.
“The Paxton impeachment could be the most high-profile stumble for the far right of the Texas GOP,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a University of Houston political science professor. “Paxton was their shining star but now looks more like a shooting star.”
Over the past 20 years, Dunn and the Wilks brothers have sunk nearly $100 million into a sprawling mix of nonprofits, political campaigns, think tanks, fundraising committees and websites to advance their far-right religious, economic and anti-LGBTQ+ views.
But their groups were not always so laser focused on the red-meat social issues that they’ve helped thrust into the mainstream of today’s GOP. In the mid to late 2000s, their primary influence came from Dunn through a handful of groups — the Texas Public Policy Foundation, Texans for Fiscal Responsibility and Empower Texans — that pushed libertarian, small-government economic and tax policies.
Paxton dropped out of the speaker’s race shortly before the vote but a year later was elected to the Texas Senate, where he spent two years before launching his 2014 bid for attorney general. Despite initially trailing in the polls, Paxton defeated the better-funded, establishment candidate Dan Branch in the GOP primary runoff — with help from his West Texas friends.
In what The Dallas Morning News described at the time as an “unusual arrangement,” Dunn and Empower Texans backed a $1 million loan to Paxton that helped narrow Branch’s financial edge and pay for a late TV advertising campaign. Paxton also received a boost from freshmen U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, a Tea Party darling whose unexpected rise was aided by a super PAC that received $15 million from the Wilks brothers.
One year later, as news broke of Paxton’s indictment for securities fraud, those allies again came to his defense. Previewing the claims they’d make after his 2023 impeachment, Empower Texans insinuated conspiracy theories that framed Paxton as the victim of a witch hunt orchestrated by House Republicans and left-wing activists.
The 2015 securities fraud charges, related to Paxton’s work soliciting investors in Servergy Inc. without disclosing that the McKinney tech company was paying him for the work, have yet to go to trial amid a series of appeals by prosecutors and defense lawyers.