A family of West Texas billionaires heavily invested in U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz's presidential campaign is also vying to play an outsized role in efforts to steer the direction of the Texas House during the next legislative session, according to the latest campaign finance data.
Campaign finance reports covering the last half of 2015 showed some of the largest donations going to two kinds of races: those involving key lieutenants of House Speaker Joe Straus and those involving some of his loudest critics. In most of those races, many of the largest donations to the latter group trace back to billionaire Farris Wilks of Cisco or a member of his family.
Empower Texans PAC, the campaign arm of the conservative group that has a history of playing a large role in Republican primaries, took in 70 percent of its donations over the six-month reporting period through a single $500,000 donation from Wilks, who along with his brother Dan, made his fortune during the fracking boom of the last decade. The PAC spread much of that money around to a handful of Republican incumbents who have been critical of Straus, including Jonathan Stickland of Bedford, Tony Tinderholt of Arlington, Molly White of Belton and Matt Rinaldi of Irving, along with Republicans vying to unseat Straus allies.
Members of the Wilks family also made large donations directly to those same candidates, as well as a $50,000 donation to Jeff Judson, one of two candidates challenging Straus in the Republican primary.
The donations are just the latest sign of the Wilks' increased political activity. Last year, members of the Wilks family gave $15 million to a super PAC backing Ted Cruz's bid for the White House. The brothers also hosted a high-profile meeting in Cisco for Cruz with evangelical leaders last month.
In a November interview with KTXS-TV, Farris Wilks said that he was getting involved to help shape the direction of the country’s politics.
“I fear that our nation is going in the direction of socialism, and so I think that maybe we’ve forgotten what has brought us to the place we are as a nation,” Wilks said.
The political action committee of the NE Tarrant Tea Party, the state's most influential Tea Party group, also made donations of around $2,245 to many of the same candidates. Most of the PAC's funding came from a $31,000 donation from Tim Dunn, the Midland oilman who helped found Empower Texans.
The race between Stickland and Bedford pastor Scott Fisher is drawing some of the strongest interest statewide. Stickland raised $320,652, including $77,000 from Empower Texans. He also received two $50,000 donations, one from Farris and Joann Wilks and another from Dallas businessman Monty Bennett.
Fisher raised $94,475, with his largest donation — $10,000 — coming from TEXPAC, the political arm of the Texas Medical Association.
The re-election bid of state Rep. Byron Cook, a close ally of Straus and chairman of the House State Affairs Committee, is another of this year's closely watched races. Cook, a Corsicana Republican, raised $352,654, including $10,000 donations from four business-backed PACs, including ones representing AT&T, the Texas Association of Realtors and energy generator Exelon. His Republican primary opponent, Thomas McNutt, raised $163,000, including $30,000 from Empower Texans.
Tinderholt, who is facing a challenge from lawyer Andrew Piel, received two donations from Empower Texans over the last half of 2015, totaling $50,000, and the Wilks family gave an additional $25,000. The largest donation to Piel, who raised $41,000 overall for the period, was $7,500 from the Texas Building Branch AGC PAC, which represents the interests of commercial builders.
White raised $156,342, with $50,000 coming from Jack Hilliard, who owns a distributing company in her district in Temple. White also received $25,000 each from Empower Texans and the Wilks family. Her opponent, Hugh Shine, raised $47,995. His largest donation, $5,000, came from former Houston Astros CEO Drayton McLane Jr. of Temple. He also drew $2,500 each from the Temple Area Home Builders Association and the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.
While Rinaldi did not receive any funds directly from Empower Texans, he did draw $25,000 donations from both the Wilks family and the campaign arm of Texans for Education Reform, which advocates for the growth of online education and charter schools. His GOP primary challenger, Bennett Ratliff, who previously held the seat, received his largest contribution — $5,400 — from Dallas developer J.K. Munson. He also drew a $5,000 contribution from Charles Butt, the chairman and CEO of HEB.
Disclosure: AT&T, HEB, Texans for Education Reform, the Texas Association of Realtors, the Texas Medical Association, are corporate sponsors of The Texas Tribune. Charles Butt is a major donor to the Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.