With Some Uncertainty, Texas Donors Begin Pitching in for Trump

Slowly but surely, Republican donors in Texas are beginning to come around to the man who bested many of their favorite presidential candidates, including the state's junior senator.

Linda Eden of Denton County poses with Donald Trump poster while attending the trade show at the Republican Party of Texas convention on May 13, 2016.
Linda Eden of Denton County poses with Donald Trump poster while attending the trade show at the Republican Party of Texas convention on May 13, 2016.  Bob Daemmrich/Texas Tribune

Slowly but surely, Republican donors in Texas are beginning to come around to the man who bested many of their favorite presidential candidates, including the state's junior senator. Yet they are anything but unanimous in their support for Donald Trump, and where exactly they send their money is far from a settled question.

It's a debate playing out across the country — and only intensifying as a candidate who has eschewed big-dollar fundraising gears up for a general election that could cost as much as $1 billion. In Texas, long an ATM for White House hopefuls, key players appear to be falling in line — if not necessarily enthusiastically.

"I’d say that there’s definitely been sort of a move to push people on to — to drag sort of the community toward Trump," said Chart Westcott, a Dallas investor. "That happens any time you have a nominee. I don’t think that’s abnormal or unnatural."

In Texas, Trump's most visible fundraiser is Dallas investor Ray Washburne, who put out word Monday that the presumptive nominee will visit the state next week to raise money for his campaign. Washburne is a vice chair of the 2016 Trump Victory Leadership Team, which is chasing millions of dollars for a candidate who spent the primary largely self-funding his campaign.

The Texas Tribune thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Trump is expected to attend a series of fundraisers in the state, including one on June 16 in Dallas and another on June 18 in Houston. The Houston event is being hosted by Tony Buzbee, a prominent lawyer who successfully defended former Gov. Rick Perry against abuse-of-power charges. In Dallas, Trump is being helped by Washburne and Roy Bailey, a businessman and longtime Perry donor.

Bailey is serving as Texas co-chair of Trump's fundraising efforts, according to an email he sent Monday to prospective donors that also named Tommy Hicks the Dallas co-chair. Assisting on the professional side will be Alison McIntosh, Jeb Bush's 2016 Texas fundraiser and Mitt Romney's 2012 Texas finance director. 

Trump's son, Donald Trump Jr., is holding a conference call Tuesday with supporters in Texas, according to the email. Trump Jr. will "give a campaign update and discuss the needs going forward," Bailey wrote.

As word spread Monday about Trump's Texas fundraising plans, he gained at least one high-profile backer: San Antonio car dealer Red McCombs. In an interview, the billionaire said he "will definitely be involved" in financially boosting Trump in Texas, serving as both a donor and fundraiser. 

McCombs had previously supported U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, saying that he "was on hands and knees for our great senator who would've been a great president." A couple of days ago in San Antonio, Cruz and his wife Heidi met with McCombs, who said he congratulated Cruz on going from a virtually unknown Senate candidate to serious presidential contender in five years. 

McCombs said the end of Cruz's campaign was especially disappointing for his wife Charline.

The Texas Tribune thanks its sponsors. Become one.

"Her heart was absolutely just bleeding for Ted and Heidi, and I have to try to get her to understand the obvious that that part of it is over," McCombs said. "We’ve now got to get behind the guy that won it fair and square."

Another previously unreported well-connected Texan backing Trump is Gaylord Hughey, an oil and gas attorney from Tyler known to some Republicans as "the don of East Texas." Hughey, who previously raised money for Jeb Bush's presidential campaign, now plans to gather cash for Trump in Texas. "I've made that commitment," Hughey told The Texas Tribune at the end of last month. 

Uncertainty still reigns in some corners of the Texas GOP, though — not necessarily whether to back Trump, but how to do it. After swearing off high-dollar donors and super PACs on his path to the nomination, Trump is now grappling with the extent to which he needs their help to outlast presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. 

Among those weighing their options for how to give to Trump is Dallas investor Doug Deason, who supported Perry in the presidential race, switching his support to Cruz after Perry withdrew. Deason said he likes the way the RNC's Trump Victory fund is set up — so that contributions benefit both the RNC and Trump campaign — but is also open to giving to a super PAC.

"Yeah, we're going to support Trump, absolutely," Deason said of his family, which includes biotechnology entrepreneur Darwin Deason. "Are we going to participate any further than just maxing out to his campaign? I don't know." 

Deason and other top donors in Texas have been invited to a summit this weekend in Dallas being hosted by a pro-Trump super PAC known as Great America PAC. It is one of five private briefings the group has scheduled across the country as it seeks to convince Republican donors it is the best place to park money outside the Trump campaign. 

Eric Beach, a California-based GOP operative who co-chairs Great America PAC, said Texas donors have been discerning as the group seeks to make inroads in the state.

"I think that they want to understand how to beat Hillary Clinton, and they’re looking for that path to victory," Beach said. "The great thing about Texans is that there’s a lot of pride there, and this isn’t their first rodeo and they have to know there’s a good path to beating a very viable opponent."

The Texas Tribune thanks its sponsors. Become one.

The group is expecting "25 or so high-profile individuals" at the summit, including lead donor Bill Doddridge, the CEO of Jewelry Exchange. Dallas banker Andy Beal, at one point known as the richest man in the city, may attend the summit. State Sen. Don Huffines of Dallas, who supported Rand Paul in the presidential race then Cruz after Paul exited, was originally advertised as a guest at the summit but does not plan to attend, according to a spokesman, Matt Langston. 

Great America PAC is branding itself as the main super PAC supporting Trump, though it faces some competition. At least one other pro-Trump super PAC, the Committee for American Sovereignty, is working to recruit high-dollar donors in Texas.

"We have contacts with several people there, and a lot of them are doing their due diligence," said Doug Watts, a spokesman for the pro-Trump group who previously worked for Ben Carson's presidential campaign.

Perhaps one of the earliest and most high-profile Texas donors to throw his support to Trump was T. Boone Pickens, a Dallas oil tycoon who previously backed Jeb Bush. It remains unknown, however, how involved Pickens plans to be in fundraising for Trump in Texas, especially after he last month called off a planned event at his ranch amid uncertainty about the pro-Trump super PAC landscape. 

Jay Rosser, a spokesman for Pickens, said Monday the billionaire has not yet decided which pro-Trump vehicle to give to, be it a super PAC or other supportive group. At this point, Pickens is neither attending the Great America PAC summit in Dallas nor involved with Trump's campaign fundraiser there, Rosser said. 

Pickens is not the only heavyweight donor mulling how — or if — to help Trump in Texas. Dallas fracking pioneer Trevor Rees-Jones has not fully decided whether to back Trump, according to a political adviser, Jim Francis. Fred Zeidman, a major GOP fundraiser from Houston who supported Bush then Cruz following Bush's exit, has not committed to any fundraising for Trump in Texas. 

Then there are those donors in Texas who have ruled out providing any kind of financial support to Trump, repelled by either his less-than-conservative ideology or incendiary antics. Among those holdouts is Westcott, who raised money in the presidential race for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker then Cruz after Walked dropped out. 

"He simply does not represent enough of what I believe is the cure for the cancers ailing this country," Westcott said of Trump, citing free-market principles as an example.

Disclosure: T. Boone Pickens, Fred Zeidman, Tony Buzbee and Red McCombs have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. Find a complete list of donors and sponsors here.