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The votes to acquit Attorney General Ken Paxton were still being counted in September when Jonathan Stickland gleefully vowed to use his powerful group, Defend Texas Liberty, to bankroll primary challengers against Republicans who supported Paxton’s impeachment.
Four months later, Stickland is out as the group’s president and the typically-prolific Defend Texas Liberty PAC has gone noticeably quiet amid a series of scandals involving its ties to white supremacists.
New campaign finance reports show that in the last two months of 2023 — and as other donors and political action committees were doling out millions of dollars ahead of this year’s March primaries — Defend Texas Liberty gave just $10,000 to one candidate, state Rep. Steve Toth, R-Woodlands. Defend Texas Liberty spent about $200,000 over the filing period, with $140,000 going to a polling company and $15,000 going to television advertisements.
Perhaps as notably, the political action committee received no new donations from Tim Dunn and Farris Wilks, the two West Texas oil billionaires who have given more than $100 million to Defend Texas Liberty and other groups as part of an ongoing attempt to push Texas to the far right and purge the state party of more moderate voices by funding primary challengers against them.
The report, which was made public on Wednesday and covers Oct. 29 through Dec. 31, is a notable spending departure for Defend Texas Liberty. Over the same period in 2022, the group gave roughly $110,000 to candidates and political action committees it supported, including a $50,000 donation to Paxton. And in the last filing period for 2021, Defend Texas Liberty gave roughly $85,000.
Since 2020, the group has given out nearly $15 million to various groups, campaigns and media websites, nearly all of that money coming from Dunn or Wilks. The two billionaires were similarly quiet in the final two months of 2023, though Dunn did give Defend Texas Liberty $250,000 in late September through one of his companies, Hexagon Partners. His sons also gave $25,000 to Wesley Virdell in September and early October. Virdell is running against local hospital administrator and rancher Hatch Smith to replace Rep. Andrew Murr, R-Junction, who announced in November that he would not seek reelection. Murr was a key figure in the impeachment of Paxton, a longtime political ally and beneficiary of Dunn.
There's still plenty of time for the group to ramp up its activity, however, and Defend Texas Liberty has in previous years reserved its biggest spending until later in the primary season — including in 2022, when it spent more than $5 million in the final two months of the contest. It's also possible that Defend Texas Liberty and its main backers redirect resources or funds to other aligned groups such as Texans United for a Conservative Majority, a political action committee that was registered in December by one of the group's allies and recently paid for television ads backing David Covey's challenge to House Speaker Dade Phelan, a longtime Defend Texas Liberty foe.
The Wednesday report is the first since early October, when The Texas Tribune reported that Stickland hosted notorious white supremacist and Adolf Hitler admirer Nick Fuentes for nearly 7 hours.
The meeting set off a firestorm in the state GOP, prompting Phelan and 60 other House Republicans to call for donations from Defend Texas Liberty to be redirected to pro-Israel charities and nearly half of the Texas GOP’s executive committee to demand the party cut ties with it and the groups its funds until Stickland was removed and an explanation for the Fuentes meeting was provided.
Meanwhile, the Tribune produced subsequent reporting showing numerous other white supremacists were embedded in the Defend Texas Liberty orbit, including Chris Russo, a longtime Fuentes associate who is currently the leader of the anti-immigration campaign donor group, Texans For Strong Borders PAC.
In December, a watered-down ban on associating with Holocaust deniers, antisemites and Nazi sympathizers was narrowly defeated by the executive committee of the Republican Party of Texas. Last year, more than $800,000 of the $1.23 million donated to the Texas GOP last year came from Defend Texas Liberty, Dunn or Dunn's company, Hexagon Partners. On Friday, the Tribune reported that, at the same time he was vigorously attacking critics of Defend Texas Liberty late last year and fighting calls for the party to cut ties with the group, Texas GOP Matt Rinaldi was working as an attorney for Wilks.