Tim Dunn was fascinated by bees. When he was a teenager, he spent hours studying a colony near his home, learning how it functioned. Each bee knew its role and embraced its work. Scouts found pollen. Guards prevented unwelcome outsiders from entering the hive. He even discovered that the larger drones didn’t sting, creating an opportunity for amusement. “I’d tie a piece of thread on them and walk them like a dog,” he said in a folksy West Texas accent.
His audience, the adult Sunday school class he teaches at his church in Midland, was gathered inside a gray-walled room lined with stackable chairs. Dunn went on, explaining that there was a lot to learn from the hierarchy of a bee colony. “When everybody does what they do best for the hive, it prospers,” he said. “If you’re a guard, then be a guard. If you’re a scout, be a scout.” Dunn then contrasted the cooperation of the hive with the inexorable tumult of modern politics. “Why do people hate politics?” he asked. “Everybody’s making it all about themselves,” he said. “Does it create harmony? Are people there trying to serve the body with their gifts? That’s why you hate it. It’s an example of what not to do.”
You may not think about Tim Dunn. Indeed, unless you’re a close observer of Texas politics, it’s likely you haven’t heard of him. But Dunn thinks a lot about you.
For two decades he has been quietly, methodically, and patiently building a political machine that has pushed Texas forcefully to the right, sending more and more members of the centrist wing of the Republican Party into exile. A 68-year-old oil billionaire, Dunn seeks to transform Texas into something resembling a theocracy. If you ever wonder why state laws and policies are more radical than most Texans would prefer, the answer has a lot to do with Dunn and his checkbook. If you question why Texas’s elected officials no longer represent the majority of Texans’ views, the reason can be traced to the tactics employed by Dunn and the many organizations and politicians he funds and influences. He has built his own caucus within the Legislature that is financially beholden to him. And despite his Sunday school pleas for comity, Dunn has deepened Texas’s political divisions: there are the Democrats and what remains of the mainstream conservative Republican Party. And then there are Dunn and his allies.
He grew up in Big Spring, about forty miles northeast of Midland, with three older brothers in a cramped house. He now lives in a mansion, hidden within a roughly twenty-acre walled compound on the northern edge of Midland. Nearby is the nondenominational church where he regularly delivers sermons as a lay minister. The Dunns are one of Texas’s wealthiest families, having acquired inexpensive leases in the Permian Basin years before fracking made it possible to extract oil and gas from fields previously thought to be in decline. As a political power broker, he mostly operates behind the scenes, routinely writing six- and seven-figure checks. This money is only the visible portion of a political operation that shapes the agenda in Austin and is feared by many Republican elected officials.
Throughout its history, Texas has seen plenty of influential men who have shared their message from the pulpit. And a steady march of rich men have opened their wallets to get politicians to do what they want. But we’ve never seen the two archetypes merge in quite this way. Dunn has said he believes we’re in the midst of a holy battle that pits Christians against those he refers to as Marxists, who he claims want to control all property and take away freedom. Marxists “are increasingly becoming bolder and more brazen in their quest for tyranny,” he has warned. “It is becoming clear they want to kill us.” The founder of Marxism, he argued, wasn’t Karl Marx. It was Satan.
For Dunn, politics, work, and religion all run together. “I have very deliberately unsegmented my life,” he said in 2022 on a podcast hosted by Ken Harrison, the chair of Promise Keepers, a national evangelical group for men. “I don’t have one approach in business and another approach in ministry and another approach in church . . . I work for God, and God has given me a bunch of jobs to do.”
Dunn directs that work from the center of a hive of his own creation, surrounded by politicians and pastors, fellow oil billionaires, and political consultants, all of whom are carrying out his vision. He still has a bee on a string—except these days, that bee is the state of Texas.
In the past two years Dunn has become the largest individual source of campaign money in the state by far. Until recently his main tool for exerting influence has been the Defend Texas Liberty PAC, to which he has given at least $9.85 million since the beginning of 2022. This is nearly all the money he contributed to Texas races over that span and the majority raised by the committee. The political action committee targets Republicans, many of them quite conservative, whom it deems insufficiently loyal to the organization’s right-wing agenda. Dunn is not a passive donor who will dole out a few thousand dollars after a phone call and some flattering chitchat. The funding machine he has built is designed to steer politics and control politicians.
Its methods are deceptively simple. A Dunn-affiliated organization lets lawmakers know how it wants them to vote on key issues of the legislative session. After the session, it assigns a number, from zero to one hundred, to each lawmaker based on these votes. Republicans who score high, in the eighties or nineties, are likely to remain in Dunn’s good graces. But those who see their scores drift down to the seventies or even sixties—who, in other words, legislate independently? Their fate is easy to predict.
They’ll likely face a primary opponent, often someone little known in the community, whose campaign bank account is filled by donations from Dunn and his allies. This cash provides access to political consultants and operations that can be used to spread false and misleading attacks on Dunn’s targets, via social media feeds, glossy mailers, and text messages. “They told you point blank: if you don’t vote the way we tell you, we’re going to score against you,” said Bennett Ratliff, a Republican former state representative from Dallas County. “And if you don’t make a good score, we’re going to run against you. It was not a thumb on the scale—it was flat extortion.” Ratliff lost in 2014 to a Dunn-backed right-wing candidate, Matt Rinaldi, who scored a perfect one hundred in the next two sessions and quickly amassed power: Rinaldi now serves as the combative and divisive chair of the state GOP.
According to several sources involved in Texas politics, what Dunn demands from his candidates, even more than electoral victory, is fealty. He tends to win, sooner or later, one way or another. Sometimes his preferred candidates win the primary and, given the gerrymandering that favors Republicans in most districts in Texas, waltz into office. But even when his candidates lose, the reelected incumbents have been battered by negative rhetoric and have begged and borrowed to raise funds to counter the attacks. Many are left wondering if it’s worth fighting back. Some have chosen to get out of politics entirely. Notable recent retirements include former state senator Kel Seliger and Representative Andrew Murr, both of whom were centrist Republicans who commanded respect from colleagues in both parties and acted as brakes on Dunn’s agenda.
Dunn’s influence goes well beyond campaigns and politics. His résumé is lengthy. He is vice chairman of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a right-wing think tank located a couple of blocks south of the Capitol. TPPF generates policy proposals—from severe property tax cuts to bills that impede the growth of renewable energy—that are often taken up by the Texas Legislature and emulated in other red states. He has served for years on the board of the First Liberty Institute, a legal powerhouse that has won Supreme Court cases to advance Christianity’s role in public life.
As his wealth has grown, Dunn has used it to support private companies that align with his goals. Through his financial vehicle Hexagon Partners, he recently invested in Christian Halls, whose chief executive says his vision is to create Christian community colleges and trade schools “in every county of the nation in the next ten years.” Also through Hexagon Partners, Dunn invested $7.5 million in a company affiliated with Brad Parscale, who worked in San Antonio targeting swing voters with digital advertising before he became manager of Donald Trump’s failed 2020 presidential campaign. That firm plans to build a “Christian-based” advertising agency that will use artificial intelligence to precisely target consumers with commercial and political messages.
In the past several years Dunn has become involved with multiple online media operations. “You can’t trust the newspapers,” he wrote in a 2018 letter to voters. But apparently you can trust Texas Scorecard, a political website that is often critical of politicians who don’t support his agenda. Texas Scorecard was published by Empower Texans, a group largely funded by Dunn that then became a separate organization in 2020. It continues to publish articles that are generally critical of candidates Dunn opposes.
He has also been an officer with Chicago-based Pipeline Media, which maintains a network of websites designed to look like independent local media outlets but that churn out often-partisan articles that amplify stances taken by special interest groups. The Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University found that this network has attacked renewable energy and advocated for property tax cuts. Further, Dunn is a longtime board member of the Lucy Burns Institute, publisher of the website Ballotpedia, which provides information on federal, state, and local elections. It recently launched an “ultra-local” initiative, publishing updates on candidate positions and endorsements in areas that have become news deserts after the closures of local newspapers. The site reported more than a quarter billion page views in 2022.
The Ever-Expanding Web of Tim Dunn’s Influence (click to expand)
Dunn generally steers clear of news outlets he doesn’t control. He did not respond to multiple requests for interviews with Texas Monthly, nor did he or his attorney respond to a detailed list of questions. Many of those closest to Dunn declined to be interviewed, and many elected officials refused to speak about him, often out of fear of reprisal. To report this story, I spoke with more than thirty people who know him or work in his orbit; listened to hundreds of hours of his sermons, speeches, and Sunday school lessons; and conducted an exhaustive search of corporate records and tax filings, among other documents.
Dunn’s voluminous political enterprises are all sidelines to what has long been his main gig. He is chief executive of CrownQuest Operating. While not well-known outside oil-industry circles, it controls a significant portion of the Permian Basin. In 2022 it was the eighth-largest oil producer in Texas. It operated wells that pumped out about 35 million barrels that year, worth more than $3 billion. In December, Occidental Petroleum agreed to purchase the company’s wells and oil reserves for $12 billion, including assumption of debt. Dunn and his family own about 20 percent of these assets. They stand to collect a windfall worth a couple billion dollars. Once the sale is completed, Dunn presumably will have more time—and more money—for his political interests.
Some of Dunn’s critics are quick to note that he and the candidates he backs have posted a poor overall record of electoral success. While there’s some truth to that claim, it misses the point. Yes, Dunn has, in essence, single-handedly financed the campaigns of inexperienced, extremist candidates who have failed to connect with voters. Nonetheless, these campaigns—and the promise of future, amply bankrolled, mudslinging challengers—have led incumbents to either acquiesce to his agenda or retire. Even when Dunn loses, he often wins.
Moreover, he is a major donor to some of the most prominent politicians in Texas. He was instrumental in helping Dan Patrick get elected lieutenant governor, arguably the most powerful office in the state. When Patrick first ran for that office, in 2014, he entered a runoff against incumbent David Dewhurst. In the final days before the election, Empower Texans gave Patrick $350,000 and secured for him a $300,000 loan from a Houston bank. The money helped pay for a last-minute blitz of advertising on television and on Facebook, Google, and Twitter.
Dunn is also a longtime backer of Texas attorney general Ken Paxton and helped him escape impeachment last year for abuse of public trust and other corruption-related charges. Prior to Paxton’s trial, Jonathan Stickland, the head of Defend Texas Liberty, made it clear he was ready to spend Dunn’s money to go after any official who voted to oust the attorney general. “There will be one helluva price to pay,” he warned in a tweet, and then added: “Wait till you see my PAC budget.”
That wasn’t the only step Dunn took to protect his ally. Before the impeachment trial in the Texas Senate, Defend Texas Liberty gave Patrick—who chose to preside as judge in the proceeding—$1 million in campaign donations and a $2 million forgivable loan. This is thirty times more than Defend Texas Liberty gave Patrick in 2022, when he was running for reelection. Strictly speaking, it wasn’t a bribe—it was all perfectly legal under state law—and Patrick has denied any quid pro quo.
Still, as soon as the final votes to acquit the attorney general were cast, Patrick discarded his veil of impartiality and delivered a caustic rebuke to the House leadership for wasting everyone’s time. Despite abundant evidence of Paxton’s corruption, Patrick argued that the House should never have impeached the attorney general. Representative Ann Johnson, a Houston Democrat who served as an impeachment manager, told Texas Monthly that this tirade made it clear the fix had been in from the moment Patrick grabbed the gavel.
Later, the Texas Tribune reported on a meeting between infamous white supremacist Nick Fuentes and Stickland, who prior to leading Defend Texas Liberty was a state representative to whom Dunn had contributed handsomely. Patrick was quick to condemn Fuentes but slow to criticize Stickland and the PAC. He never returned the money he’d received from the group. Instead he invested it in Israeli bonds, which his campaign treasurer could presumably sell at a later date or simply collect interest payments on for years.
Increasingly, Dunn is active in politics outside Texas. In October 2022 he gave $250,000 to the new Stand for Freedom PAC, nearly all of the money it had raised since its inception earlier that year. The so-called super PAC, which is based in Georgia and can raise unlimited funds, spent $190,000 on congressional races across the country that fall. It supported nine right-wing candidates. A couple of days before the election, it spent $10,000 on text messages in suburban Atlanta, half of them in support of the Republican challenger and half attacking a Democratic incumbent.
Dunn also gave $1 million in the summer and fall of 2022 to the Conservation Action for America PAC (out of $1.05 million it raised). The PAC gave $500,000 to another PAC, which supported right-wing candidates in Senate races in Alabama and Missouri. But for now, most of Dunn’s time and fortune remain focused on Texas.
Dunn is up-front about his desire to use politics to pave the way for a “New Earth,” in which Jesus Christ and his believers will live together. (“When heaven comes to earth and God dwells with his people as the King,” Dunn has said.) Until then, he remains a key player in the growing Christian nationalism movement, which rejects the importance of pluralism to American identity. Instead it contends that only devout Christians are good Americans.
Some, though, have openly questioned whether the use of religion is more tactical than heartfelt. State representative Jared Patterson argued in 2020 that Dunn’s operatives were hiding behind a “Christian facade.” Patterson, a Republican who represents parts of Dallas’s northwest exurbs, is no moderate. During the last session, he introduced a bill to regulate drag shows and another to expunge from school libraries any “sexually explicit” books, possibly even the beloved Larry McMurtry novel Lonesome Dove. Writing on Facebook, Patterson said of Empower Texans: “Their only goals are power, money and anarchy.”
Last August was even more sweltering than usual in Midland. It did not rain and the sun was relentless, the dusty earth baked by triple-digit heat. But on the final Sunday of the month, as usual, Midland Bible Church was welcomingly cool. A few parishioners sat with computer monitors in the back of the sanctuary running the audio and visuals. A video message played on two large screens on either side of a large wooden cross. “Jesus is better than the angels,” said a soothing female voice. “Jesus is better than Moses,” said a male voice.
When the video faded and the lights came up, Dunn was standing on an elevated stage with a few loose pages of notes arranged on a four-legged metal pulpit. Behind him were the praise band’s instruments, including a six-string guitar and an electronic keyboard. The altar’s backdrop consisted of distressed wooden slats and hanging Edison bulbs that wouldn’t look out of place in a barn renovated by Chip and Joanna Gaines.
Dunn greeted the congregation with the ease and comfort of a man in his element. He has been a member of the church for more than two decades. About a decade ago the congregation moved into its modern home, a $12 million building with seating for five hundred in the sanctuary, which you enter through wooden doors from a large common area furnished with couches and sided by a wall of glass. After services Dunn can be found standing outside the wooden doors, coffee in hand, greeting friends and well-wishers. Across the street from the church stands a stone wall that surrounds Dunn’s family compound. Around the corner, just out of view, is the private K–12 Christian school Dunn founded in 1998.
That Sunday, Dunn was dressed in a short-sleeved lavender polo and gray slacks. He’s a few inches taller than six feet and has the lanky, fit build of a former basketball player. His white hair was neatly parted. He wore a lavalier microphone that reached from behind his left ear, giving him the appearance of a corporate executive ready to fire up a roomful of salespeople.
He started with a joke about a church elder’s mustache (“Is that Wyatt Earp?”) and then began to talk about the book of Hebrews. It can be difficult to understand, he says. “The Jewish culture is not the same as ours,” he notes. “I have a lot of Jewish friends,” he said, and they are like cactus fruit: “sweet on the inside and prickly on the outside.”
This wasn’t the first time Dunn had opined on Jews. In 2010 he attended a private breakfast meeting with Joe Straus, the first Jewish Speaker of the House in the Texas Legislature. According to Straus insiders, Dunn told him that only Christians should hold leadership positions. When Texas Monthly first reported that encounter, in 2018, it shocked many in Austin’s political class. Dunn’s influence has grown since then, and his worldview has sunk even deeper roots in Texas.
Dunn’s sermon that August day came at a crucial juncture in Texas politics. A few months before, a bipartisan majority in the state’s House of Representatives had voted to impeach the attorney general for abusing the power of his office. Dunn had responded in late June by donating $150,000 to Paxton and $1.8 million to Defend Texas Liberty, which turned around and gave Patrick that infamous seven-figure donation and loan. It’s not clear whether the events unfolding in Austin were on Dunn’s mind as he drafted his sermon, but one of his principal messages involved a religious and political battle.
He retold a portion of the biblical story of Exodus. In popular culture—think of The Ten Commandments, with a strapping young Charlton Heston as Moses—the story focuses on the Israelites’ rebellion against the pharaohs, their escape from enslavement and departure from Egypt, the crossing of the Red Sea, and the reaching of a covenant with God in the desert. Dunn picked up the story from there. Moses, Aaron, and the rest of the Israelites who fled Egypt were still in the desert, but they were eyeing the fertile region adjacent to the Jordan River, in what is now the Israeli-occupied West Bank. So they sent scouts to see what was there.
The reconnaissance party reported that it was a bountiful region, a “land of milk and honey,” but there were obstacles to settling there. “The spies came back, and the spies said, ‘Ooh, this is too hard,’ ” Dunn said. “It is a really good land, just like God said, but man, there’s giants and walled cities. I don’t think we can do it.” Yet God urged them onward, Dunn said. Failure to fight, he suggested, would mean disobeying God. In his telling, it was a story of righteous conquest, not of escape.
He continued: “Everyone unwilling to fight did not get the reward. It’s a very poignant picture. No fight, no reward.” Here he paused briefly. He’d been looking to his right. He turned to the left, his hands gripping the pulpit. As he continued, he formed a fist with his thumb extended and pointed it at his chest. “Our giants and walled cities are a culture that hates everything we stand for. Are we willing to fight? If we are, we can’t lose, even if we die.”
Parts of his message can be heard in churches across Texas every Sunday. But how many such sermons are delivered by lay preachers who write $1 million checks to politicians and political action committees? How many are delivered by billionaires who are building an army of influence? Whose power and connections make them insiders even as they see themselves as outsiders trying to overthrow entrenched interests? How many believe that only Christians should lead Texas, to the exclusion of millions of Hindus, Jews, Muslims, and secular Texans?
Dunn holds several views that veer outside the mainstream. In late 2022 he delivered a sermon titled “How to Truly Love Your Spouse.” Before he began speaking, he played a brief video quoting from the First Epistle of Peter. It advises women, who are “the weaker vessel,” not to braid their hair or wear too much gold jewelry. They should “adorn themselves by submitting to their own husbands.” When the video ended, Dunn was at the pulpit. He praised the narrator’s deep bass voice, noting it was that of his eldest son. “Don’t you love Lee’s voice? Sounds like God reading us scripture, doesn’t it?” He later talked about his view that men’s brains are structured differently from women’s: men are superior problem solvers, while women tend to be more articulate.
Dunn advised men to invite their wives into their professional lives. His wife, Terri, homeschooled their children for sixteen years. When their youngest was in college, playing basketball for Texas Tech University, they would take long trips to watch his games. She would read Dunn’s emails to him as he drove. She liked feeling involved, Dunn said, so he gave her the password to his email account. She also listens to political talk shows, something he doesn’t like to do, and keeps him up to speed on what pundits are saying. This “helps her feel like a part of everything I’m doing,” Dunn explained. “Women were designed as helpers.”
Chris Tackett never intended to become the foremost chronicler of Dunn’s political influence. But sometimes curiosity charts an unexpected course. On a cool fall day, I met Tackett at a hip coffee shop a few blocks south of downtown Fort Worth. He wore blue jeans and a maroon T-shirt from a New York City bookstore and carried a MacBook Air loosely with one hand. In his early fifties, Tackett is fit, with thick, graying hair. By day, he works in human resources for a food processing company. In his spare time he has built a tool to track how a rising flood of money is reshaping Texas politics.
Just a few years ago, he was the volunteer director of a youth baseball league in Granbury, about forty miles southwest of where we met, when he decided he could do more for his community. So he ran for a school board seat. It was one of those life decisions that seemed innocuous at the time but turned out to be momentous.
He won the nonpartisan election and, by dint of his new responsibilities, became more involved in state education issues. The board communicated its priorities to Mike Lang, Granbury’s state representative, and Tackett assumed that Lang would be an ally. But when the school board asked Lang to vote for certain bills that protected the district’s funding, Tackett says Lang took the opposite position. Lang took other votes that Tackett felt were not in the best interest of local public schools. The board opposed vouchers, for example, which would allow taxpayer money to be used for private schools, potentially diverting needed revenue from the public school system. Yet Lang supported pro-voucher amendments. Curious about why, Tackett decided to look at the sources of Lang’s campaign contributions. “I mean, what else would it be other than money?” he recalled thinking.
He downloaded campaign finance reports from the state. They were bulky and hard to decipher, but years of working in corporate jobs had made him nimble with spreadsheets. To his surprise, most of the money Lang received wasn’t coming from constituents in $50 or $100 amounts. Instead, he’d collected a $2,000 check from Dunn and nearly half a million dollars from Farris and Joanna Wilks. Farris is an oilman and an elder in the Assembly of Yahweh, a church run by his family near Cisco, about fifty miles east of Abilene. The Assembly of Yahweh was founded by Wilks’s father and grandfather, and it blends elements of Christianity and Judaism.
Tackett also found a $25,000 contribution from Empower Texans’ political action committee. When he looked up who was giving to Empower Texans, he found six- and seven-figure checks from the same names: Dunn and Wilks, both of whom have worked to undermine public education in favor of parochial and other private schools. (The PAC ultimately gave Lang more than $150,000.) “Holy cow,” Tackett thought. “This is why no one is listening. This is why this legislator isn’t listening.”
After we ordered coffees, Tackett opened his laptop and logged on to the rudimentary website he’d built, called Chris Tackett Now, to publish what he’d turned up. Soon after launching it, his wife, Mendi, a florist, got involved. What began with Lang’s contribution data has grown exponentially. Texas has electronic records for campaign contributions going back to 2000. Tackett grabbed everything, more than 300,000 individual records. Anyone can download files from a state website to see who gave money to, say, Governor Abbott in the first six months of 2022. But that’s a bit like focusing on a single star through a telescope. Tackett brought all the records together so he could look at the entire night sky. He may have been the first person to see it all, the entire campaign cosmology.
I asked Tackett to guide me through what he’d found. We started by looking at who has given the most money to Texas politicians since 2000. The answer, surprisingly, was Tony Sanchez, a Laredo oilman who largely self-financed a quixotic $58 million run for governor two decades ago, creating a feckless orgy of political spending in a few months. After him, there’s a drop and then three more names: grocery magnate Charles Butt, an avid proponent of public education, and Houston homebuilder Bob Perry—and then Tim Dunn. (Pennsylvania billionaire financier Jeff Yass, a school voucher advocate, gave $6 million to Abbott in December, but he still falls far behind the cumulative spending of these four and others.) Perry died a decade ago, and Butt has reserved most of his political contributions for his education PAC. Meanwhile, Dunn has sped up.
We looked up Dunn’s contributions since 2000 and found he had given $14.3 million, a figure that struck me as low. Tackett told me to wait. He plugged in name variations: Tim Dunn, Timothy Dunn, Tim M. Dunn, TIM DUNN, Timothy M. Dunn, and so on. The number kept rising until it topped $24.5 million. He gave nearly $11 million—nearly half his total—just between January 2022 and the end of 2023.
Under state law, contributions to nonjudicial candidates and PACs aren’t capped but must be disclosed to the Texas Ethics Commission. But there’s another category of expenditure, to “social welfare organizations,” that is called dark money because the donors can remain invisible. These groups cannot give money to a candidate, but they can produce “voter guides” that explicitly point out that only one candidate is, say, a “strong Christian conservative” (however that may be defined). In other words, there are means to push voters’ buttons in ways that are hard to track. As in cosmology, what we can see in the night sky is only part of what’s out there.
Still, what was visible told a story. From 2000 until 2015, the big donors in Texas politics tended to be pro-business. They wanted to make it harder to sue corporations—Texans for Lawsuit Reform was still at the height of its power—and they lobbied to spend taxpayer dollars to attract out-of-state companies. The business of Texas, these donors believed, was business. Dunn and other megadonors shared those views, but they had other priorities. The schism came to a head over the 2017 “bathroom bill,” which would have targeted transgender Texans by requiring them in some instances to use restrooms associated with the gender listed on their birth certificate. Dunn backed the bill, but the business lobby opposed it, fearing a backlash that would’ve harmed their companies’ profits. The old guard prevailed.
Since then, though, Dunn and his allies have racked up victories, including passing a ban on abortions (before the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision) and another bill prohibiting minors from receiving gender-affirming care. Nowadays, the business of Texas is to promote not just business but also a right-wing Christian worldview. “There’s a handful of billionaires trying to pull the strings across the state and pull Texas all the way to the right,” Tackett said.
Dunn has deviated from the pro-business camp in other ways. The previous generation of big donors often supported public schools in the interest of training the future workforce. Dunn has long advocated for drastically cutting property taxes, which are the major source of funding for public schools, police, and other essential services in a state that collects no income tax. He backs private Christian schooling and was involved in a recent failed effort to defeat a $1.4 billion bond for Midland public schools.
The fight over school vouchers became perhaps the most contentious policy issue during the 2023 legislative session, a key reason why Abbott called four special sessions. Dunn recently said he is “basically uninvolved” in the effort to pass voucher legislation, but he’s underplaying his influence. He gave $37,500 to the Texas Federation for Children PAC, a leading proponent of vouchers. Advocates from the Texas Public Policy Foundation and the America First Policy Institute, organizations for which Dunn has served as a board member, testified last year in favor of voucher bills, as did Matt Rinaldi, whom Dunn backed as a state house candidate and leader of the Texas GOP. What’s more, Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, the Dunn-affiliated lawmaker scorecard, has consistently given high marks for votes that allow use of public money to help pay private school tuition. (These grades are not just given after the fact; a lawsuit turned up extensive evidence that longtime Dunn ally Michael Quinn Sullivan communicated to lawmakers before the votes how each would be scored, arguably telling them how to vote if they wished to avoid a well-funded backlash when the score came out.)
Tackett sees the voucher push as an attempt to undercut public schools and bolster Christian education. “This was all part of this broader agenda that was to inject religion into our government and erode trust in the government,” Tackett said. He and Mendi are six years into this project and have no plans to stop. “There are days we feel burned out,” he said. But then he uncovers more evidence that Dunn is leading an effort to buy public officials, subvert the state’s democracy, and bend it to his ideology, and that energizes him to keep going. “Democracy is much more at risk than I think most people realize,” he said.
In January Tackett texted me an update. A new PAC, Texans United for a Conservative Majority, had been created. The first donation it received was $700,000 from the Dunn-controlled Hexagon Partners. A few days later, Farris Wilks chipped in $1.29 million. The money was being used to unseat incumbent Republicans who scored relatively low on the Texans for Fiscal Responsibility’s index. Tackett surmised that after the backlash surrounding the meeting between Stickland and the white supremacist Fuentes, Defend Texas Liberty had become too toxic. So Dunn had simply created a new PAC with less baggage.
Many of Dunn’s convictions can be traced to his childhood. Back when he was playing with that beehive as a boy around the late sixties, his hometown of Big Spring was experiencing a growth spurt. Webb Air Force Base trained military pilots. Regional oil companies were headquartered there. Big Spring was home to the largest oil refinery in the region, a Sears, and a bowling alley that offered babysitting while parents got in ten frames. There were about 45 churches, half of them Baptist, in a city of some 30,000. Thirty of them sent singers to annual summer gospel concerts, held in an outdoor amphitheater, organized by Dunn’s father.
Joe Dunn sold insurance to farmers and ranchers and was active in a local Baptist church. In 1961 he added his name to a resolution asking President John F. Kennedy not to serve alcohol at the White House. His wife, Thelma, was a homemaker. Both grew up on farms near Lubbock and moved to California’s Central Valley in search of work during the Great Depression. They met there and married in 1937. Joe worked as a farm laborer and later at a cotton gin. They had three sons in the span of six years while in California. Ten years passed before they had their fourth and final child, Tim, in 1955. By then, they had returned to Texas and would soon settle in Big Spring.
Tim Dunn excelled at both academics and athletics at Big Spring High School. The local newspaper listed him as six feet three inches tall, and he started for the varsity basketball team. He was outshone by a classmate named Tom Sorley, who played quarterback for the football team and would go on to play for the University of Nebraska. Both were members of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Dunn was second in charge; Sorley was president. Dunn was a “class favorite”; Sorley was “Mr. BSHS” and “School Beast.”
It was the early seventies, and the counterculture was something happening in faraway coastal cities. Sam Chappell, who graduated two years before Dunn and went on to become a Christian music executive in Nashville, remembers a city that was “very conservative.” This was the natural outcome, he told me, of a place where “the oil industry meets a military base meets Southern Baptists.”
Like Dunn’s colony of bees, Big Spring High operated as an ordered society where students mostly played their assigned roles. Members of the football team’s female booster club, called the Golddiggers, spent a week feeding and pampering the players. “Golddiggers became slaves to the varsity squad for one week,” explained the 1972 yearbook. It ran a photo from an event in which a Golddigger “serves her master” by preparing him a plate of food.
Dunn shared a love of music with his father, Joe, who sang at Baptist revivals and played the fiddle. Years later, retired and living in California, he led a band called Joe Dunn & the Foothill Seniors. While in high school Tim Dunn played guitar in a band called Scrub Brotherhood. The Big Spring Herald reported that it played a combination of rock, country, and “cuddle” music. Ron McKee, the drummer, told me they listened to a lot of Grand Funk Railroad and played covers as well as some original songs written by Dunn. One song McKee recalls was titled “My Prayer.”
McKee, who attended school with Dunn from elementary school through college, said his friend was religious and straitlaced, and held strong opinions and beliefs. “I don’t believe I ever heard Tim Dunn say a cussword in all my time around him. I don’t ever remember him getting into a fight or taking a drink,” he said. Dunn was nonetheless fun to be around. One time in high school they got bored and took the handlebars off two tricycles and attached upside-down drum stands so they could steer while standing up, as on foot-propelled scooters. They piloted them to the Sonic and back, a roughly five-mile round trip. “We had cars, but we wanted to come up with something silly to do,” McKee said. “No one got arrested or hurt.”
Not long after Dunn left for college, in 1974, Big Spring’s golden age ended. By the late seventies, the military base had closed, and all of the oil headquarters had departed for Midland or Dallas. Big Spring began to lose population, and the Dunns were part of the flight. Two brothers settled near Dallas, while a third returned to California, where his parents moved when they retired.
Dunn attended Texas Tech University. He studied chemical engineering and wound down by watching episodes of Laverne & Shirley. He was wed on May 14, 1977, a year before he graduated, to Terri Spannaus, the daughter of an Air Force colonel stationed in Big Spring. They remain married and have six adult children. At least two of the kids inherited the Dunns’ musical talent: David records Christian music in Nashville, and Wally sings and plays guitar at Midland Bible Church.
A month before Tim and Terri married, he wrote a letter to the Texas Tech student newspaper about the Equal Rights Amendment, a proposed change to the U.S. Constitution that would enshrine equal protection for men and women under American law. The letter is remarkable for its certainty, and it appears to be Dunn’s first public airing of his political views. He opposed the ERA, writing that the amendment would give “homosexuals equal protection under the law . . . Public schools and, yes, even private Christian schools will not be able to refuse to hire a teacher because he is a homosexual.” (His desire to keep private Christian schools free of government regulations remains intact, as does his animosity toward LGBTQ rights.)
After graduating from Tech, Dunn worked at Exxon for two years, in Houston. In 1980 he was hired by First City Bancorp, which traced its lineage to 1866 and was one of the largest banks in Texas. In the mid-eighties the bank moved Dunn to Midland, where he served as the head of commercial lending. In December 1984, First City ran a nearly full-page ad in the business section of the Midland Reporter-Telegram. “We Know Oil & Gas,” it read. “We know Midland!” It featured a drawing of several bankers. Prominently positioned in the middle was a confident, smiling Dunn.
Like many Texas banks, First City boomed when strong oil prices buoyed the state economy. But during the final months of 1985 global oil prices began souring. Texas saw massive job losses and a surge in bankruptcies. First City had “aggressively expanded during the early eighties to capitalize on the energy-driven Texas boom and found itself particularly vulnerable,” said Sorin Sorescu, a professor of finance at Texas A&M University who has studied regional banks. In September 1987, First City needed a nearly $1 billion bailout from the federal government. It was, at the time, the second-largest bank rescue ever. Dunn appears to have left the troubled institution right before the bailout; the bank’s financial condition couldn’t have been a surprise to anyone paying attention.
In July, two months before the bailout, a new oil firm was registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Based in Midland, it was focused on drilling in Texas, Oklahoma, and Colorado. It was called Parker & Parsley Development Partners, and Dunn was a general partner. He remained a top executive as the company grew. By 1995, however, it was foundering and announced a series of belt-tightening measures and a shuffling of its management. Dunn stepped down from the board and took on the role of managing operations in two of the company’s most productive regions. Only one executive remained on the board: Scott Sheffield, who would go on to lead the company for years. Parker & Parsley later renamed itself Pioneer Natural Resources and became a top oil company in the Permian. Last year Exxon Mobil agreed to purchase it for $59.5 billion, in one of the largest oil field deals in two decades.
A year after leaving the board, Dunn cofounded his own Midland-based oil company, which would become one of the largest producers in Texas, although one fourth the size of Pioneer. As he built his company, Dunn inched into politics. In 1996 he served as a delegate to the state Republican convention. By this time he and Terri were beginning to construct a private cocoon around their family. They homeschooled their children, developing a curriculum that emphasized reading great books from the Western canon. The Dunns approached like-minded families, recruiting the parents of fifteen students and founding a new school, Midland Classical Academy, that met behind their church. Students attended classes two days a week and studied at home the other three.
Ron Miller, the dean of students, told a reporter in 2001 that Christianity was incorporated into every classroom and lesson. “Here, I’m allowed to speak my mind about Jesus Christ,” he said. “Everything we do is centered around the role God has in our life.” The school eventually moved to a new multimillion-dollar building on the north side of Midland, where the homes give way to scrubland dotted by an occasional pump jack. Parents were encouraged to volunteer. Dunn served as the assistant girls’ basketball coach.
Today the Dunns’ compound is bisected by a private road named Happy Trails Drive and has been landscaped to look like a rolling prairie. Dunn and Terri live there in a six-thousand-square-foot house. They conveyed plots to three of their sons as well as to a son-in-law, who have built million-dollar homes. A fifth plot was deeded to a daughter and her husband, but they still live a ten-minute drive across town, and another son lives with his wife in Nashville. More than a dozen of the Dunns’ grandchildren live behind the gates.
The first substantial campaign check Dunn wrote was in February 2002: ten thousand dollars to Free Enterprise PAC. Its legislative wish list, according to a report it printed at the time, included bills that would “prohibit homosexual marriages and adoptions” and “require a super majority to increase taxes.” The PAC printed a ranking of most-to-least conservative legislators, a strategy later adopted by Dunn-backed groups such as Empower Texans and Texans for Fiscal Responsibility.
In the period when Dunn contributed, Free Enterprise PAC spent nearly $66,000 supporting Republican candidates for the state House, with most of that going to those it deemed most conservative. The biggest beneficiary was a little-known lawyer running in a five-way contest for an open seat in Collin County. It was his first electoral victory. His name was Ken Paxton.
Free Enterprise spent even more on mailings attacking six Republican incumbents—half in the House and half in the Senate—each of whom scored low in the group’s rankings. Several days before the primary election, acting lieutenant governor Bill Ratliff, one of the six, denounced Free Enterprise PAC. Its mailings, which featured a photograph of two men kissing and another of two grooms cutting a wedding cake, claimed Ratliff supported a “radical homosexual agenda.” His alleged sin was voting for a hate crimes bill named after James Byrd Jr., a Black man who in 1998 was dragged to his death behind a pickup truck by three white men in the East Texas town of Jasper. The bill allowed heightened penalties for crimes motivated by the victim’s identity, including race or sexual orientation.
All six of the incumbents targeted by the PAC won reelection, but Ratliff was incensed by the group’s tactics. “This type of hate-mongering is reminiscent of the Nazis. This type of hate-mongering is reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan,” he said. “This type of hate-mongering is now being practiced by the al Qaeda and the Taliban.” The negative press and attention from prominent Republicans didn’t deter Dunn. In 2006 he gave another $10,000 to the group right before the general election. Since that first check in 2002, he has made more than 225 donations of at least $10,000.
Dunn’s campaign cash washes through multiple political action committees and helps support various bands of right-wing political activists. The Texas Voice reported that shortly after Thanksgiving a little-known group called the Texas Family Project blasted out text messages that attacked select Republican lawmakers. The messages claimed that those legislators voted in favor of funding to help transgender Texans transition from the gender they were assigned at birth. This was hogwash.
All of the targeted Republicans voted for Senate Bill 14, a law passed last year and signed by Abbott that banned gender-affirming care for transgender youth; further, it required Texas to revoke medical licenses for doctors who didn’t comply. Their apparent transgression was not voting for an anti-transgender amendment on an unrelated bill, creating a gossamer thread of truth to the text message’s claim. In reality, these Republicans were singled out and castigated not for their position on transgender Texans but for having the gall to vote independently. (In late January, the same outfit sent anti-Muslim mailers assailing several Republicans in the Legislature.)
Dunn’s connection to Texas Family Project is labyrinthine and apparent only after some digging. The group was created in 2022 by Brady Gray, a pastor turned political activist from Weatherford, about thirty miles west of Fort Worth. On the same day in April, he founded two groups: Texas Family Project and Texas Family Project Foundation. One is a nonprofit charity and the other is a dark-money “social welfare group.” Both can keep their donors anonymous, making it nearly impossible to determine who is funding the organizations.
Before running these outfits full time, Gray was chief executive of Pale Horse Strategies, a Fort Worth political-consulting firm run by Stickland, who was simultaneously leading Defend Texas Liberty. Pale Horse, named after the line from the book of Revelation in which Death rides a pale horse, thrived on contracts from Defend Texas Liberty. In 2022 and 2023, Defend Texas Liberty paid Pale Horse $829,260 for consulting services.
Gray also runs a political action committee called the Texas Pastors
Coalition, which was created in May 2022 and has so far been inactive, neither raising nor spending any money, according to state campaign-disclosure documents. But it shares a Fort Worth post office box with the Tarrant County Patriots PAC, which is run by Cary Cheshire, a former Pale Horse adviser who has worked for Dunn-supported groups on and off since 2014. This PAC has raised $80,000 in the last couple of years—all of it from Defend Texas Liberty.
This is a typical pattern in Dunn’s orbit. A new organization emerges that attacks Republicans who are conservative but not sufficiently obedient to Dunn and Defend Texas Liberty. The groups, which spread misinformation and sow division, share the same pool of political operatives and funding.
Among the lawmakers targeted by the Texas Family Project’s text messages was Stephanie Klick, a longtime nurse and Republican who has represented the northeast Fort Worth suburbs since 2013. In the 2022 election, a former military policeman and Republican Party operative named David Lowe ran against her, claiming she was too moderate. He described himself in campaign material as “an army veteran, a constitutional conservative, [and] follower of Christ.” When Lowe made it into a runoff against Klick, Defend Texas Liberty gave him $177,608—the majority of the $269,467 he raised during the head-to-head campaigning.
When I reached Lowe, who is running against Klick again, I asked him what he believes Dunn and Defend Texas Liberty want and why they are supporting him. “I think they’re strong Christians,” he replied. “They’re trying to lay the foundation to make Texas more conservative.”
What that means, he said, is not yet clear—even to him. “The truth is, you don’t really know what they want until Texas is conservative,” he said. I replied that it was already quite conservative. He ticked off a list of additional legislative goals: increased militarization of the border, preventing abortions that are accomplished through medications received in the mail, punishing anyone who helps a transgender child receive gender-affirming care, and abolishing property taxes.
For Dunn, influencing government is a sacred mission. “When we go into governmental politics, we’re going into the darkest places,” he said in 2022. He was giving a speech in Orlando, to the Convention of States, a Houston-based organization (Dunn has been a board member since its founding) that calls for a constitutional convention to limit the power of the federal government. “And we have the opportunity to make disciples in the places that need it the most. It is a high and holy calling.”
To achieve this mission, Dunn has supported some candidates who are morally repugnant. In 2018 he got involved in an East Texas statehouse race. The incumbent was Dan Flynn, an Army veteran who had served as a brigadier general in the Texas State Guard. He first came to office in 2003, at which point he was considered quite conservative. Yet as the lower chamber moved further to the right, he was increasingly viewed as a centrist. Empower Texans donated nearly half the money raised by his 2018 primary challenger, a former youth pastor named Bryan Slaton.
What did Flynn do to raise the hackles of Dunn and his allies? Mark Owens, an assistant professor of political science at the Citadel who formerly taught at the University of Texas at Tyler, where he studied Texas politics, described Flynn as a principled, independent conservative who believed in limited government spending. Empower Texans’ attempt to create a cohesive, hard-right voting bloc didn’t sit well with Flynn. “He wasn’t on board,” Owens said.
Flynn still won the 2018 primary and coasted to victory in the general election. Before those votes were cast, Dunn sent a letter on Empower Texans letterhead to Flynn’s constituents, urging them to “hold Flynn accountable” for his votes in the upcoming legislative session. “Why was I involved in Texas elections? What do I want,” Dunn wrote. He claimed he was fighting against corporate lobbyists, with nothing less than American democracy at stake. “If we lose this fight . . . representative government will die, and with it the American dream.”
The letter was notable for its omissions. He described Empower Texans as a “non-profit service organization” but didn’t mention that he had given $2.63 million to the Empower Texans PAC the previous year. Dunn described himself as a champion of the little guy, helping voters fight back against politicians co-opted by Austin lobbyists. He never mentioned that he’s a whale in the campaign-finance ocean, or that he uses his political clout to promote his own worldview.
Two years later Dunn and Slaton took another shot at Flynn. Dunn personally gave $225,000 to Slaton—nearly two thirds of Slaton’s entire war chest. This time Slaton prevailed. After the election Dunn continued supporting him, giving his campaign another $50,000 in 2021. At the end of the session, Slaton received the highest score, 98 out of 100, on the Texans for Fiscal Responsibility’s index. He was an obedient anti-LGBTQ rabble-rouser, and Texas Monthly gave him the “Cockroach” award, reviving an old legislative term for a lawmaker who annoys members of both parties, makes a lot of noise, and accomplishes little. Despite these dubious accomplishments, Slaton was reelected in 2022, with more than half of his contributions coming from Dunn and Defend Texas Liberty.
But his time as a lawmaker was cut short. The Texas Voice reported that last year Slaton was enlisted to speak at a networking meeting for “business leaders dedicated . . . to preserving our culture, protecting our children and promoting self-governance over tyranny.” According to the schedule, Slaton took the stage immediately after a talk by Dunn.
Later that night, at 10 p.m., he invited two nineteen-year-old capitol aides and two of their friends to his Austin apartment. He mixed rum and Coke in a large Yeti thermos cup and drank until the early hours of the morning, by which time all but one of the aides had left. The one who remained was intoxicated, and according to a subsequent investigation, they engaged in sex. The next morning, she went to a drugstore to obtain Plan B pills to avoid getting pregnant. Several weeks later, in May, Slaton was expelled for “inappropriate workplace conduct,” the first member of the Texas Legislature to be removed in nearly a century.
Texas Right to Life, an antiabortion group, withdrew its endorsement of Slaton, saying it held its endorsees to a high moral standard. Dunn, on the other hand, hasn’t made a public statement about Slaton’s behavior or his own role in electing him.
Why would Dunn ally himself with someone like Slaton? It’s a question that perplexed Bob Deuell a few years ago. He’s a family physician who served as a state senator from Greenville, northeast of Dallas, for more than a decade. A Republican, he was known as a staunch conservative with an independent streak. In 2014, after receiving a low score on a Dunn-backed scorecard, he drew a primary challenge from Bob Hall, a retired Air Force captain and recent transplant from Florida. During the campaign, Hall suggested that Satan controlled Deuell and bizarrely claimed that the incumbent intended to follow a United Nations imperative by adding bicycle lanes to Texas highways. Deuell shook off these outlandish statements but said he was deeply troubled by court documents in which Hall’s ex-wife claimed she was “physically, sexually and verbally abused for most of our marriage.” (Hall denied these allegations.)
Hall ran a relatively low-budget campaign, spending an average of $52 a day through the primary, mostly on signs, T-shirts, and door hangers. When he made it to a runoff with Deuell, Dunn-connected money rained down. Hall’s spending jumped to more than $2,100 a day, and he began using Facebook advertising and a direct-mail campaign generated by an out-of-state consultant. He attacked Deuell for voting like a “liberal Democrat” even though he had endorsements from the National Rifle Association and some right-to-life groups. “It was a bunch of lies,” Deuell told me. “His whole campaign was a bunch of lies.”
In the middle of the election, Deuell decided to write Dunn a letter. He told me that its message was simple: “Mr. Dunn, I’m not sure why you’re wanting to have me out of office. Certainly, you don’t want to put somebody like this in office,” referring to Hall. Deuell never got a response.
Hall eked out a victory by three hundred votes and has served in the Texas Senate since 2015. In the past three sessions, he has scored highest among senators in the Texans for Fiscal Responsibility’s index. Deuell told me he learned one lesson from this experience: “As long as they get their puppet, they don’t care what the qualifications are because they know Bob Hall’s going to vote with them.”
For all his talk of Christian piety, Dunn’s tactics and beliefs have put him at odds with many fellow believers. “To see billionaire pastors, which should be an oxymoron, take over our state and turn it into an authoritarian theocracy is terrifying,” said James Talarico, a Democratic state House member representing North Austin and surrounding suburbs. Talarico is a former public school teacher and is studying to become a pastor at the Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. “Without this ecosystem built by Tim Dunn, we wouldn’t see the extreme far-right policies coming out of Texas that we’ve seen in the last decade,” he said.
Amanda Tyler, the executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, lives in Dallas. She has observed the rise of Dunn’s dominion. He already wields control over the Texas Senate through his influence over Lieutenant Governor Patrick, and I asked her what Texas would look like if he managed to do the same in the Texas House. “I think it could create a second-class citizenship status for anyone who doesn’t agree with the elected leaders and their religious views,” she said. “And that looks like discriminatory laws and policies if they don’t align with a fundamentalist reading of the Bible. I also find that it would be profoundly undemocratic.”
She said Dunn is an ambassador of Christian nationalism, not Christianity. “I believe the central message of Christianity is the gospel of love,” she told me. “And Christian nationalism is a false idol of power.”
Summer Wise has also watched Dunn’s rise with dismay. She comes from an old Texas family and is distantly related to Angelina Eberly, a bronze likeness of whom presides over Congress Avenue, in downtown Austin. One night in 1842, Eberly famously took it upon herself to ready the town cannon and fire the six-pounder to prevent the records of the nascent Republic of Texas from being taken from the capital. Wise has engaged in a different sort of public service. She sat on the State Republican Executive Committee from 2018 to 2020 and has appeared as a delegate at seven state conventions. She lost her post in 2020 as part of a takeover of the party by Dunn’s allies. She told me she is deeply uncomfortable with the toxicity in some factions of today’s Texas Republican Party.
Many of her friends and former allies have given up their activism or left public office, creating what she told me was an exodus of talent and passion. It’s hard to fight against people who command vast resources and who believe their eternal salvation depends on the outcome, she said. She fears that Texas is moving away from a representative republic. In its place is a system driven “by ideology and the ideologies of a few. That is not how government is intended to function.”
We spoke several times over a few months. In one of her final emails to me, she lamented the state of the state but vowed, like her ancestor, not to surrender. “I cannot think of a time when we have seen the very integrity of our political system so tested,” she wrote. “Dunn has a misguided belief that he is fighting for souls, but I’m fighting for the soul of Texas.”
This article originally appeared in the March 2024 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “The Billionaire Who Runs Texas.” Subscribe today.
Chart photo credits: Dunn: Brian Shumway; Trainor and Paxton: Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc./Getty; Graves: C-SPAN; Stickland: Bob Daemmrich/Corbis via Getty; Sullivan: Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman/USA TODAY NETWORK; Patrick: Brandon Bell/Getty; Meckler: LM Otero/AP