As one of Texas’ most high-profile advocacy organizations, Empower Texans continues its quest to elect lawmakers as well as county, school and municipal candidates that share its ultra-conservative vision.
Since it was formed in 2006, Empower Texans has shifted from a grassroots operation to an influential and well-funded organization that has forced a reckoning within the Republican Party. In the process, the organization has earned a reputation for shrewd, and allegedly underhanded tactics, which have been cheered and loathed.
“This is a group that hides behind Mom, apple-pie, Christianity and all things good, but really says and does the most slanderous and malicious things,” said Jim Keffer, former Republican state representative from Eastland. Keffer defeated an Empower Texans-backed candidate in 2014 and opted out of re-election in 2016.
To Keffer and others, including Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley and Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price, the organization’s clout and its extremely deep pockets pose more than a threat to the goals and ideals of the Republican Party – at least the traditional Republican Party.
“I hope people put two-and-two together and don’t lose sight of the fact that Texas is in jeopardy of losing its competitive business edge and all things that make it what it is today,” Keffer said.
As House Speaker, Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, carried the mantle for business-friendly policies and pushed back against conservative legislation, including the controversial Bathroom Bill that required transgender people to use the restroom aligned with sex at birth. The defeated bill was widely criticized by business groups as harmful to the state’s economic development interests.
With Straus’s departure, along with his top lieutenants such as Keffer and State Rep. Byron Cook, Republican Charlie Geren of Fort Worth is a target of Empower Texans as a remaining member of the House leadership group that has resisted their agenda.
“[Empower Texans] will harass and harangue and stop at nothing to get what they want,” said Geren, who is locked in a heated rematch battle with Empower Texans-backed candidate Bo French for the District 99 seat.
Empower Texans officials did not respond to a request for an interview but in one of its many videos, the group’s President and CEO Michael Quinn Sullivan called Geren “the knuckle-dragging enforcer of the Joe Straus regime.”
In its latest salvo, the group mailed out an attack ad disguised as a government document from the Texas Ethics Disclosure Board, a non-existent agency. The notice alleges that Geren failed to disclose his relationship with a lobbyist, who happens to be his wife.
“They’ll go so far as making up a state agency,” Geren said. “It’s horrific what they will do.”
The Travis County District Attorney’s office is looking into the mailer after receiving a complaint from a Tarrant County voter, the Texas Tribune reported. Empower Texans’ attorney Ton McDonald said the group will fight back and stated that the mailer was truthful and not deceptive, the Tribune reported.
The District 99 race has been one of the most bitter with French alleging that one of Geren’s campaign operatives made a false complaint of child endangerment against him to Child Protective Services during the 2016 campaign. French contends that publicity about the complaint cost him the race. He lost by 16 percentage points.
This time around, Empower Texans has already pumped $200,000 into French’s campaign and announced on its website that French has been endorsed by U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz for his principled conservatism.
But District 99 is only one of the races Empower Texans is putting resources into. It has endorsements in races statewide for every seat from governor on down.
Locally, the organization is supporting State Sen. Kelly Hancock, District 9, and Sen. Konni Burton, District 10, for re-election. House members it is endorsing include Jonathan Stickland, District 92; Matt Krause, District 93; Tony Tinderholt, District 94; Bill Zedler, District 96 and Armin Mizani, District 98.
Empower Texans describes itself as a non-profit service organization that uses multiple media platforms to advance liberty, promote small government and hold government officials accountable to those goals. However, its PAC’s goal is to help elect “conservative, reform-minded candidates” to the Texas House and Senate.
Empower Texans is predicted to pump millions of dollars into campaigns to elect its endorsed candidates this year. It isn’t really known how much Empower Texans will spend since it operates as a “dark money” non-profit that doesn’t need to disclose its donors.
The money comes from heavy-weight donors, including Tim Dunn, who owns a successful oil and gas company, chairman of the board of Empower Texans as well as Dan and Farris Wilks of Cisco.
But it is Dunn’s libertarian and small government priorities and evangelical Christian beliefs that have set the organization’s agenda, according to observers and critics.
“They’ve managed to move the Republican Party so far to the right that it is almost off the charts,” said Matt Angle, director of the left-leaning watchdog group Lone Star Project.
Empower Texans is an echo chamber for other conservative Christian organizations such as Texas Right to Life and the Texas Homeschool Coalition, Angle said.
One of the group’s top goals is passage of school voucher legislation that would let parents to apply their school property taxes toward private or religious school education.
It is this push that has set up the battle between conservatives led by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick to lower property taxes and public schools that are begging the state to provide more aid to fund schools.
Angle and others say allowing vouchers would lead to a two-tier educational system that benefits wealthy children and leaves poor children stuck in subpar public schools.
“This is bad for Texas and especially bad for business that needs a skilled and educated workforce to be attract and keep top companies,” Angle said.
With help from local leaders like Whitley and Price, establishment Republicans are hoping to raise awareness of “outside money’ being spent in local races to sway and confuse voters, Keffer said.
Whitley, in his state of the county addresses, specifically urged Republican primary voters to select Geren. Price, in her state of the city address, wasn’t that blunt, but quoted Geren as saying “Don’t let an outsider control our local elections.”
But money is just part of the problem mainstream Republicans face in battle with Empower Texans, he said.
“They are just so good with social media and all types of media to deliver their message,” Keffer said. “Everyone else is struggling to keep up.”
James Riddlesperger Jr., a professor of political science at Texas Christian University, says candidates are usually more important than any specific interest group.
“Interest groups wax and wane in their influence – and of course it’s how voters respond to the candidates that makes more of a difference usually than what any group might do for endorsements,” he said.