ǿմý

Meet the Christian oil mogul spending big to elect Trump

By Mike Soraghan | 07/08/2024 06:26 AM EDT

Tim Dunn helped pull Texas politics far to the right. Now, he wants to do the same for Washington.

Photo collage of Tim Dunn with the Texas state capitol building and oil pumpjacks

CrownRock CEO Tim Dunn is harnessing his petrodollars to help former President Donald Trump retake the White House. Illustration by Claudine Hellmuth/POLITICO (source images via Brett Buchanan for The Texas Tribune and iStock)

Donald Trump has a new friend in the oil industry, but billionaire Tim Dunn probably has a lot more in mind than “drill, baby, drill.”

The CEO of CrownRock is an evangelical Christian from Midland who pulled an oil fortune from the plains of West Texas. He remains largely unknown outside of the Lone Star State, where he has spent more than $30 million to push state politics and policy far to the right.

Now, he’s going national with his efforts. Late last year, the Texas oilman ensconced himself among Trump’s top donors with a $5 million contribution.

Advertisement

“It’s not too much to say he has reshaped Texas politics,” University of Houston political science professor Brandon Rottinghaus said. “Dunn hopes that what is working in Texas will work across the country. The time is good. The ground is soft.”

Dunn did his reshaping not by fighting Democrats so much as financing primary challenges to Republicans who don’t conform to his religious-right orthodoxy. Now, he is harnessing his petrodollars to gravitate into Trump’s orbit.

He of directors of the , considered a policy and personnel incubator for a potential second Trump administration. He’s with Brad Parscale, the pollster helping Trump’s 2024 effort. And he is the longtime vice chair of the , which supplied some of Trump’s most controversial nominees and is now contributing to a policy road map for Trump .

Dunn’s national debut has led to new scrutiny, with profiles in The Wall Street Journal and Rolling Stone. He is now one of the top 10 contributors to Trump’s campaign, according to OpenSecrets.org, ranking fifth until a recent update.

Dunn will soon have more money to pour into his causes. In December, he agreed to sell his company to Occidental Petroleum. Dunn is set to collect about $2.2 billion.

He’s part of a constellation of oil moguls feeding Trump’s campaign. Oil production and natural gas exports have reached record levels during the Biden administration, but the industry is seeking a more favorable regulatory environment. Its lawyers are for Trump to roll back pollution limits, boost natural gas exports and increase offshore leases.

While the Biden administration is focused on boosting clean energy — with the goal of a carbon-free grid by 2035 — Dunn has bristled at talk of transitioning away from fossil fuels.

“The extremists want to deindustrialize America,” he 2022. “They want to live in huts around a campfire.”

That fits in with Trump’s approach to energy policy. The former president has pledged to “drill, baby, drill” if reelected in November and reverse Biden’s environmental regulations.

But Dunn’s harshest critics barely mention his views on environment or energy issues. Instead, they accuse him of underwriting “Christian nationalism” and trying to transform society to match his religious vision.

Texas state Rep. James Talarico said Dunn and fellow Texas oil billionaire Farris Wilks have deployed their fortunes to destroy public education, fund religious schools with taxpayer money and create nothing less than “an authoritarian theocracy.”

“In that way, they’re different from other megadonors,” the Democrat said. “Every single far-right policy can be tied back to the efforts of Farris Wilks and Tim Dunn.”

Dunn’s public support of Trump signals he sees the former president as a vehicle for religiously driven social change. That hasn’t always been the case. He gave no publicly reported contributions to Trump in 2016. Even in 2020, Dunn gave a small fraction of what he’s put into the current effort to return Trump to the Oval Office.

James Singer, a spokesperson for President Joe Biden’s campaign, called Dunn an “anti-environment, Project 2025-funding oil baron extremist” bent on “inflicting” a religious agenda on the country.

“That Donald Trump would take a dime from Tim Dunn tells Americans all they need to know about his priorities,” Singer said in an emailed statement.

‘Love your enemies’

Dunn preaches at the church across the street from his family compound and around the corner from the private Christian school he founded more than 25 years ago. He comes across as a fit, amiable grandfather with a shock of white hair.

His preaching has a combative edge, though, said David Brockman, a nonresident scholar for the Baker Institute’s Religion and Public Policy Program at Rice University.

“He starts off with ‘love thy neighbor’ and soon transitions to an ‘us versus them’ vision,” Brockman said. “Essentially, it’s good versus evil and a need to vanquish.”

Dunn rarely agrees to interviews and did not respond to multiple requests for comment. The Trump campaign and the Texas Republican Party also did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesperson for the Texas Public Policy Foundation politely but swiftly declined comment.

But Dunn has occasionally turned to op-eds in news outlets. He rejected the term “Christian nationalist” in , saying “the Left” equates the concept with an authoritarianism that he rejects as “un-American” and “unbiblical.” His political operation has invested millions of dollars in the campaigns of state legislative candidates who support vouchers, but in the , he told his neighbors he was not a leader of the state’s school choice movement.

And he lays out how he would prefer to be seen on a personal website. A Christian, for starters — “noun, not adjective.” He calls himself a “pluralist.” That means, he says, that he believes in the teachings of Jesus, who elevated the idea of “love your neighbor” to “love your enemies.”

His enemies, particularly Republican legislators who don’t agree with his policies, don’t feel very loved. They do not, however, question his effectiveness.

“The recipe for running for office in Texas is you go to [Dunn and Wilks], ask for money, do what they tell you, and you’ll likely get elected,” said Glenn Rogers, a Republican state legislator who recently lost to a challenger funded by Dunn and Wilks. “You don’t have to be a person of character.”

Legislators like Rogers and Talarico refer to the two billionaires in tandem, sometimes dubbing them “Dunn-Wilks.” Others call them “Wilks and Dunn,” a play off the country music duo Brooks & Dunn.

Rogers calls them “the two most powerful men in Texas politics.”

Wilks has not recorded any contributions to Trump’s campaign or political committee in the 2024 cycle. He did not respond to requests for comment.

Rogers says the groups the two billionaires fund accused him of supporting abortion, though he was endorsed by anti-abortion groups, and being anti-gun, though he has an A rating from the National Rifle Association.

“They just make things up,” he said. “I mean, they lie.”

Rogers believes he was targeted because he voted against Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s plan to send tax money to private schools and because he voted to impeach Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton on corruption charges.

Dunn supports Paxton and controls a political action committee that vowed ballot-box revenge on the Texas House members who impeached him. Before Paxton was acquitted in a state Senate trial, Dunn’s PAC gave the campaign of the presiding officer, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and a $2 million forgivable loan.

Dunn and Wilks win even when the candidates supported by their network lose primaries, said Chris Tackett, a former school board member from Fort Worth. For years, Tackett has chronicled the financial maneuverings of Dunn and other major donors — an effort that began when he tried to figure out why his local legislator voted unexpectedly against the recommendations of the school board.

Incumbents who survive their primaries, he said, know their next campaign might not be so difficult if they make the votes Dunn’s network wants, which are announced in a publication called (“Real News for Real Texans”).

“There is no room for anything other than subservience,” Tackett said.

Dunn’s influence has risen even as he faces accusations of antisemitism.

Last fall, the head of his PAC held a seven-hour meeting with Nick Fuentes, a Holocaust revisionist known for posting racist comments online. And earlier this year, former Speaker of the Texas House Joe Straus, who is Jewish, confirmed that Dunn once told him that only Christians should be top leaders in the state Legislature. Dunn has not responded to public accounts of the 2010 conversation and has not publicly denied it.

But on his website, Dunn highlights that he is the chair of the Christian Advisory Board of the Israel Allies Foundation, which included him on its list of “Israel’s Top 50 Christian Allies 2022.”

“Tim Dunn is an antisemitic extremist,” the Biden campaign’s Singer said in his email, “who is intent on inflicting his christian nationalism on all of America.”

A lucrative sale

Dunn was raised in Big Spring, Texas, by a farm worker who later became a local insurance agent, according to the biography on his personal website. In high school, he played basketball and became an Eagle Scout. After graduating high school in 1974, he got a chemical engineering degree from Texas Tech University.

Dunn intended to go to law school. But when his wife Terri, whom he married in his junior year of college, became pregnant, he took a job with Exxon Production Research Co. in Houston. They have six grown children, some of whom help run his company, and many grandchildren.

After Exxon, Dunn worked at a bank and then an oil company called Parker & Parsley Petroleum. His personal page recounts that as an oil executive dealing with securities deals, he was introduced to the “plaintiff lawsuit industry” and became an “avid supporter” of limiting lawsuits.

In 1996, Dunn went out on his own, buying wells in the Permian Basin more than a decade before refinements in hydraulic fracturing technology spurred the drilling boom that has made the United States the world’s largest oil producer. He kept drilling during the pandemic, when oil demand dried up to the point that the price fell briefly below zero.

In 2007, he partnered with private equity firm Lime Rock Partners and formed CrownRock. CrownQuest manages the partnership and operates most of the production on about 88,000 acres in what is sometimes called the Wolfberry Play. Dunn owns about 20 percent.

According to the company website, from 2015 to the end of 2023, CrownQuest drilled more than 800 horizontal wells, including 130 last year.

Dunn signed the agreement to sell CrownRock to Occidental last year, 17 days before he made the $5 million contribution to Trump.

But the sale has been held up by the Federal Trade Commission. At a late May fundraiser studded with oil executives, Occidental Chief Executive Vicki Hollub complained about the delay, noting that officials had sought information from her phone, according to The Washington Post.

Trump told her his administration would treat her differently if he won the White House, , citing “five people familiar with the matter.”

Some took it as a sign that Trump would support in the oil business. Several mergers announced last year, including Exxon Mobil’s acquisition of Pioneer Natural Resources, have come under regulatory scrutiny just as congressional Democrats have started blaming “collusion” among companies for high gasoline prices.

All in for Trump

Dunn’s critics say the billionaire businessman speaks loudest with his checkbook.

Tackett has tracked the $30 million that Dunn put into Texas campaigns and committees since 2000. Those public contributions could be dwarfed by ones to “dark money” groups — such as the America First Policy Institute — that accept unlimited anonymous contributions from the super-wealthy and can use it to boost favored candidates with little or no transparency.

Dunn and his wife have also given about $15 million to federal campaigns since 1993, according to FEC records, although older records can be unreliable.

His federal spending didn’t really start taking off until 2008, the year former President Barack Obama won his first term, beating then-Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). That year, Dunn gave more than $70,000, including $50,000 to Republican committees.

Then, in 2012, he spent $520,000 — putting almost all of it into the Campaign for Primary Accountability, which financed primary challenges to otherwise safe congressional incumbents in both parties. He sent just $500 to then-Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney (now a U.S. senator) — and only the week before the election.

Dunn’s federal spending hit a low point in the 2016 election. After giving more than $10,000 to Republican Sen. Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign, he gave no federally reported contributions to Trump.

But after Trump took office, Dunn’s spending shot up. He gave $2.8 million during the 2018 cycle, all to Republicans. In 2020, he put his money back into presidential politics in a big way, giving Trump $500,000.

Still, that’s paltry compared to the $5 million contribution Dunn sent to Trump at the end of last year.

By mid-April this year, with six months still to go before the election, Dunn had boosted his federal spending to more than $6.5 million, more than double what he gave in all of 2022.

The relationship between the religious right and the thrice-married Trump, who rarely finds himself in a church pew, has long puzzled opponents.

But that misses the point, Tackett said. It’s not what Trump is campaigning on that matters, but the power he could give big donors to fulfill their big ambitions. Future conservative candidates, he said, might not be as willing to give donors like Dunn room to run.

“He’s willing to elevate those with ideology if they’re helping him maintain money and power,” Tackett said. “There’s a heavy feeling that this is the moment, if they’re going to do it.”

Correction: A previous version of this story had an incorrect date regarding Farris Wilks’ contributions.