A Christian Oil Billionaire Upended Texas Politics—and Is Coming for Washington Next

Brooke Rollins, a former Trump domestic policy adviser, pitched Dunn in 2021 on a new think tank, America First Policy Institute, with a mission to perpetuate Trump-era policies for generations to come.
Brooke Rollins, a former Trump domestic policy adviser, pitched Dunn in 2021 on a new think tank, America First Policy Institute, with a mission to perpetuate Trump-era policies for generations to come.

Summary

Tim Dunn is one of the rich Republicans funding groups trying to perpetuate Trump’s policies. Some aim to assemble an ”administration in waiting.”

MIDLAND, Texas—Drilling for oil made Tim Dunn, a self-described activist Christian, into a billionaire. His second act has been pumping money to Texas Republicans intent on pushing their party to the right.

His third act, he hopes, will be pulling off something similar on a national level—preferably during a second Trump administration.

Brooke Rollins, a former Trump domestic policy adviser, pitched Dunn in 2021 on a new think tank, America First Policy Institute, with a mission to perpetuate Trump-era policies for generations to come. The West Texas oilman, whose efforts in his home state have been both successful and polarizing, responded with both enthusiasm and money.

“He’s a visionary," said Rollins, who previously worked with Dunn building a political think tank in Texas. “His ability to build organizations and structure and culture is so incredible. I’ve relied on him more for that than his funding."

Conservative operatives regard the new group as one of several organizations attempting to assemble an “administration in waiting." Rollins’s group boasts an in-house roster of Trump loyalists—including Larry Kudlow, Kevin Hassett and Keith Kellogg—available to fill key administration positions.

Dunn is one of many wealthy Republicans jockeying to influence a second Trump administration in accordance with their own political agendas. Besides giving directly to the candidate—Dunn donated about $5 million to Trump’s political-action committee late last year—some of them have funded a handful of new pro-Trump think tanks dedicated to that task.

In addition to America First, Dunn has provided funding to the Center for Renewing America, run by former Trump budget director Russell Vought, and America First Legal, led by former Trump senior adviser Stephen Miller. As nonprofits, none of the three groups are required to disclose who is donating to them, and how much.

As Dunn sets his sights on Washington, he will be armed with an even bigger bankroll. In December, he agreed to sell the oil company he runs, Midland-based CrownRock, to Occidental Petroleum in a $10.8 billion deal. Dunn owns about 20%.

Dunn, a 68-year-old with six children and 20 grandchildren, has already left his mark on Texas politics. Since 2000, he has contributed more than $25 million to candidates and groups in the state, according to data from the Texas Ethics Commission. Recipients of Dunn’s money have pushed to eliminate property taxes, ban abortion, restrict morning-after pills, ban vaccine requirements and make it a felony for doctors to provide gender-affirming care to anyone under age 26.

Dunn has said he believes America was founded as a Christian nation. He likes to cite Scripture and has worked for a decade to construct an exact replica of Moses’ Tabernacle in West Texas, using materials imported from the Middle East. Allies say his faith informs his politics, but he is not a theocrat.

Dunn calls himself a proponent of self-governance. In addition to property-tax reductions, he supports securing the Texas border and changing the way incentives are provided to solar and wind power companies.

Dunn is amiable in person and likes to wear jeans and polo shirts, even at work. He has said little publicly about his political life. He is more inclined to discuss his family and his faith, including on his podcast and on a personal website.

Dunn was born in Littlefield, a small city in West Texas. He has said he felt like a born-again Christian for as long as he could remember. In a 2020 speech at a Christian business luncheon, Dunn said he came to believe he needed to follow the Bible for God to accept him. That led him to become judgmental about other people, something he has said he tried to correct later in life.

Dunn said in that speech that he was convinced in his youth he didn’t have many marketable skills. But he was an ace at the board game Monopoly, he said, and when he later watched a local oil executive negotiate a deal, he saw parallels. “That’s what I want to do," he recalled thinking.

After earning a chemical-engineering degree from Texas Tech University, he took a job with Exxon. In 1983, he moved his family to Midland to head a community bank’s oil-and-gas department, and four years later, he became an executive at West Texas driller Parker & Parsley Petroleum. In 1996, he co-founded a company that later became CrownQuest Operating, which manages the company he just agreed to sell.

Dunn’s family, religious and business lives blend together in Midland. He attends Midland Bible Church, where he preaches occasionally. He established a private school called Midland Classical Academy, from which four of his children graduated. He resurrected a local miniature-golf course, and he and his family intend to build the city a zoo that is expected to cost about $100 million.

David Kuhnert, production manager at CrownQuest, said Dunn sees his philanthropy as an investment, though the returns often aren’t measured in dollars but in whether the investment lifts people up.

Bob Fu, the president of Midland-based ChinaAid, a nonprofit supporting China’s underground Christians, said that Dunn has given his organization enough money over the years to buy hundreds of thousands of Bibles to distribute in China. “He wants believers to have the Bible," Fu said.

One of Dunn’s first serious forays into politics came two decades ago when he and Rollins got involved with the Texas Public Policy Foundation. Under their leadership, that think tank promoted conservative policy proposals in the state, becoming central to statewide politics and helping launch careers of Republicans including Sen. Ted Cruz.

In a 2010 meeting with former Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, a business-friendly Republican, Dunn indicated he supported Christian conservatives in leadership positions. Straus, who is Jewish, concluded that Dunn felt he was unqualified to hold the office because of his faith, according to people familiar with the matter. Reports of the meeting roiled the Capitol. A person familiar with Dunn’s thinking said he didn’t know Straus’s religion at the time.

Many Republican lawmakers in the state see Dunn as an agent of chaos, intent on remaking the Republican party with loyalists. He has expressed a desire to dislodge entrenched interest groups, lobbyists, bureaucrats and unnamed people he has referred to as Marxists, who he said had taken positions of power in the government.

Republicans who don’t vote the way Dunn wants on some issues have faced primary challenges from candidates he helps fund. Organizations he supports have moved from trying to oust moderate Republicans to also targeting anyone viewed as insufficiently loyal, including even the most conservative lawmakers.

House Speaker Dade Phelan, who is the top target of Dunn groups this year because he has disagreed with them over some legislative priorities, called them insurgencies rotting the Republican party and making primaries more expensive, with limited electoral success.

Former Republican U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay said Dunn has become “the go-to guy for conservative Republicans in Texas."

Some of the think tanks he funds in Texas issue recommendations on legislative votes in the state, which are tracked closely by lawmakers with ties to him. “With people in the Senate and the House, his opinion matters every time," said former state Sen. Kel Seliger, a Republican who retired last year.

Last year’s vote to impeach Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton over allegations of corruption and bribery unfolded for lawmakers like a Dunn loyalty test. Dunn made it clear that he supported Paxton, a Trump loyalist who after Biden’s 2020 victory tried to block the electoral votes of four other states in an effort to overturn the result.

After the House voted to impeach Paxton, the Senate voted to acquit him. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presided over the Senate trial, had recently received a $3 million campaign donation from a Dunn political-action committee lobbying in support of Paxton. Patrick said he hadn’t predetermined or influenced the trial.

Some House Republicans who voted to impeach Paxton are now facing Dunn-funded opponents for the March primary.

After Trump’s defeat in 2020, some of his advisers turned to Dunn for advice and funding. Rollins said she and former pro-wrestling executive Linda McMahon, who also served in the Trump administration, approached Dunn about helping launch America First.

“We wanted to create a national organization similar to what we built in Texas that could be ready for a second [Trump] term," Rollins said.

Dunn became a founding board member, along with McMahon, who is chair, and Kudlow. Several other former Trump officials signed on. Rollins is the CEO. The group has raised more than $50 million in the past two years and has grown to almost 200 employees.

Rollins said that if Trump is elected, he is likely to pick people affiliated with America First for key jobs, although that isn’t the organization’s primary goal.

The organization’s website says it is working to train potential appointees to Trump’s executive branch and crafting action plans for federal agencies to quickly implement his policies. Its transition project, a video on the website said, would rein in a secretive “deep state" that is taking cues from “globalists."

The website said the group wants to ensure the U.S. maintains Judeo-Christian principles, revamp immigration enforcement at the southern U.S. border and stop what it calls the Biden administration’s “war on American energy."

Dunn also was an early donor to former Trump budget director Vought’s Center for Renewing America, another group preparing for a second Trump administration. An affiliate of that group produced a 33-page handbook for combating critical race theory.

Miller’s organization, America First Legal, which has raised tens of millions of dollars, has filed lawsuits targeting companies and schools over diversity mandates and what the group calls “woke curriculum."

Back in Texas, a top official of Defend Texas Liberty, an organization funded mostly by Dunn, met for hours in October with white nationalist Nick Fuentes. The meeting, first reported by the Texas Tribune, triggered a debate over whether Texas Republicans should institute a ban on associating with anyone with pro-Nazi sympathies. The Texas GOP executive committee didn’t approve such a prohibition.

Dunn hadn’t ever heard of Fuentes until after the meeting happened, according to one person familiar with the matter. Dunn’s allies said the group would no longer have any dealings with Fuentes.

Dunn travels to Washington every couple of months or so, often to meet with lawmakers and conservative operatives. He and his allies there see a second Trump term as an opportunity to make lasting changes to government at the national level.

“This is a 100-year play," Rollins said.

Write to Collin Eaton at collin.eaton@wsj.com, Elizabeth Findell at elizabeth.findell@wsj.com and Benoît Morenne at benoit.morenne@wsj.com

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