AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The deaths this year of three major Texas Republican donors, including a billionaire who died over the weekend, could signal a generational change for party kingmakers in the nation’s largest GOP stronghold.
Harold Simmons, whose business interests ranged from energy to nuclear waste dumps, helped transform Texas from a Democrat-controlled state in the 1970s to a Republican stronghold by the turn of the century. Simmons’ death Saturday came after Republicans lost home builder Bob Perry in April and businessman Leo Linbeck Jr. in June. For decades, all three helped bankroll political campaigns both in Texas and nationwide.
All three men were considered conservative renegades when they got involved in politics. However, as the state grew more conservative, they became part of the GOP mainstream.
The loss comes as Texas Republicans already were facing a turning point. Gov. Rick Perry, one of the donors’ biggest recipients, isn’t seeking re-election next year, and a new breed of GOP candidates such as tea party-backed U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz has emerged in the state.
“It leaves a huge question mark for Republican candidates and political organizations that have relied on major contributions from those two or three individuals for the last decade,” said Matt Mackowiak, a prominent Republican political consultant. “Their generosity made a huge difference in a lot of races over a long period of time, but it was their potential to always contribute more that probably prevented a lot of races from ever taking place at all by scaring off potential competitors.
The three men contributed to Republican candidates and organizations across the country, but their influence was greatest in Texas, which has no limit on personal campaign contributions.
Simmons, who had an estimated net worth of $10 billion, gave at least $12.6 million to candidates in Texas races since 2000, according to the Texas Ethics Commission. The Center for Public Integrity named him the second-largest donor to national political action committees for 2011-2012, giving away $31 million to conservative groups.
Houston tycoon Bob Perry, no relation to the Texas governor, made his fortune building tract homes across the state and made at least $75 million in political contributions in his lifetime, not counting confidential gifts to super PACs, which can campaign independently for candidates. He gave $4.4 million to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign, which sought to discredit Democrat John Kerry‘s war record when he challenged President George W. Bush in 2004. Simmons also gave the group $3 million.
Linbeck, whose family also made its fortune in construction, helped create two of the state’s most influential conservative organizations, Texans for Lawsuit Reform and Americans for Fair Taxation. TLR spent millions on candidates who supported limits on lawsuits against businesses and AFT campaigns to replace the national income tax with a national sales tax.
The full extent of their donations may never be known, since many were made privately.