By Melanie Zanona
This article appeared on CQ Roll Call on Sept. 28, 2015
It's not surprising that Sen. Ted Cruz, the Republican presidential candidate who passionately opposes abortion and orchestrated the 2013 government shutdown, would lead the charge against funding Planned Parenthood in a government spending bill.
But Cruz's effort, which includes a 50-state campaign aimed at the family planning group, is being fortified by $15 million in financial support from a pair of socially conservative billionaires who have long funneled large sums of money towards anti-abortion efforts.
Mega-donors Farris and Dan Wilks, who made their fortunes in recent years in the fracking and masonry businesses, are brothers from Cisco, Texas, who have generally maintained a low profile. They were thrust into the spotlight this summer, when financial disclosure reports showed they and their spouses gave $15 million in the first half of 2015 to a super PAC supporting Cruz.
None of the Wilks’ previous political donations came close to that sum. The brothers and their wives have only contributed $263,000 at the federal level since 2006, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
“It’s sort of unusual to see people like this just appear on the scene,” said Viveca Novak, the center's editorial and communications director. “It’s a very substantial amount, even for groups that can take unlimited money. They are the largest super PAC donors in this cycle so far.”
Cruz is trying to boost his standing with social conservatives by vowing to fight any short-term spending measure that provides money to Planned Parenthood. The organization has been embroiled in controversy since the anti-abortion group Center for Medical Progress began releasing undercover videos that implicate the group in the sale of aborted fetal tissue. Planned Parenthood officials deny the charge and say the footage is heavily edited.
Though Senate Democrats last week blocked a spending bill with defunding language, Cruz reiterated his promise to use all available procedural tools to stop any legislation that funds Planned Parenthood.
“I think he is a true believer in wanting to defund Planned Parenthood,” said Peter Montgomery, a senior fellow at the nonprofit People for the American Way. “But I also think he sees that at this moment in the campaign, leading the attack on Planned Parenthood and attacking other Republicans as weak and too willing to cave to [President Barack] Obama is clearly a way to position himself as the religious right candidate who’s willing to fight.”
Cruz's office didn't return calls seeking comment.
A Pattern Of Giving
The Wilks are social conservatives who have a history of shuffling money to the religious right. The older brother, Farris, is a pastor whose private Thirteen Foundation has routinely donated to groups that push anti-abortion platforms such as Online for Life and Heartbeat International, a network of crisis pregnancy centers.
“They appear to have a pretty single focus,” Novak said.
The anti-abortion group Life Dynamics received the bulk of its funding from the Wilks family in recent years, according to IRS Form 990 filings. Between July 1, 2011, and July 1, 2014, the Thirteen Foundation gave a total of $2.2 million to the organization, which mounted its own undercover sting operation 15 years ago targeting fetal tissue practices.
Life Dynamics also sent direct mail DVDs to lawyers in a 2013 effort to entice them to sue abortion providers such as Planned Parenthood. Some believe Life Dynamics has provided oversight and inspiration for the recent undercover Center for Medical Progress videos, but neither group would respond to requests for comment. CMP’s funding sources remain unknown because nonprofits aren’t required to disclose their donors, while private foundations are required to disclose who they give to.
The Thirteen Foundation gave the American Family Association $922,000 in 2013, according to forms filed with the IRS. Meanwhile, Dan Wilks’ Heavenly Father’s Foundation gave $750,000 to the group specifically for “pastors and pews” conferences. The events are sponsored by the American Renewal Project, which is funded by the AFA and teamed up with Cruz last month to launch a nationwide campaign urging evangelical pastors to help him end taxpayer support for Planned Parenthood.
“This is all about a very specific political plan on the part of Sen. Cruz, and he has made no secret of the fact that he views evangelicals as his pathway to the nomination,” said Brian Walsh, a veteran GOP strategist with 20 years of experience on Capitol Hill. “He believes he’ll win politically no matter what.”
It remains to be seen whether the Wilks brothers will maintain their support for Cruz if a compromise spending bill maintains funding for Planned Parenthood. But Cruz will have at least one more opportunity to go to battle over the issue in the near future: the so-called "clean" continuing resolution (HR 719) without defunding language expires Dec. 11.