In Texas, Midland oil magnate Tim Dunn’s evangelical reboot of the GOP has limited the party’s efforts to attract a broader constituency.
In Washington, however, one of Dunn’s top goals could offer Republicans the path they desperately need to attract new supporters — through an overhaul of the criminal justice system that young and minority voters want to see changed.
Dunn’s brand of conservative politics, which includes an aggressive, evangelical social agenda, is more often aimed at GOP primary voters. He’s spent millions courting their support for an effort to boot out the party’s moderates.
Yet Dunn’s personal interest in criminal justice reform — and embrace of strategies to accomplish it more commonly championed by the political left — has effectively flipped the GOP’s view of an issue its strategists now see as a political help.
Dunn explained his motivation. “[Former Nixon administrator official Charles Colson] was caught up in the Watergate scandal... he was like an ex-Marine, Ivy League, lawyer,” he said in a recent interview with the Star-Telegram. “When he went to prison he kind of became broken, he came to Christ during that time period, he became a Christian.”
Colson, known as one of Nixon’s toughest advocates, served seven months in prison after pleading guilty to obstruction of justice in connection with Watergate-era activity. He then founded a ministry called the Prison Fellowship to help incarcerated people and their families.
“I came to understand this and thought man, that’s kind of messed up, we need to change our civil justice system,” said Dunn. “As conservatives we believe in good government.. We ought to be the guys that stand up and say, ‘Let’s be great at this.’”
President Donald Trump stressed being tough on crime as he campaigned for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination, and polling conducted this month by the conservative firm Public Opinion Strategies showed Republicans among the least likely to support criminal justice reforms.
Yet as Trump now prepares to campaign for re-election, he announced support this month for replicating some of Dunn’s ideas to better rehabilitate prisoners and change the punishment for nonviolent crimes at the federal level.
The proposal would beef up programs designed to help prisoners re-enter society and gives judges greater flexibility in assigning leaner sentences for some low-level drug crimes. It builds on a bill crafted by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, based on Texas’ ideas.
“The voters that Republicans are going to need to reach in future elections, including at the presidential level, are widely supportive of this,” said Robert Blizzard, a partner at Public Opinion Strategies who has worked on GOP presidential campaigns. His firm surveys the issue for the nonpartisan reform group Justice Action Network.
“For a party that needs to appeal long-term to younger voters, African Americans, Latinos, Hispanics, and obviously women, given what just happened in the election,” said Blizzard, “[Criminal justice reforms] could be very beneficial for Republicans.”
Texas Republicans say most of Dunn’s political activity in their state has done anything but broaden GOP appeal.
A network of influential conservative groups funded by Dunn drive a social agenda in Austin that has flooded Texas’s bi-annual legislative session with controversial proposals.
Though they were successful in electing champions for that effort between 2010 and 2016, this month the groups stumbled in tougher-than-expected general elections.
Empower Texans spent about $4 million helping its allies this year, including defeated state Sen. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville. Only about a third of its candidates were successful in November, however, as Democrats picked up 12 seats in the Texas legislature and two in the state Senate.
“I wouldn’t call them a Republican group... I think they’re a conservative group of patriotic Texans who have very strong convictions about public policy,” said George Seay, a Dallas Republican who served as a finance chair for former Texas Governor Rick Perry’s 2012 presidential campaign. “Empower Texan candidates and [the] elected officials they support do not represent a majority of statewide officials, a majority of the Texas legislature, or a majority of Republicans in the legislature.”
Seay pointed to the most recent legislative session, in which Empower Texans’ allies backed a host of social priorities, including school vouchers and a failed bill to mandate which public bathrooms transgendered people are allowed to use.
“Some of the issues that were emphasized were very controversial... I think that probably tightened a lot of elections,” he added.
Yet on criminal justice reform, Dunn has managed to boost a potentially winning issue for his party into national, mainstream conservative ideology.
When Dunn heard about Colson more than 13 years ago, support for prison reforms were more commonly embraced by the left, and the ex-White House staffer’s religious approach extended only to private institutions.
Dunn, who serves on the board of the conservative Austin-based think tank Texas Public Policy Foundation, set out to draft policy solutions that could turn Colson’s ideas into legislative reforms.
“I said, ‘I’ll back the start-up of it financially if we’ll go and do this,’ so we hired Marc [Levin] and we started the Center for Effective Justice,” said Dunn, recalling his 2005 conversation with then TPPF President Brooke Rollins. Rollins now works for the White House on its own federal criminal justice reform efforts, modeled after the reforms in Texas.
Dunn, who started his career as an engineer at Exxon, began building computer models of the Texas prison system to show where reforms could save the state money.
“One of Tim’s big insights was a here-and-there model of thinking,” Levin told the Star-Telegram. “[The modeling] basically showed how someone progresses through the criminal justice system, all of the different decision points in the system, and where the discretion is, which is obviously many places.”
“We were very fortunate in that the legislature at that time was starting to get tired of building prisons,” said Dunn, who proposed changes like prison diversion programs and drug courts to keep nonviolent offenders from behind bars.
“Obviously violent people need to be incapacitated. Everyone else, what else can we do?” he asked.
Texas shuttered eight prisons under reforms the state passed in 2007. Its crime rate has also plummeted from the pre-reform levels, drawing interest from other states eager to replicate the results.
Levin said demand for help from other states led TPPF it expand its crime prevention center to a national group called Right on Crime, which began offering up its policy solutions. It also recruited big-name conservatives like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich to sign a statement of principle on the ideology, furthering reinventing the politics behind the effort.
Still, conservatives remain the biggest obstacle to the reforms’ future of Capitol Hill. The House passed a version of Cornyn’s plan earlier this year.
GOP leaders have not brought it up for a vote in the Senate, where conservative critics including Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, have complained about its changes to sentencing law. Liberal Democrats want sentencing changes to go much further than the proposal, causing some to even vote against the bill in House.
Dunn, who also gives big to federal candidates, disagrees with the holdouts in his party.
“If a person possesses drugs, they’re illegal, ‘Who’s the victim?’ is an important question to ask... why are we putting that person in prison?” said Dunn. “From my perspective, we’re just getting started, we can do a whole lot better.”