Fort Worth oilman Ken Davis is not a well-known name in Texas political circles, which is to say that until this election year, he was not known at all.
But, suddenly at 89, Davis, chairman of Great Western Drilling Co., is a major political player, a mega-donor, the third-largest contributor from Texas to federal campaigns, with $2.3 million in contributions to Republican candidates, primarily to a so-called outside political group he founded, Vote 2 Reduce the Debt.
“I never was involved in politics until I started wondering why we were having so much trouble,” Davis said in an interview with McClatchy. “I saw what our federal debt was and that got me interested.”
Davis started his group in May and is funneling funds to eight targeted U.S. Senate races to elect Republicans for a GOP majority. The party needs to gain six seats to get control, and Davis’ group is concentrating on North Carolina, Michigan, Montana, Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Iowa and Colorado. To get Davis’ support, candidates must sign a pledge that they will not increase federal spending.
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Of course, Davis is well-known in Texas in another regard; he is the older brother of Cullen Davis, also an heir to the family’s Fort Worth oil fortune whose two trials in the slaying of his estranged wife’s daughter and in a murder-for-hire scheme of a judge roiled Texas in the 1970s. Cullen Davis was acquitted and Ken Davis thinks that it is “ancient history” that the public and McClatchy needs to leave behind.
“He didn’t do anything wrong,” said Ken Davis. There is a cottage industry in books and movies around the scandal that brought international attention to Fort Worth.
Cullen Davis now runs the Ken Davis Foundation, named for their father. “Cullen is a very generous person,” said his brother. “He’s out contributing to this city.”
And Ken Davis is now among the most generous of political activists.
Most of Davis’ giving, as well as that of other big-dollar Texas donors, is to outside spending groups, which include the Super PACs — political action committees that operate separately from a candidate or party without spending caps.
Texas is the fourth-largest state for political contributions, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group, with 70 percent of donations going to Republicans.
Davis’ contribution of $2.275 million to Vote 2 Reduce the Debt puts him in the company of some of Texas’ biggest names, including Bob McNair, owner of the Houston Texans football team. McNair’s contribution of $3.55 million to Republicans makes him the Lone Star State’s top donor on the top 100 list of outside spenders compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
The late Houston home builder Bob Perry, who died in April 2013, was still one of the election cycle’s top donors with $3.1 million in contributions to outside groups, all Republicans.
Democrats play, too
Despite the Lone Star State’s standing as a red state, Democratic contributors give big, too.
Fort Worth billionaire and financier David Bonderman gave $720,000, all except $30,000, to Democratic candidates and groups while his wife, psychologist Laurie Michaels, gave $990,000, all of it to Democrats, including $490,000 to the party’s Senate Majority PAC. Bonderman gave $30,000 to Defending Wall St., a middle-of-the-road Republican group.
Robert and Anne Bass, billionaire investors of Fort Worth, also gave exclusively to Democrats, $830,000 to the Senate Majority PAC created to defend the Democratic majority in the Senate.
Carolyn Oliver, a physician and lawyer from Austin, gave $1 million to Battleground Texas, the Democratic effort to turn Texas blue. Oliver became well known earlier this year with a $1 million contribution to Wendy Davis, the Fort Worth state senator who is the Democratic nominee for governor. In mid-October she gave Davis another $100,000.
In the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area, only one Dallasite made the list.
Dallas oilman Lee Fikes, president of Bonanza Oil Co., gave $630,000 to Democratic candidates and causes.
Steve Mostyn and his wife, Amber Anderson, of Houston’s Mostyn Law Firm gave $750,000 to Democrats.
To Davis, there is a big purpose in his big giving.
“What I’d like to do is get people who are interested in fixing the situation and elect people to the Congress that understand the significance of the debt,” he said.
“I’m not gaining anything out of what I’m doing,” Davis said. “This is for the country.”
Asked his net worth, the easygoing oilman laughed and said, “I don’t know what my net worth is. I don’t care what my net worth is.”