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Once the Texas GOP’s 'weak link,' Attorney General Ken Paxton is growing more popular, powerful

 Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton endorses David Covey at an event in Beaumont on Monday, Jan 15, 2024.
Mark Felix
for the Texas Tribune
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton endorses David Covey at an event in Beaumont on Monday, Jan 15, 2024.

Ten months ago, things looked bleak for Attorney General Ken Paxton.

The beleaguered Republican had just been impeached and suspended from office by more than 70% of his own party in the Texas House. He faced an array of career-threatening legal battles: a federal investigation into corruption allegations lodged by his former top deputies, a whistleblower lawsuit from those deputies who said they were illegally fired for reporting Paxton to law enforcement, a separate lawsuit from the state bar seeking to penalize Paxton for attorney misconduct, and of course, an indictment on three felony counts of securities fraud that have loomed over nearly his entire tenure as attorney general.

The outlook is now considerably brighter for Paxton, whose political stock continued its ascent this week when prosecutors agreed to drop the nine-year-old fraud charges if he fulfills the terms of a pretrial agreement. It was another major vindication for Paxton after the Senate acquitted him of the House’s impeachment charges last fall, bringing him one step closer to a political career devoid of legal drama and burnishing his reputation among the party’s most conservative flank as a fighter who has defied political “persecution.”

“The pundits, lobbyists and consultants have written his political obituary many times and yet they greatly underestimated General Paxton’s tenacity and grit,” said Nick Maddux, a Paxton adviser and political consultant, in an email.

Once seen as a political liability within his own party, Paxton now has the wind at his back. With two major political and legal wins behind him, he’s poised to challenge U.S. Sen. John Cornyn in 2026, a prospect he has openly entertained. The end of Paxton’s most persistent legal woe also provides another burst of momentum for the Texas GOP’s hardline wing as it looks to build on a March primary where a record number of House Republicans were unseated by Paxton-aligned firebrand challengers.

“Politically, General Paxton has many options in the future, but his focus right now is continuing to fight the Biden Administration and electing more conservative fighters to the Texas House who are committed to fundamentally transforming the way the State House does business,” Maddux said.

Paxton’s political fortunes had already seen a decided rebound before his fraud case fizzled. Statewide polling from the Texas Politics Project found last month that 61% of Republican voters approved of the job Paxton is doing as attorney general, while just 16% disapproved. That marked a swing of 22 points from last August, when Paxton was in the throes of his impeachment fight.

Joe Jaworski, the former Galveston mayor who lost the Democratic primary runoff to take on Paxton in 2022, said the outcome is “absolutely a victory” for Paxton, who he said is undoubtedly “the most powerful Republican politician statewide” based on the influence he wields among the “extremist” voters who turn out in GOP primaries.

“Paxton is at his most powerful, no question about it. Voters like a winner and in his primary world, he's a winner,” said Jaworski, who is considering another run for attorney general in 2026. “But the language he's using, the language his supporters are using, his priorities, are extreme. They represent the world of politics, getting in power and retaining power, not improving people's lives.”

That assessment of Paxton’s political clout is newfound territory for a man who was once considered his party’s most vulnerable statewide elected official and whose political enemies have made “Indicted Attorney General” his unofficial title since he was hit with the felony charges less than seven months into his first term.

Paxton’s reputation among Democrats as the GOP’s “weak link” — as primary challenger George P. Bush once said — stems from his closer-than-expected 2018 win over Democratic opponent Justin Nelson, who came within 4 percentage points of unseating Paxton. Already reviled by the left for having plunged the attorney general’s office into high-profile culture war fights, Paxton made himself an even bigger target when he filed a longshot lawsuit seeking to overturn the results of the 2020 election in four key battleground states won by Democrat Joe Biden.

But while elections experts criticized the effort as “dangerous garbage” that could set a democracy-threatening precedent, Paxton also cemented his alliance with the party’s standard-bearer, then-President Donald Trump. And it was Trump’s support that, in part, helped carry Paxton through a crowded primary field in 2022 that was eager but unable to seize on his perceived weaknesses. He won reelection in November by nearly 10 percentage points, almost tripling his margin from four years earlier.

Stronger post-impeachment

The historic impeachment case against Paxton, which prominently aired his affair with a former Senate staffer, turned out to be a political boon for the attorney general.

The party’s rightmost flank rallied behind him, casting the effort as a witch hunt to distract from House leaders’ insufficiently conservative record, rather than the pattern of misconduct and questionable ethics alleged by the impeachment articles. A powerful and deep pocketed political action committee largely funded by a pair of West Texas oil tycoons — Tim Dunn and Farris Wilks — promised political vengeance to House Republicans who crossed Paxton.

Paxton’s impeachment became a conservative litmus test in the primary election, which saw a number of powerful and long-tenured members fall to defeat or get forced into runoffs.

At the same time, impeachment appears to have strengthened Paxton’s relationship with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presided over the Senate impeachment trial and has since emerged as one of the most vocal critics of House Republicans who initiated the proceedings.

The two have not always been so politically attuned. Patrick once tried to get Trump to rethink his endorsement of Paxton in the 2022 primary, the Tribune reported. Patrick denied the report.

The lieutenant governor took to social media Tuesday to slam the securities fraud case as “political harassment,” comparing it to last year’s “impeachment debacle” where, he argued, Paxton’s “political enemies in the House fabricated a case that collapsed during trial in the Senate.”

It was the latest example of how Patrick and Paxton have found themselves aligned against a common foe, House Speaker Dade Phelan, as two of the leading figures in a hardline GOP push to drive the Texas House further right. Their overlapping efforts, with Paxton targeting Republicans who impeached him and Patrick looking to align the House with his more conservative Senate, contributed to the record primary turnover earlier this month, along with Gov. Greg Abbott’s bid to unseat members who opposed school vouchers.

Mitch Little, one of Paxton’s attorneys in the impeachment and securities fraud cases, was among the insurgent GOP challengers who knocked off a House incumbent earlier this month. He called Paxton’s fraud case “the 21st Century’s magnum opus of lawfare” and warned that the political reckoning was just beginning.

“Now, I want you to imagine what you would do once set free from this nightmare,” Little wrote on social media Tuesday. “That’s what’s coming. We are in the preamble of reform in the great State of Texas, and there will be a proper accounting.”

Maddux, who is working on a number of House runoffs and was involved in several others in the first round, pointed to Little’s primary — in which he unseated state Rep. Kronda Thimesch of Lewisville — as an example of how Paxton’s impeachment and other legal battles are resonating at a key moment in Texas politics.

“The Speaker's overreach and abuse of power lit a wildfire in the grassroots and donor community to change the way business is done in Austin,” Maddux said.

Phelan and other targeted Republicans have decried efforts to tag them as insufficiently conservative, pointing to the long list of conservative priorities passed into law in recent years. Phelan has also stood behind his move to push for Paxton’s impeachment, telling reporters earlier this month that he “regret[s] nothing.”

“I go to bed every night very proud of the courage of my convictions,” Phelan said. “I think Mr. Paxton at the end of the day is just going to have convictions.”

Paxton’s critics argue that he’s far from vindicated even after his recent victories. The whistleblower and state bar lawsuits have yet to be resolved, and he remains under federal investigation for the same allegations that formed the basis of his impeachment.

“He knows how to hire good lawyers, I'll give him that,” Jaworski said. “He has lawyered up every opportunity he's had, and has had no shortage of money to make sure his results are satisfactory to him. At some point, his luck may run out.”

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2024/03/28/texas-attorney-general-ken-paxton/.
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Jasper Scherer | The Texas Tribune