Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is facing his toughest primary challenge yet, battling three high-profile fellow Republicans for his party's nomination — and if he triumphs, he'll likely carry significant wounds into November's general election.
Paxton was indicted on securities fraud charges in 2015, and his case still hasn't gone to trial. More recently, he's come under federal investigation over allegations of bribery and abuse of office. Both his Republican opponents and his Democratic would-be challengers are making use of those charges and potential charges in their campaigns, and the rhetoric appears to be registering with primary voters.
For the moment, Paxton's biggest concern is simply getting his own party's nomination. A recent UT/Texas Tribune poll showed Paxton at just 47% against his three GOP rivals: Land Commissioner George P. Bush, Eva Guzman, and right-wing Congressman Louie Gohmert. Another recent poll by the University of Houston's Hobby School of Public Affairs showed Paxton at just 39% with all Republican primary voters. That increased to 44% with "almost certain" primary voters.
James Henson, who heads the Texas Politics Project, said Paxton won’t reach the necessary 50%-plus-one needed to win flat out on election night if those numbers stay the course.
"Increasingly, the conventional wisdom is becoming that the attorney general will not avoid a Republican runoff,” Henson said. “It’s just a matter of who wins that second slot.”
However, Henson added that either Bush or Guzman would have a hard time unifying the anti-Paxton vote.
“I think it’s unlikely that the voters that would be attracted to a Louie Gohmert candidacy would transfer their votes to two candidates that are comparatively moderate,” Henson said.
The attorney general has been casting a wide net of late as he seeks to demonstrate he's on the job protecting the legal interests of Texans.
At the height of truckers' anti-vaccination protests in Ottawa, Ken Paxton inserted himself into the conflict. He announced on Twitter he'd be investigating GoFundMe for removing a fundraiser benefiting the truckers, on the grounds that, "(p)atriotic Texans donated to Canadian truckers' worthy cause." The AG added that he had assembled a team to investigate what he called GoFundMe's "potential fraud and deception."
In response, Canada's public safety minister, Marco Mendicino, blasted Paxton on CTV News.
"It is certainly not the concern of the Texas Attorney General as to how we in Canada go about our daily lives in accordance with the rule of law," Mendicino said. "Whatever statements may have been made by some foreign official are neither here nor there. We’re Canadian. We have our own set of laws, and we will follow them."
Paxton typically reserves his fire for targets closer to home – notably the Biden administration. Last week, Paxton launched a suit challenging the federal requirement that all airline passengers wear masks to limit the spread of COVID-19. He's also filed suits against the Biden administration on immigration policy and wage rates for federal contractors.
It’s a tactic that’s become typical for Texas attorneys general when a Democrat is in the Oval Office.
“We go back to when Greg Abbott was Texas Attorney General,” said Jon Taylor, chair of the department of political science and geography at the University of Texas at San Antonio. “He talked about how his day started, where he would get up in the morning, he’d sue the Obama administration, and he'd go home. Paxton's kind of taking the same attitude, only insert Biden instead.”
The attorney general's race is one of the state's most high-profile elections this year, along with the governor’s race. In his role, Paxton is essentially tasked with representing the state in civil litigation — a big job, and one that Paxton's opponents argue his ongoing legal troubles make him unfit for.
“We need an attorney general that's above reproach, not under criminal indictment for securities fraud and under FBI investigation for bribery and corruption," Bush said as he announced his candidacy last year.
Former State Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman, another Republican candidate, made a similar point in an interview on Dallas's ABC affiliate.
"Ken Paxton, for whatever good he’s done, his personal indictments, pending indictments, FBI investigations are a distraction to the important work of the people of Texas," Guzman said. "We can thank him for what he's done and send him on his way, and we should."
Such attacks are catnip for the Democrats running for attorney general.
“We're not going to spend a whole lot of time tonight badmouthing Ken Paxton,” candidate and Galveston Mayor Joe Jaworski said at a Houston event last year. “Because guess what? The Republicans are doing that already. And that’s OK. So, y’all have your primary and choose your weapons, because what we’re going to do in the Democratic primary is be the adults in the room.”
Attorney Rochelle Garza struck at Paxton, without naming him, in one of her first online ads after declaring her candidacy. In a broadside at the state's Republican leadership, Garza said they “sided with special interests over Texas families,” and referenced Paxton’s “allegations of bribery and corruption so brazen, it sparked an FBI investigation."
Civil rights attorney Lee Merritt was less restrained, speaking in an interview with Dallas-Fort Worth's CBS affiliate.
“We're dealing with a specifically corrupt attorney general, who's not only been criminally indicted, but is always involved in some sort of controversy that pits him against the people of Texas," Merritt said.
Paxton's other potential Democratic rivals include a former Republican judge, Mike Fields, and attorney S. "Tbone" Raynor.
For his part, Paxton has vehemently denied any wrongdoing, citing a 374-page report that concluded he's innocent. But as critics have pointed out, the report came from inside the AG’s office, and was unsigned. The whistleblowers released a statement this week blasting Paxton for “numerous false and misleading public statements” about the investigation.
— Attorney General Ken Paxton (@KenPaxtonTX) February 21, 2022
Speaking with Dallas-Fort Worth’s CBS affiliate, Gohmert framed the nightmare scenario for Republicans: Paxton wins the GOP primary, then is indicted by the Justice Department.
That could set up an unusual dynamic in Texas, said UT-San Antonio's Jon Taylor.
“You've now got Texas potentially advocating for everything from reproductive rights to protection of immigration rights to expansion of Medicare for All, those sort of things," Taylor said.
Taylor added there's a real prospect of a split in the top ranks of Texas leadership for the first time in decades, with a reelected Gov. Greg Abbott having to contend with a Democratic attorney general.
"It's quite possible," Taylor said. "This is the great thing about Texas politics. It’s never boring, and it’s most assuredly a contact sport for a reason."