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From immigration to abortion, national issues are shaping the Texas attorney general’s race

Republican incumbent Ken Paxton is locked in a tight race for a third term against Democratic challenger Rochelle Garza.

Garza Paxton
Rochelle Garza campaign, texasattorneygeneral.gov
Rochelle Garza and Ken Paxton

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Republican Ken Paxton is fighting for a third term as Texas Attorney General this fall, facing Democrat Rochelle Garza. Paxton's long-running legal issues remain a major feature of the campaign. But it's an array of national issues, from border security to abortion rights, that could decide the outcome.

The town of Bayview sits about 20 miles from the Texas-Mexico border. Jeneria Lewis is an alderman here, which means she can speak only for herself, not the town. She cited Ken Paxton's long track record of suing Democratic presidential administrations on behalf of the state as one of the main reasons she plans to vote for him.

"He has filed over 30 lawsuits, I think, against Joe Biden or the federal government for federal overreach," Lewis said. "He seems to be the one person working to protect us, (on) election integrity, censorship of Big Tech."

But ask her what her top concern is, and Lewis doesn't hesitate. "Immigration is (for) everybody here, at least in Texas that I know of, is their number one issue," Lewis said. "We need help. We need the federal government to do their jobs."

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It's small wonder Paxton has Lewis's support, with his message on immigration. In a recent attack ad against his Democratic opponent, Paxton's campaign accused Rochelle Garza of supporting open borders and opposing any kind of immigration enforcement.

There's no evidence Garza takes the extreme position Paxton's ad claims. But if he's able to win a third term as attorney general, immigration may be why. He's filed at least 11 immigration-related lawsuits against the federal government since President Biden took office. An even bigger factor may be the actions of Governor Greg Abbott. Abbott's anti-immigration policies, including the busing of migrants out of state, have helped widen his lead over Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O'Rourke in recent weeks.

"I think what’s consuming all of the airtime is Greg Abbott and Beto O'Rourke," said Sharon Navarro, a political scientist at the University of Texas at San Antonio. "It’s at the top of the ticket. It’s the media attention grabber. Voters in midterm elections usually don’t pay too much attention to down ballot races. And you know, the attorney general’s race is not as sexy as the gubernatorial race. And so, it’s going to be very, very difficult to get voters to pay that much attention to that particular office."

Navarro said, even now, few voters are aware of who Paxton's challenger is.

"Rochelle Garza has an uphill battle," Navarro said. "She’s within 2 to 3, 5 percentage, 7 percentage points depending on who you look at terms of polls, but she has about a 10 percentage point of unknown."

Garza is a former ACLU staff attorney best known for defending the right of a teenaged immigration detainee to an abortion. She argues Paxton's legal troubles are reason enough to want him out of office, noting he's been under indictment for state securities fraud and under FBI investigation for abuse of power. She also says his record of federal lawsuits is not in the state's interest.

"He tried to overturn the 2020 election and may lose his law license as a result of it," Garza said. "And I think that Texans are tired of that. They don’t want to see leadership like that."

A related issue is Paxton's role in the January 6 Insurrection. Shortly before the march on the Capitol began, Paxton spoke at a rally outside the White House, with his wife, State Senator Angela Paxton (R-McKinney), by his side.

“I want you to know that Texas fights,” the attorney general said. “We fought 12 straight lawsuits related to mail-in ballots, related to signature verification, federal court, state court, Travis County, Austin, Houston. We fought. We won every single one of those cases, and because of that, Donald Trump won Texas by over 600,000 votes.”

The US House Select Committee on the January 6 Attack has been out of the headlines recently, but it's expected to hold at least one more hearing before wrapping up its work and presenting its findings.

"I think a lot of it’s going to depend to on what is the January 6 Committee going to become coming out with at that time," said Juan Carlos Huerta, a political science professor at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. "Are there going to be more allegations? Will Paxton be part of the report that comes out? Or is it going to be something that most voters just shrug and say, ‘Well, you know, yeah, that happened but there’s other issues.'"

Among those other issues that Huerta thinks has the greatest potential to affect the race is abortion. "I think you can make a case that with a lot of voters didn’t use it as a deciding vote anymore, because there was a understanding that, well abortion rights are protected under Roe versus Wade. Now with that gone, it has become a much more salient issue," Huerta said.

Huerta sees one particularly important demographic in the race that the abortion issue could help influence.

"I think the real key in this election is going to be how white women vote." Huerta said. "I expect Black voters to vote Democratic, Latino voters to vote Democratic. The major racial ethnic group in Texas voting Republican are white voters, and I’m very curious to see are white women — like the Dobbs decision, is that going to have an impact on their vote in 2022?"

At least one Houston voter said it would.

"I'm looking for a candidate like Rochelle Garza who understands reproductive rights, women's rights, as she herself has given birth recently while on the campaign trail," said nonprofit worker Ashley Werner.

Nor does Garza shy away from the immigration issue. Asked about Paxton's accusations that she's weak on border security, Garza hits back.

"I’m a fifth-generation Tejana from the Rio Grande Valley," Garza said. "I grew up on the border. I also practiced immigration law. So, I understand the complexities of immigration law, and I know what it’s like to live in a border community. And the reality is, is that we are wasting taxpayer money on these political stunts, to the tune of, what, $1,700 per migrant that is being bussed north. Those resources need to remain in Texas."

Garza is going to need to win big in the metropolitan areas of the state to overtake Ken Paxton. But even the Houston area is not a given with voters like Rebecca Clark, who is supporting Paxton, "because I like what he's doing for Texans and for me personally. We want an AG that enforces the law, and that's what he's been doing, and we expect him to do that."

Clark is precisely the sort of voter Garza wants to win over when it comes to the issues of immigration and border security. The daughter of an immigrant, Clark volunteers for a nonprofit that helps refugees from the Middle East and North Africa to find jobs.

"What I'm trying to say here, and I want it to be clear that, I love that we are a melting pot, and it should stay that way," Clark said, but, "most people want everybody else that comes here to go through the proper channels just like they did, and that's just for our safety and for the people's that are coming's safety."

Clark doesn't believe Garza would provide anything like that security as attorney general. "To me, she doesn't represent the majority of what Texans want," Clark said.

Despite multiple attempts to interview Ken Paxton, no one from his campaign ever responded.

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Andrew Schneider

Andrew Schneider

Politics and Government Reporter

Andrew heads Houston Public Media's coverage of national, state, and local elections. He also reports on major policy issues before the Texas Legislature and county and city governments across Greater Houston. Before taking up his current post, Andrew spent five years as Houston Public Media's business reporter, covering the oil...

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