Even if he avoids conviction, Paxton has been hurt, with an ideological mix of Republicans aligned against him and his public approval rating declining. If the Texas trial proves anything, it is that there may be at least some limits to the partisan tribalism of the Trump era.
Even in the reddest states, the forces driving Trump within the Republican Party do not extend equally to the former president’s allies and supporters.
“There are some apt comparisons here with Donald Trump because Ken Paxton remains very popular with the Republican Party base in Texas,” said Brendan Steinhauser, an Austin-based Republican strategist who has run campaigns for Sen. John Cornyn and Reps. Michael McCaul. and Dan Crenshaw (he has also advised Paxton’s wife, state Sen. Angela Paxton, who has recused herself from voting in the trial).
However, Steinhauser said, “The Texas Senate is actually very ideologically aligned with Paxton, so if they convict him, it’s not because they are establishment people.”
Of all the hardline Republicans who have embraced Trump in an effort to advance their own careers, few have been as embattled – or as closely associated with Trump – as Paxton. Texas Republicans supported him for years, including in his defeat of George P. Bush, a scion of the Bush dynasty, in Paxton’s re-election bid last year.
But while Trump’s impeachments and, later, criminal charges only served to rally the Republican base around him, Paxton is paying a price for his controversies with the Republican electorate, a sign that Trump’s partisan halo It only extends to a certain point.
Between the time the Republican-led House of Representatives voted 121-23 to impeach him in late May, something Trump had pressured them not to do – and shortly before the start of his trial, Paxton saw his approval rating drop by 12 points, to 27 percent, according to a University of Texas/Texas Politics Project Survey. An all-time high 23 percent of Republicans now disapprove.
Cornyn, former attorney general of Texas, has qualified the accusations against Paxton “deeply disturbing.” Texas Republican Rep. Chip Roy, Paxton’s former lieutenant, previously called for his former boss to resign. Paxton’s primary opponent and former Rep. Louie Gohmert wrote that going after Paxton is not an example of “corrupt processing.” Konni Burton, a former Texas state senator who had the most conservative voting record, said she believes Paxton “abused the office.”
“I think there are a lot of grassroots people who see this and compare it to what’s going on with Trump,” said a Texas Republican consultant who was granted anonymity to speak freely about intraparty dynamics. “Paxton has done a very good job of trying to play the Trump card and say these are Democrats, this is a witch hunt, whatever. But again, when we look at who voted to impeach him, they are Republicans. When you look at the people who brought the charges against him, they are conservatives who worked in his office. These are not democrats. These are not RINOs.”
Even Rick Perry, the former three-term governor of Texas and Trump’s former Energy Secretary, who was impeached while in office (although the charges were dismissed) warned against outside groups working to delegitimize the impeachment process.
“As a sitting governor who was once wrongly accused, I know that processes can be abused. But that’s not what I see here,” Perry wrote in The Wall Street Journal. “We should praise them, not vilify them, for taking their responsibilities seriously.”
Paxton, facing a historic 16-article impeachment trial after years of corruption and bribery allegations, has dismissed the process as a “kangaroo court” in the Texas Legislature, while Paxton’s attorney derided the case as “a a lot of nothing.” And the verdict is far from clear. Paxton needs 10 Republican senators to overturn the charges, and six Republicans have consistently supported all motions favorable to his case.
Trump remains firmly at his side. “Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton was easily re-elected last November, but now the establishment RINOS are trying to undo that election with a shameful impeachment of him,” Trump wrote in Truth Social on Thursday, calling Paxton “one of the TOUGHEST AND BEST attorneys general in the country.”
He added that Democrats “feel very good right now watching, as usual, Republicans fight and eat each other.”
Matt Mackowiak, an Austin-based Republican strategist and chairman of the Travis County Republican Party, said he suspected that “Trump has been persuaded that this has been some kind of attack by the Republican establishment on a conservative.”
But despite some parallels between their legal problems, he said, “It’s obviously a Texas problem.”
For Republicans in the Texas Senate, crossing paths with Trump remains dangerous. Siding with Paxton could potentially result in his primary.
This summer, a conservative group, Defend Texas Liberty PAC, sent mailers and text messages and put up billboards across the state targeting Republicans who voted to impeach Paxton. Another group, Texans Strong Borders, sent text messages in support of Paxton by presenting Donald Trump Jr.’s praise to the attorney general and asking for donations. “STOP THIS FAKE PERFORMANCE!” the text message said.
Republican activist and donor Steve Hotze created the site “StandwithPaxton.com” to raise money to petition against the trial.
“You’ll see a lot of candidates step up and run primary challenges, and then you’ll see these agents back them up with money and expertise, and a built-in system to support them,” Steinhauser said. . “Now, whether or not that leads to two or three starters being eliminated or 20 or 30, I don’t know. But I think it’s a real effort.”
But to a much greater degree than under Trump, Paxton’s party is no longer in unison.
“There are already dozens of conservative Republicans rivaling liberals in the Texas House of Representatives who partnered with Democrats to pass this impeachment,” said Luke Macias, a conservative podcaster and director of Defend Texas Liberty PAC. To illustrate how much the Paxton trial has emboldened some on the right, Macías also wrote a song and produced a music video about Texas House, written from the perspective of the type of “RINO” member his group is targeting.
“Where I come from, we overturned some elections and impeached your Ken,” Macías sings to the tune of a country music song by Montgomery Gentry.