lone star politics

Paxton defenders promise electoral revenge after attorney general acquittal

A battle is coming. How big is not yet clear.

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Texas entered a new era in GOP politics after the Republican-led Texas Senate rejected accusations against Attorney General Ken Paxton sent over by the Republican-led Texas House.

It is hard to beat incumbent politicians who can use the bully pulpit, name recognition, and at-hand campaign donations to fight off challengers. However, supporters of newly reinstated Attorney General Ken Paxton tell NBC 5 they will try to recruit and fund challengers to fellow Republicans who voted to impeach Paxton.

The Texas Senate acquitted Paxton on bribery and abuse of power allegations sent over from the Texas House. Many of the 16 impeachment articles taken up by the Texas Senate focused on accusations of bribery: Paxton accepting home renovations and a job for his former mistress in exchange for helping Austin developer Nate Paul get state and federal law enforcement off his back. Paxton denied he crossed legal lines, and the Senate decided the House did not make their case.

"There are already more challengers against Texas House members than I've seen since I've been sixteen years old in 2006," said Luke Macias, director of the Pro-Paxton group Defend Texas Liberty, "I think we're going to see so many people popping up to challenge House Republicans who led us to this point."

Much of the pro-Paxton ire is targeted at Speaker of the Texas House, Dade Phelan, R - Beaumont, and Chair of the General Investigating Committee who led the impeachment effort, Rep. Andrew Murr, R - Junction.

"Dade Phelan basically made a decision to walk his members off of that plank," said Macias, ""House members are going to have to work very hard to keep their seats."

Chair of the Texas GOP, tells NBC 5 they'll have a meeting later this week to decide whether the state Republican party should side against their own incumbent members over the Paxton impeachment vote.

"“We’re going to have our meeting later this week. I presume there will be some resolutions concerning Chairman Murr and Speaker Phelan. Certainly I know the grassroots members of our party are very upset over this," said Rinaldi.

Chair of the impeachment management team, Rep. Andrew Murr, R - Kerrville, when asked directly if he should've done anything differently in the investigation - he said no.

"We always knew that a two-thirds vote of the Senate as required by the Texas constitution would be a challenging threshold to meet. Especially in light of the millions of dollars the Paxton apologize have spent to influence and intimidate Texas Senators," said Rep. Murr.

Groups supporting Paxton, including Defend Texas Liberty and San Jacinto 2023, paid for campaign mailers, television ads, and text messages to try to sway senators in this "political trial."

Speaker Dade Phelan, R- Beaumont, signaled to members he would use his time and resources to defend members who took tough votes politically.

"It was a difficult vote to take, but not a difficult decision. And unlike others, they chose principles over politics. I stand with them in full support of their decision and recognize the sacrifices they made in the name of doing what is right," said Speaker Phelan in a statement Saturday night.

“Trying is one thing; whether they will be successful is another,” Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project told the Dallas Morning News.

“These groups don’t have a great record running successful primary challenges to Republican incumbents,” Henson said. “On the other hand, Republican incumbents and office holders are very sensitive to primary challenges, whether they’re real or not.”

Groups who usually defend Republican incumbents have the advantage in campaign donations immediately after the trial.

Texans for Lawsuit Reform backed former Texas Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman over Paxton in the 2022 GOP primary and has $33.3 campaign donations ready to spend. Speaker Phelan campaign account has $436,914 and his campaign political action committee has $4.7 million. The Associated Republicans of Texas has $1.2 million.

That's far more than the groups supporting Paxton throughout this trial. Macias's Defend Texas Liberty PAC has nearly $434,000 cash on hand. Stand With Paxton PAC, started by controversial Houston-area doctor Steven Hotze, has $500. The campaign account for AG Ken Paxton has $2.7 million and his wife, Sen. Angela Paxton, has $1.7 million in the bank.

“They love to complain about the conservative donors who are willing to criticize the Texas House, but they never admit that they always have more money in the establishment forces and they will spend far more than any conservative ever does to try to keep all of those liberal Republicans in power,” Macias told NBC 5 and the Dallas Morning News.

All five of the Republican delegation members from Paxton's home Collin County voted to impeach him in the Texas House. Abraham George, chair of the Collin County GOP, told NBC 5 the local party may side against these incumbents in the 2024 primary election.

"I'm thinking this is going to be really bad for them in the next primary election. A lot of them will face challengers, and the party hasn't really taken a position in the past, but this is the one time they probably will," said George.

Plano State Rep. Jeff Leach was a leader on the impeachment team and gave an emotional speech during the closing arguments against his former friend.

"My dear friend, a political mentor, brother in Christ, and a once trusted advisor, this has not just been a hard vote, this has been one of the most difficult things I've ever had to do in my life,” Rep. Leach said holding back tears.

Tuesday morning, days after the Senate acquittal, Leach wrote online, "Duty is ours. Results are God’s."

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