It’s hard to remember now, but the assorted enemies of Ken Paxton felt a flush of pleasure and optimism in the spring of 2014, when it became clear that he could soon be indicted on state felony charges. As a state legislator, he had allegedly taken commissions from legal clients by referring them to a poorly performing investment firm run by his friend, without telling them he was getting a cut—and without registering with the state as an investment adviser. The longtime lawmaker from North Texas was the leading candidate in a hotly contested Republican primary for attorney general, a post that, at least theoretically, requires a certain ethical standard. Could a candidate facing criminal charges really be elected Texas’s top lawman?
He could, of course. Paxton cruised to victory in a three-way primary and then the general election. (Against a Democrat named Sam Houston, no less.) In the years since, as scandals and charges of criminal activity around Paxton have multiplied like mosquitoes in a fetid pond, Paxton has earned the love of few and lost the confidence of a good number of old friends along the way. But a grudging admiration must be conferred on the man, who has demonstrated an almost preternatural ability to get out of scrapes large and small—legal, political, and marital.
Every week for the past seven years, Paxton has manifested on our fuzzy television screens like Bo from The Dukes of Hazzard. Assembled against him is an army of Boss Hoggs: Democrats, his fellow Republicans, prosecutors, federal investigators, irate legislators, and even his own top aides. By the last commercial break, things would be looking bad for a lesser man—but then Paxton’s Dodge Charger takes a flying leap over a ravine, horn blaring “Dixie,” sailing on to freedom, to better and brighter things. He is not the folk hero Texas wants, but he might be the one we deserve.
Could this guy really be elected the state’s top lawman for a third term? His legal situation looks worse than ever. The revelations in 2014 resulted in three felony indictments after Paxton took office, which produced some speculation that he might be pressured to resign, if only to save his party embarrassment. But Paxton has successfully delayed the charges from coming to trial, even though he had admitted to one of them in writing.
Late in 2020, seven senior staffers in Paxton’s office blew the whistle and accused him of being bribed by an Austin real estate developer who has been under investigation by the feds. (Paxton denies the charges.) The affair raised the strong possibility that federal indictments could be coming for Paxton—perhaps during the election campaign. Federal investigators, unlike the state courts adjudicating his first round of felony indictments, will be hard to duck. And yet the clear answer is: yes, he can be reelected. Right now, judging by the polls, that seems likely.
To be sure, he’ll have to work at it. Three Republicans are running against Paxton in his primary, and four Democrats are competing to be the one to fight him in the general. His Republican challengers are more of a threat than the Democrats, though Paxton came within five points of losing his seat in the general election in 2018.
This promises to be a rowdy election year in Texas, but there may not be as much drama as in some other recent election cycles. Governor Greg Abbott has so far denied his right-wing primary challengers much room to operate, and the likely Democratic candidate—a fellow from El Paso named Beto O’Rourke—starts far back in most polls. Elsewhere on the ballot, there’s not many fireworks in Republican primaries, and the general election in recent years has been little more than a ratification of those primary results, at least in statewide races. It’s the contest for attorney general where things have the greatest potential to go off the rails, get weird, and ultimately say the most about Texas in 2022.
The first challenger to launch his bid against Paxton, back in June, might seem the mightiest—at least on paper. George P. Bush, who has served as state land commissioner since the same election that elevated Paxton to his current post, is the scion of a political family whose members have held high state and federal elected offices, back to Prescott Sheldon Bush, U.S. senator from Connecticut from 1952 to 1963. He was the son of Samuel Prescott Bush, a successful industrialist back when “industrialist” was a job you could actually have. From those Prescotts to our George Prescott Bush in the current day runs a seven-decade streak of mostly admirable public service.
In truth, though, the Bush name means less in Texas than it has in many years—perhaps since George H. W. Bush won his Houston congressional seat in 1966. George P. Bush’s father, John Ellis Bush, or Jeb, got no traction here in the 2016 Republican primary, and by the time George P.’s uncle George W. ended his presidency, his name was mud with many Texas conservatives, who hated the bank bailouts and the patrician class of conservatives they felt he represented.
The style one has to adopt to do well in GOP politics here has changed enormously even in the past decade; it may have been sufficient for Dubya to be seen clearing brush on his ranch in Crawford to be considered a populist, but today’s discerning Republican voters desire altogether more specific forms of genuflection.
P.’s tenure as land commissioner has been rocky at best. While he tried to emphasize the popular things his office does, such as administering veterans’ benefit programs, he got bogged down first in a politically poisonous effort to renovate the Alamo complex in San Antonio, and then in Hurricane Harvey relief programs, which moved slowly at first and shafted the city of Houston.
By 2022, P. had pushed the Alamo controversy to a back burner and had put in six years of work kowtowing to the new reigning family in the GOP; he campaigned for Donald Trump in 2016 even after the Orange One repeatedly mocked the virility of P.’s father. In 2018, after Jeb criticized the Trump administration’s family separation policy, Donald Trump Jr. canceled a fundraiser for P. in New York. But by 2019 all seemed to be forgiven. At an event in Crosby, Texas, just northwest of Houston, the president singled out P. for praise. “This is the only Bush that likes me,” he said, calling the land commissioner to the stage amid laughter. “Truly, this is the Bush that got it right. I like him.”
It wasn’t the warmest endorsement, but it was close enough for Bush. When he launched his campaign for attorney general, he offered merchandise—most notably, a red koozie printed to commemorate the Dear Leader’s remarks in Crosby. Accompanying those words was a drawing of the two men shaking hands near the president’s podium. True to life, Bush is unsmiling, and Trump is muscling him with an LBJ–style power handshake. This seemed a bit desperate to observers, and the koozie became a viral joke. But it was an acknowledgment of the reality that Bush would have to out-Trump Paxton to win—and that was going to be hard to do. Paxton, after all, had been a close ally of the president for four years and even helped spearhead a botched legal effort to overturn the 2020 election results.
Around the time Bush kicked off his campaign, he tweeted a photo of himself on the phone with Trump—which seemed to imply he had received Trump’s blessing. In June, he returned Trump’s tepid praise from the rally: the former president, he said, was the “center of the Republican Party.”
And then, in July, Trump issued an unequivocal and full-throated endorsement of Paxton, who he said was “bravely on the front line in the fight for Texas, and America” against various enemies, including “the foolish and unsuspecting RINOs that are destroying our Country.” It was a devastating blow to P.’s chances. He took to suggesting that Paxton was insufficiently pro-Trump, dinging him for losing the lawsuit that sought to overturn the election.
The P. campaign isn’t dead—he has raised more cash than Paxton and will likely continue to do so—but it has taken on a deathly pallor. His social media accounts have trumpeted a string of endorsements. They come not from the right-wing activists and Trump stalwarts who decide the GOP primaries in Texas, but from figures such as the Coastal Bend College chief of police and ambassador Sichan Siv, who served in the H.W. and W. administrations, most recently as the U.S. representative to the United Nations Economic and Social Council, the activities of which are not typically held in esteem by the average Republican primary voter.
If P. hopes now to vie for the more moderate wing of the party, he has competition in Eva Guzman, a former Texas Supreme Court justice from Houston. Guzman’s campaign kickoff video in June and much of her subsequent messaging could be mistaken for a Democrat’s. (In her launch video, she spoke about helping “low-income Texans get access to justice.”) She also brings to the race a wealth of relevant legal experience—while P. practiced law for just three years before moving to work in private equity.
Emphasizing experience and moderation, however, is an almost guaranteed way to place last in a Republican primary. Despite a stellar résumé and a Hispanic surname, Guzman has stayed in the single digits in polls and faces a heavy lift to become known across the state. Money will help, and she’s stayed competitive in fund-raising so far, getting support from a lot of donors P. might have liked to recruit. But money is not the thing that counts in a Republican primary in Texas.
What does count? You know it when you see it. Louie Gohmert, the fourth candidate to announce, has it. Gohmert, who has represented East Texas in Congress since 2005, has the unfair reputation of being “the dumbest guy in Congress,” as Gohmert himself pointed out this year on the House floor.
But intelligence in a member of Congress is overrated, and besides, it comes in many different forms. Gohmert is a performance artist, and he’s damn good at it. From the perspective of legislating, he’s a mostly irrelevant House backbencher. But he has built a national profile, and he’s very rarely out of the news for more than a few days. He provokes and entertains and drives liberals nuts, and that’s how Republicans get elected in Texas. He’s better at it than Paxton, whose selling point has never been an excess of charisma. Gohmert announced he’d jump into the race for AG if he was able to raise a million dollars in short order—and he did it.
In the field, Gohmert alone can hit Paxton for moral and ethical shortcomings while simultaneously being able to claim, convincingly, that he’d be just as right wing as Paxton. But he faces the same predicament Bush does: Why should Republican primary voters switch horses when the incumbent has Trump’s official approval?
There’s an asterisk here, though. If Paxton ends up withdrawing from the race after the primary—which is hard to imagine, given his shamelessness—the State Republican Executive Committee, the firebrand-heavy citizen body in charge of the party, will appoint a replacement on the ballot. And it won’t be picking Bush or Guzman.
Though it may be shocking to those who have followed his immense and well-documented personal shortcomings, the central fact of the race is that Paxton is fairly popular. In a November poll conducted by the University of Texas at Tyler, 54 percent of self-identified Republicans approved or strongly approved of Paxton’s tenure. That might sound a bit soft, but just 14 percent say they disapprove or strongly disapprove. He isn’t even that unpopular among voters as a whole: 37 percent say they approve, but only 31 percent say they disapprove. If Paxton is doing wrong, many Texans don’t know or don’t care.
That fact speaks to either a kind of myopia in the body politic or the inability of the Texas Democratic Party to sell itself—or both. Paxton’s state felony indictments seemed a rough blow, but they involved financial crimes that were difficult to explain, and they haven’t yet been aired in the courts. Still, the case was emblematic of the bigger problem with Paxton, one that has been impossible to ignore for years: he’s an unrepentant grifter. In the Legislature, he was tied to a company that did big business with state and local governments. When challenged, he obfuscated about his role with the company.
As a probate lawyer, helping adjudicate the will of a wealthy client, he allegedly acted unethically to steer money toward himself. He was even caught by a court security camera pocketing a $1,000 Montblanc pen owned by another lawyer. Like many grifters, he’s also susceptible to being grifted: He invested in a crackpot scheme run by a man who claimed to have found Noah’s Ark and became tangled up in an alleged stock scam in McKinney run by a company named Servergy, which collapsed—after Paxton’s legal clients had been wrapped up in it too. The latest case, which caused much of his senior staff to resign, involves a friendship with Nate Paul, an Austin real estate investor and political donor who seems to have been playing Paxton as much as Paxton was playing him. Paxton’s former paramour was given a job at a company owned by Paul (who has denied this was done as a favor to Paxton)—while Paxton’s former aides say he used his official powers to interfere with a federal investigation into Paul’s business.
Sure, Paxton is a proven Trump loyalist. But his ilk is a dime a dozen in the GOP. He has no special powers or talents. Many rising figures in the party are just as far to the right, without all of Paxton’s baggage. They would be smarter, better advocates for the cause. Maybe the feds will rid us of this turbulent priest, but the inability of state courts and state voters to get rid of him—and the inability thus far of Paxton’s opponents to convince the public he’s done us wrong—speaks to something dark at the heart of Texas politics.
The last two Democratic attorneys general in Texas had their own ethical problems, and they were a drag on the party. Dan Morales, who was attorney general from 1991 to 1999, served time in federal prison for attempting to parcel out state settlement money to a friend. His predecessor Jim Mattox was indicted for bribery in 1983, accused of attempting to crush the bond business of a law firm investigating a loan his sister made to his campaign. Mattox was acquitted and served five more years—yielding his office only to run for governor and lose to Ann Richards. So if law enforcement and the courts can’t send Paxton packing, perhaps the best alternative is to try to persuade him to run for higher office.
This article originally appeared in the February 2022 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Survival of the Trumpiest?” Subscribe today.