State Attorney General Ken Paxton is running for a third term. This time he’s facing two serious challengers for the Republican nomination — both of whom have won statewide office before.
The challenges come at a time when Paxton is more embattled than ever, due not only to an ongoing indictment, but also the threat of federal corruption charges hanging over him. There’s a real possibility that Paxton, one of the great survivors of Texas politics, could go down in defeat in 2022 — either in the Republican primary or the general election.
When Paxton spoke to a pro-Trump crowd in Washington, D.C. on January 6, just ahead of the Capitol riot, he could just as easily have been speaking to Republicans back home.
“I want you to know that Texas fights,” Paxton told the crowd. “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.”
Paxton has a record of defending the Republican agenda in court, including an unsuccessful lawsuit challenging the 2020 election results on behalf of former President Trump. That’s endeared him to the party’s base.
“Ken Paxton is a very strong conservative incumbent,” said Jessica Colón, a Republican strategist based in Houston. “If people want to take their chances against him in a primary, they’re going to really have to make their case as to why they’re going to be a stronger…defender of Texas against the Biden administration.”
Paxton previously ran for reelection in 2018 and won, while under indictment for securities fraud. But now, he’s also facing an FBI investigation for bribery and abuse of office.
Eight of his most senior aides resigned or were fired after telling law enforcement that they believed Paxton broke the law to help political donor Nate Paul. His first challenger, Land Commissioner George P. Bush, has highlighted the issue in an ad.
“This race isn’t just about draining the swamp in Washington, DC,” Bush said in the ad. “This race is about draining the swamp in Austin, too. If the Attorney General’s Office isn’t crime free, we’ll never make our own neighborhoods crime free.”
Paxton’s other Republican rival, former Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman, has kept the allegations out of her ads — so far. But Tony Essalih, principal and director of Houston-based Cornerstone Government Affairs, said those allegations are definitely part of why she’s running.
“I don’t think either George P. Bush or Eva Guzman would have would have jumped into the race if they hadn’t done their own internal polling and seen some vulnerability for General Paxton in the primary,” Essalih said.
Competition from both Bush and Guzman will make for a bruising Republican contest, he added.
“If Guzman and Bush…pull votes away from each other instead of General Paxton, and he makes it through the primary, I think it’s almost even odds at that point that the Democrat could win,” Essalih said.
That’s exactly what Joe Jaworski, the lone Democrat in the race so far, is hoping for. Jaworski is the former mayor of Galveston and the grandson of Watergate prosecutor Leon Jaworski. He held an event in Houston last month.
“We’re not going to spend a whole lot of time tonight badmouthing Ken Paxton,” Jaworski told the crowd. “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.”
To win the general election, Jaworski will need crossover support from Republicans and independents with a low opinion of Paxton. People like husband and wife Michael and Julia Rudin, who attended the Jaworski event.
“I think he’s corrupt,” Republican Michael Rudin said of Paxton. “I am tired of him embarrassing the state of Texas in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. I’m tired of the voter suppression efforts. There’s so much that is so wrong with this man, and I honestly cannot believe that he’s still our attorney general.”
Most Republican observers are skeptical that Jaworski could beat Paxton in a general election, but a three-cornered primary fight with Bush and Guzman is another matter. And there’s a real possibility that more Republican contestants could jump in the race if they decide Paxton is truly vulnerable.
“I don’t think that Republicans would have a stomach for turning over the legal department of the State of Texas to a Democrat. So, I don’t think it’s a November issue. But it should be a barnburner race in whenever the primary is held,” said Craig Murphy, president of the Austin-based political consulting firm Murphy Nasica & Associates.
Austin-based Republican consultant Matt Mackowiak said the odds of a runoff during the Republican primary are “reasonably high now.”
“This will be a question of who gets in that runoff among those top two candidates, and if maybe additional candidates who have fundraising and potential and statewide name ID might jump in as well,” he said.
Paxton may be facing the toughest fight of his political career, but it’s never a wise move to count him out, according to Victoria De Francesco Soto, assistant dean for civic engagement at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.
“He has folks who were with him from the very beginning, have consistently stood by his side, defended him, re-elected him in 2018, so even though there are legal troubles, this isn’t something new,” she said. “Don’t expect that suddenly his base is going to disappear because of the legal troubles or because they’re new folks in that they’re all going to automatically run to the other two candidates.”
Paxton’s conservative supporters helped to rescue him twice previously. The first time was when, as a state representative, he made an unsuccessful 2011 bid to challenge Joe Straus as speaker of the Texas House of Representatives. The second came during his 2018 AG reelection campaign, which he ran while under indictment.
“He has been who he is since the beginning, before it was cool to be that fire brand of ultraconservative,” De Francesco Soto said. “He has a strong base that he can always rely on.”