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Politics

In the Texas AG Republican primary runoff, it's Paxton's legal troubles vs. Bush's family name

An image of Ken Paxton next to an image of George P. Bush
Eric Gay/AP; Ed Castillo/Houston Public Media
Incumbent Ken Paxton faces George P. Bush in the race for the nomination to become the Republican candidate for Texas attorney general in the November general election.

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Monday marked the start of early voting in Texas' primary runoff elections, and one of the most hotly contested races is the Republican attorney general's race between incumbent Ken Paxton and Land Commissioner George P. Bush.

Despite hefty legal baggage, Paxton seems to have the edge among likely Republican voters.

The latest polling released Sunday from The Dallas Morning News and the University of Texas at Tyler found Paxton’s lead is now at 6 percentage points. Although Paxton had led Bush by double digits in the poll until now, it’s not clear Bush’s attacks against the incumbent have greatly hurt his chances, experts say.

Paxton has been under indictment on state securities fraud charges since before his last reelection. The FBI opened an investigation into Paxton for alleged bribery, corruption and abuse of office in 2020, according to The Associated Press.

For his part, Paxton has vehemently denied any wrongdoing, citing a 374-page report that concluded he’s innocent. As critics have pointed out, the report came from inside the AG's office, and was unsigned. The whistleblowers whose charges sparked the investigation released a statement blasting Paxton for "numerous false and misleading public statements" about the investigation.

But for Republican voters inclined to support Paxton, his legal troubles aren't making much of a dent.

"The issue itself is one that has in some ways hard to mobilize because it’s been around for so long," said Joshua Blank, research director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. "This is not something new or something novel that people are learning about, because Democrats and some Republicans have been talking about Ken Paxton’s legal problems for really the entirety of his tenure in office. And while that may seem like it would add up and create a problem for him, the reality is that, for most people, at this point it’s, you know, ‘I’ve already heard this.'"

Those voters see Paxton as a staunch conservative who has challenged Democratic presidents and liberal Texas cities while working to move Texas further to the right, experts say.

When news leaked of the U.S. Supreme Court's draft decision potentially overturning Roe v. Wade, it was George P. Bush who was in Washington, D.C., where he spoke outside the Supreme Court building. He used the opportunity to bolster his anti-abortion credibility, calling Roe v. Wade “incorrectly decided.”

But the leaked ruling may have instead solidified many Republicans' views of Paxton as the more reliable abortion opponent, said Jon Taylor, professor and chair of the political science and geography department at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

Two months ago, just after the first round of the GOP primary, Paxton celebrated a win at the Texas Supreme Court that upheld Senate Bill 8, the Texas law banning abortion after about six weeks. That reinforced Paxton's reputation with likely Republican primary voters, Taylor said.

"I think Ken Paxton is probably doing victory laps,” he said.

By contrast, Bush has several factors weighing against him. Many voters aren't aware of what the land commissioner does. Some of those who do aren't happy with the way Bush has handled the job.

For example, he wound up opposed to much of his party over a plan to relocate a monument known as the Cenotaph on the grounds of the Alamo. Bush said at the time the plan was to move the 60-foot monument to an area that was more historically accurate, and to restore it. That effort ultimately failed.

Then there's the simple fact of the Bush name. Once a touchstone in Texas politics, it appears to have become a liability for the land commissioner.

One of the most significant polls driving home this point came from the Texas Hispanic Policy Foundation. Released on April 5, just over a month after the first round of primary voting, the poll revealed 40% of likely Republican primary voters would never vote for Bush. The most common reason was his family name.

That's largely due to Donald Trump, Taylor said — despite George P. Bush's efforts to maintain good ties with the former president, Trump has a strong animus toward the Bush family.

"Maybe it’s collateral damage for George P. Bush, (but) you know his uncle, George W. Bush, obviously is opposed to Donald Trump at this point," Taylor said.

Trump is a strong supporter of Paxton, who sued to try to overturn the 2020 presidential election. That case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, where a slew of Congressional Republicans — including 14 from Texas — filed an amicus brief in support of Paxton’s case. The AG also spoke at the Trump rally that directly preceded the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection.

In a video posted to Paxton’s Twitter feed Monday morning, Trump called Paxton “the most effective attorney general.”

"President Trump has put his hand on the shoulder of Ken Paxton, and he is the most popular Republican, President Trump," said Mustafa Tameez, CEO of Outreach Strategists. “And so we’re likely to see Ken Paxton favored.”

All of that has made it more difficult for Bush to hammer home Paxton’s legal troubles, his best argument that the embattled AG needs to go. But the wild card in the race is a potential federal indictment of Paxton. Both Bush and Congressman Louie Gohmert, who ran in the first round of the GOP primary and lost, have pointed out that under state law it would be difficult — if not impossible — to replace Paxton on the GOP ticket if he’s indicted after becoming the nominee.

Even another indictment wouldn't force Paxton to resign from the ticket or his office. That would take a conviction, which would be years away if it happens at all.

Still, it could hand the eventual Democratic standard bearer — either Rochelle Garza or Joe Jaworski — a club to wield in the general election this fall.

"That’s something that we in the social sciences call an exogenous shock," said Joshua Blank. "If Paxton were to be indicted after he secures the nomination, that would be the sort of shock on the system that you know would lead us to question whether the fundamentals that we would expect to be driving this race...I think, at that point, all bets are off."

Copyright 2022 Houston Public Media News 88.7. To see more, visit Houston Public Media News 88.7.

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