Texas impeachment trial of AG Ken Paxton divides state Republicans

Days after voting to impeach fellow Republican and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, state Rep. Terry Wilson headed to a Williamson County GOP meeting in his politically divided suburban Austin district. Wilson expected the worst.

Former president Donald Trump had condemned the impeachment vote. So had the state GOP chair, who faulted Wilson and the other 59 Republicans who joined Democrats voting for impeachment as colluding with the enemy in their war on the party. Paxton called it a “politically motivated sham” and demanded the resignation of its organizer, House Speaker Dade Phelan (R).

Wilson’s office had fielded more than 300 angry calls plus emails and social media posts that decried his vote. The leader of a local retirement community’s Republican club called to disinvite him from an event. During a Memorial Day veterans’ service, a Paxton supporter got up in his face, shouting.

The verbal assaults on Wilson were one marker of divisions rippling through the state Republican Party ahead of an impeachment trial Sept. 5 that political strategists say is likely to further divide its members and spur primary challenges next year. Democrats, meantime, are sensing opportunities as they expect the battle to drive a party that’s already among the most conservative in the country even further to the right ahead of the 2024 election, turning a slew of state legislative and congressional races competitive.

The Texas Republican infighting mimics the party’s national dispute, which has pitted traditional conservatives against Trump allies — and has largely gone Trump’s way so far. Paxton is perhaps the most powerful Trump surrogate in Texas. He’s an evangelical champion of anti-immigrant, antiabortion, anti-transgender and so-called “election integrity” legislation revered by his party for his legal battles against the Biden administration. Paxton spoke at Trump’s “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, ahead of the insurrection.

Julie McCarty, CEO of the hard right True Texas Project, which has recommended Wilson in the past, has encouraged primary candidates to run against Republicans who voted to impeach Paxton. No one has yet come forward to run against Wilson, but he expects a challenge.

“We have never seen the grass roots this mad!” McCarty wrote in a post after the vote, citing social media backlash against the lawmakers. ” … They are being eviscerated by you … as they should be!”

A True Texas Project follower on Twitter aimed at Wilson: “He needs to be defeated in the primary.”

Paxton, elected in 2014 after serving a dozen years in the legislature, had faced criminal investigations, legal battles and accusations of wrongdoing for years. In 2015, less than a year after Paxton was sworn in as attorney general, he was indicted on felony securities fraud charges for allegedly persuading investors to buy stock without disclosing that he would profit. Paxton denied wrongdoing and argued the case is politically motivated. It’s still pending, delayed by several appeals. In 2016, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission also sued Paxton over the alleged securities fraud, but a federal judge dismissed the lawsuit a year later.

The impeachment vote was triggered by Paxton’s request earlier this year that the state pay a $3.3 million settlement he had reached in a whistleblower lawsuit with former staff who alleged that, among other things, Paxton did favors for a wealthy donor who employed his alleged mistress. Phelan and other fiscal conservatives balked. Neither Paxton nor the woman has commented publicly; she did not respond to requests for response.

“Mr. Paxton hasn’t spoken to her or seen her for some time. There is no current relationship,” one of Paxton’s attorneys, Dan Cogdell, said.

The 20 articles of impeachment leveled against Paxton by a House investigating committee in May included allegations of bribery, unfitness for office and abuse of public trust. It marked only the third time in Texas’s nearly 200-year history that a state official had been impeached.

Paxton has castigated Republicans who voted to impeach him as being in “lockstep” with the Biden administration, abortion providers and gun control advocates. While taken up by his supporters, the accusation underscores how much of the dispute is about power, not policy — many of those same Republicans helped pass an abortion law that effectively outlawed most instances of the procedure before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year, as well as bills banning critical race theory and allowing Texans to carry guns without permits.

Wilson, who many constituents still call “Colonel” because of his past Army service in Afghanistan and Iraq, was unaccustomed to coping with Republican rancor in Texas. He’d served for six years, reelected in 2022 with about 59 percent of the vote, aided by tea party activists in Williamson County. He ranked among the top 10 most conservative of the 85 Republicans in the Texas House, according to Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University.

He had visited the local GOP executive committee monthly to work on legislation. But he arrived at their evening meeting on May 30 to find the past goodwill had evaporated. Of 115 Republican county precinct chairs, 74 showed up, many of them angry, and distributed a sheet full of misinformation in favor of Paxton.

“All they know is we impeached a great man and therefore it’s this conspiracy,” Wilson said afterward.

At the county GOP meeting, according to people present, Wilson spoke for about an hour and a half, at times grilled by Paxton supporters. They demanded to know why the impeachment vote was so rushed — after months of secret committee investigations, it moved swiftly to a vote without public hearings before the House — whether state investigators who built the case against Paxton were Democratic operatives and why Wilson and fellow Republicans didn’t call witnesses or demand evidence.

Wilson read to them from the state constitution and explained that lawmakers acted within their rights. He told them he was also assured of that by three conservative Republican district attorneys he spoke to before the vote. And he told them the investigators were not Democratic operatives.

“I was answering all the questions and making sure they understood that what they were told was inaccurate,” Wilson said later.

Wilson told the Republicans that while he respected Paxton, the vote was about well-documented misconduct. Paxton will stand trial in the Senate, Wilson reminded them, where he will be able to testify and present witnesses and evidence. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R), a longtime Paxton and Trump ally, will preside over the trial but not cast a vote, according to recently announced rules.

About 15 people got up to ask questions, shouting at times, unsatisfied with Wilson’s explanations. They’d felt beleaguered in recent years, as their growing suburb turned more Democratic, and Biden narrowly won in 2020.

“Not everybody was a supporter of Paxton. We were questioning the process,” said Cathy Jaster, 67, a software engineer and six-year precinct chair who said she supports Paxton.

“He stood up to the illegal overthrow of our government by Biden,” Jaster claimed, repeating a false talking point. “We wanted Attorney General Paxton to have a fair shake.”

Before the meeting ended, pro-Paxton precinct chairs forced a vote on condemning the impeachment investigation. It passed, 44 to 17. With that, Williamson joined what are now 10 county Republican groups and the state GOP in openly challenging the impeachment.

Jim Henson, who directs the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin, said the Republican conflict stems from colliding forces.

“This is just a moment where a lot of divisions that have different sources have come to a head,” Henson said. “It’s personal, it’s institutional, it’s ideological and it’s historical.”

Texas law required Paxton, who won reelection last fall by a wide margin after beating primary challengers including former land commissioner and political scion George P. Bush, to be temporarily suspended during the trial. Removing Paxton permanently will require a two-thirds majority of the Senate, which is made up of 19 Republicans and a dozen Democrats. His wife, Republican Sen. Angela Paxton, has been barred by Senate rules from voting due to conflict of interest, but will be seated for the trial.

“You have this battle that has started that is an establishment flex to see how much power they have,” said Luke Macias, a conservative activist and Trump supporter based in San Antonio who’s upset with the House vote. “They knew they were voting against what the activists wanted.”

Republican Rep. Andrew Murr, who led the committee that investigated Paxton, pushed back against GOP groups who condemned the process as unfair.

“For many of us who represent solidly conservative areas, the safest political choice might have been turning our gaze away from Paxton’s corruption,” Murr wrote in the Dallas Morning News, insisting those who voted to impeach Paxton “put principle above politics.”

Jason Villalba, Dallas-based chairman of the Texas Hispanic Policy Foundation and a former Republican state lawmaker, is among a minority who believe the impeachment fight could lead Texas Republicans to reject Trump’s election falsehoods and back away from battles to limit access to abortion and LGBTQ rights that contributed to their midterm election losses nationwide in 2022.

“I’m hopeful we’re returning to a traditional, classic conservatism,” said Villalba, including “doing what is right in the face of abject corruption. We’ve been fighting culture war issues for so long, it seems that’s all we stand for these days.”

More likely, political analysts said, the intraparty feud will energize Paxton and Trump supporters — as well as Democrats.

“Republican primaries: That is where the power is decided” in Texas, said Brendan Steinhauser, an Austin-based Republican strategist who led campaigns for Sen. John Cornyn and U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw. “A lot of what drives people politically is outrage and fear, anger and concern — that’s what gets people to show up.”

Ford O’Connell, a Houston native who is a Florida-based Republican strategist who served as a Trump campaign surrogate in 2020, said Trump’s voicing support for Paxton will only increase Trump’s popularity among Republicans in Texas ahead of the 2024 election. The base will cheer both men whether Paxton is acquitted or convicted by the state senate, he predicted, as it has rallied to Trump after impeachments and indictments.

“Having the Texas delegation on your side is going to be huge,” he said, calling Republican infighting an “eyesore.” “Democrats are going to try to exploit that every which way,” he said.

Joel Montfort, a Democratic consultant based in North Texas, sees Paxton’s impeachment trial as a chance for Texas Democrats like Rep. Colin Allred, who’s challenging Sen. Ted Cruz (R) next year, to “present themselves as a moderate alternative.”

“The Republican Party is in a lot of disarray. You’ve got the extreme wing of it working feverishly to try to take it over and they’ve had a lot of success to the frustration of us Democrats,” Montfort said. ” … There is definitely an opportunity for Texas Democrats to benefit from what the GOP is doing to itself. They are eating themselves alive.”

Jon Mark Hogg, co-founder of 134 PAC, which works to turn out Democrats in rural Texas, said that while the dispute reveals cracks in GOP unity, he was not optimistic that would be enough to remove Paxton.

Hogg cast the GOP divisions as between archconservatives and “a more radical element.” But, he added, “I’m realistic enough and have been around Texas politics long enough to know that doesn’t mean the Senate will convict.”

Many conservative activists were frustrated to see Republican state lawmakers marshal forces against Paxton instead of fighting for causes the attorney general built his reputation defending, according to Tim Hardin, the Fort Worth-based chief executive of the advocacy group Texans for Fiscal Responsibility.

“Why would you do that when you hold the majority? Why can’t you do it for border security, for school safety, for all of the things named as priorities?” he said.

Paxton supporters are eager to see the trial play out in the Senate, where they have more influence than in the House.

Patrick will have subpoena power, but has not made clear how he will deal with conflicts of interest on the part of some Paxton allies. Under the rules, he and senators may be called as witnesses and still vote on impeachment.

Sen. Bryan Hughes, a member of the party’s ultraconservative wing and architect of the state abortion ban, is named in the House’s articles of impeachment as having been recruited by Paxton as an unwitting “straw requester” for an attorney general’s office legal opinion that helped the wealthy Paxton donor. Sen. Donna Campbell (R), sponsor of a new law to ban gender-affirming care for youths, posted a statement on Twitter saying she intends to participate in the trial even though she employed Paxton’s alleged mistress as a district director and scheduler, records show.

Paxton’s lead attorney has taken issue with the trial rules and said this week that Paxton will not testify, despite being allowed to do so.

“Paxton will not dignify the illegal House action by testifying,” attorney Tony Buzbee said. “They had the opportunity to have Attorney General Paxton testify during their sham investigation but refused to do so.”

Wilson knows many of his constituents are still upset that he voted against Paxton.

“Personally and professionally, I have the utmost respect for him. He’s one of those who is aggressively out there challenging the Biden administration,” Wilson said. “He has their trust and respect. This is a side of him they don’t know.”

As Wilson left his meeting with Republican constituents, they still seemed frustrated, he said, but not bitter. Some even shook his hand on the way out, saying they were amazed he had the courage to show up.

His staff has since reported fewer complaint calls and emails about his vote. Last month, when Wilson visited the retiree GOP club whose leader had disinvited him as guest speaker at their August meeting, they were receptive, but they didn’t reinstate the invitation. In mid-June, he visited Williamson County GOP leaders to discuss his impeachment vote at their monthly meeting and said he was well received.

But he wasn’t sure if he could count on their vote if he’s challenged in next year’s primary.

“Maybe after the trial I’ll get invited back,” he said. “I hope I do and I get to stand there and say regardless of the verdict, the process works.”

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