Tuesday, 21 May 2024

A Conservative Push to Save Ken Paxton

With television ads and text messages, direct mail and billboards, supporters of the embattled Texas attorney general, Ken Paxton, have embarked on an escalating campaign of political pressure, backed by hard-right billionaires, aimed at trying to sway the outcome of Mr. Paxton’s upcoming impeachment trial.

The targets of their efforts are narrow: the 19 Republican members of the State Senate who will act as jurors in the trial, set to begin on Tuesday, and decide whether allegations of corruption and abuse of power are serious enough to warrant permanently removing and barring Mr. Paxton from office.

But the effort to save Mr. Paxton, who is seen by many hard-core conservatives as their legal standard-bearer, is also the latest proxy in the broader fight over the future direction of the party, both in Texas and nationally.

It has drawn in a range of conservative figures on both sides, with Rick Perry, the former Texas governor, and Karl Rove, the political consultant to former President George W. Bush, arguing in support of the impeachment process, and Steve Bannon, the former Trump political adviser, lampooning it as a Democrat-inspired witch hunt.

“We want the entire MAGA movement to understand that what’s going on in Texas is not just about Texas,” Mr. Bannon told his podcast audience this month.

The wrangling over Mr. Paxton’s fate has reflected the same deep Republican divisions that emerged in Georgia over the indictment of Donald J. Trump, raising again the question of whether Republicans are willing to hold fellow conservatives to account — and whether, if they do so, they can survive a primary.

Mr. Paxton has so far managed to survive politically under both a criminal indictment and the looming impeachment, in part because he has become a key player on the right flank of the conservative legal movement. He has mounted aggressive challenges to the Biden administration, particularly over its immigration policies, and led coalitions of Republican states against Obama-era programs such as the Affordable Care Act and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, which protects many migrants from deportation if they came to the United States as children.

He secured Mr. Trump’s endorsement in a hard-fought primary last year, after demonstrating his willingness to contest the results of the 2020 election in court. An outspoken partisan fighter, he addressed the crowd at a rally for Mr. Trump on Jan. 6, 2021, that preceded an insurrection at the Capitol.

Yet those conservative credentials may not be enough to help Mr. Paxton survive what promises to be the most significant test he has faced. Though Republicans have a clear majority in the Texas Legislature, the most stridently partisan members do not always hold sway.

In May, a majority of Republicans in the House joined with Democrats to impeach Mr. Paxton, disturbed by his conduct in office — including longstanding allegations of corruption and a criminal indictment for securities fraud — and his effort to obtain $3.3 million in state funding to settle a lawsuit brought against him by some of his senior aides, who became whistle-blowers.

“It’s unconscionable to defend and protect someone who advocates our policies if they’ve abused their office,” said David Simpson, a former Republican member of the Texas House. “I would hope that instead of defending these people, we would say we support their policies but we don’t support their behavior, and ask them to step down.”

Mr. Paxton, who has called his impeachment by the House “shameful” and denied any wrongdoing, has strongly aligned himself with Mr. Trump, seeking to capture some of the Republican outrage over the multiple indictments of the former president. “Everybody should fear the weaponization of state power they have harnessed to destroy him,” Mr. Paxton wrote on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, alongside a smiling photo of himself with Mr. Trump.

A well-funded political action committee, Defend Texas Liberty, has begun targeting some Republican members of the Texas House who voted to impeach Mr. Paxton.

“People know this is a political witch hunt. They’re doing it to Trump, they’re trying to do it to Paxton,” Jonathan Stickland, president of Defend Texas Liberty, said this month on conservative talk radio.

Mr. Stickland, a former member of the Texas House, promised that the group would spend “an epic ton of money” in advance of the impeachment. “And if they stand against that, then every one of these bums will be kicked out,” he said.

Already, the group has begun going after Republican legislators whom they perceive as insufficiently conservative.

“Glenn Rogers joined 61 Democrats to impeach Ken Paxton,” one billboard read, referring to a representative from west of Fort Worth who has been the target of hard-right Republicans in recent primaries.

“Over 70 percent of Republicans voted the same way I did,” Mr. Rogers responded in a recent interview on CBS. “They conveniently left that fact off.” He added that the evidence against Mr. Paxton was compelling. “No one that I talked to felt that he was innocent,” he said.

By a vote of 121 to 23 in late May, the House sent 20 articles of impeachment to the Senate for trial. As a result of the vote, Mr. Paxton has been suspended from office pending the trial. The articles of impeachment include allegations that Mr. Paxton used his office to benefit an Austin donor and real estate developer, Nate Paul, and that Mr. Paul helped conceal Mr. Paxton’s extramarital affair and paid for renovations on one of the attorney general’s houses.

Mr. Paxton’s lawyers have denied that there was any wrongdoing and moved to dismiss the articles of impeachment without any trial.

But other prominent Republicans, including Mr. Perry, a three-term governor beloved by many in the state, have said the evidence is serious and should be considered. “I know that processes can be abused,” Mr. Perry wrote, citing charges he had himself faced as governor that alleged he had abused his power, which were ultimately dismissed. “But that isn’t what I see here,” he said of Mr. Paxton’s case.

This month, the House impeachment managers, who are acting as the prosecution in the trial, released thousands of pages of evidence. They included transcripts of interviews of the senior aides who were disturbed at what they saw as Mr. Paxton’s use of the office to thwart an investigation into Mr. Paul, and documents suggesting Mr. Paul helped Mr. Paxton visit a woman with whom he was having an affair using a pseudonymous Uber account under the name “Dave P.”

Mr. Paul was indicted in June on charges of financial fraud for making false statements on loan applications, and entered a plea of not guilty. His lawyer did not respond to a request for comment, nor did Mr. Paxton’s.

In recent days, supporters of the suspended attorney general have turned their attention to the upcoming trial and have directly targeted Republican state senators — including Bryan Hughes, the conservative author of Texas’ restrictive abortion ban in 2021 — urging them to vote to acquit Mr. Paxton, or even dismiss the articles of impeachment altogether.

“These all hold themselves to be, you know, conservative people,” Lauren Davis, who is running to be the chair of the Dallas County Republican Party, said as she singled out six senators during an interview on “War Room,” Mr. Bannon’s show. “So we just need to make sure they stay conservative.”

One of the ads in support of Mr. Paxton ran on Fox News before the 2024 Republican presidential debate last week. “Stop the impeachment,” the ad said, urging viewers to contact certain Republican state senators.

But Republicans in the Senate may be even less susceptible to political pressure than their House counterparts: The majority are not up for re-election again until 2026.

Mr. Paxton’s lawyers have filed motions to dismiss each of the articles of impeachment on various legal grounds. The Senate could choose to do so next week. If the case proceeds, Mr. Paxton could be removed from office with a two-thirds vote to convict on any of the articles, an outcome that would require at least nine Republicans to join with all 12 Democrats.

The recent lobbying effort suggested a concern that things may not be trending in Mr. Paxton’s favor. But political consultants, lobbyists and former legislators cautioned that the outcome of the impeachment trial — only the third in more than a century in Texas — was still very much up in the air.

Mr. Paxton has continued to enjoy support, particularly among a coterie of Republican donors. He has raised about $3 million for his own campaign since the impeachment vote, half of which came from just four donors, including the West Texas billionaires Tim Dunn and Farris Wilks.

Defend Texas Liberty, the pro-Paxton political action committee, has spent another $3.5 million since the impeachment vote, almost all of it donated by Mr. Dunn and Mr. Wilks. Most of the money went to the campaign of the lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick, who leads the State Senate and will be presiding over the impeachment trial: a $1 million contribution and a $2 million loan.

Mr. Patrick has declined to discuss the contributions, which became public shortly after he issued a sweeping gag order on discussion of the trial by House members, senators, witnesses, lawyers and other participants.

The largesse of conservative donors has helped fund an ongoing battle between Republican power centers in Texas in which the impeachment is only the latest front. Mr. Dunn and Mr. Wilks have funded outsider conservative candidates and Republican primary challengers around the state, including one who unsuccessfully took on Gov. Greg Abbott last year. Mr. Abbott has not commented on Mr. Paxton’s impeachment.

Their committee, and an earlier iteration, known as Empower Texans, has clashed with another powerful Republican group, Texans for Lawsuit Reform, which strongly supported a more moderate Republican challenger to Mr. Paxton last year. Mr. Paxton won handily and went on to easily win a third term in the November election.

Mr. Stickland, of Defend Texas Liberty, said the impeachment had been “bankrolled by Texans for Lawsuit Reform.” The group, a longstanding contributor to Texas candidates, gave a total of more than $500,000 in donations to more than 70 campaigns since the legislative session in the spring, including to several legislators who voted against impeachment, campaign records show.

The head of Texans for Lawsuit Reform declined a request for comment, citing the gag order, because he said he had been placed on the witness list for Mr. Paxton’s defense.

J. David Goodman is the Houston bureau chief, covering Texas. He has written about government, criminal justice and the role of money in politics for The Times since 2012. More about J. David Goodman

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