Paxton impeachment fight exposes deep fissures among Texas Republicans

From left: State Reps. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, Eddie Morales Jr., D-Eagle Pass, and Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, wait as Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington, speaks at Ken Paxton’s impeachment proceeding on May 27, 2023. Canales and Morales voted for impeachment; Toth and Tinderholt voted against it. Credit: Bob Daemmrich for The Texas Tribune

The impeachment of Attorney General Ken Paxton exposed long-simmering and bitter divisions within the Texas Republican Party — infighting that has hindered the ability to unite behind a single vision for the state’s future despite a generation of political dominance.

Just this legislative session, Republicans were unable to find agreement on property taxes, school choice, stricter immigration laws and other conservative priorities that could have given Texas bragging rights as a conservative hothouse, on par with Florida.

To be sure, the Legislature did succeed in enacting significant conservative priorities in its 88th Legislative Session, which ends Monday. It banned puberty blockers and hormone treatments for people under 18, a significant blow for transgender youths and their families. It rolled back labor protections and other pro-worker legislation enacted by Texas cities, many of them led by Democrats. It removed discretion from local prosecutors over crimes like marijuana possession On Saturday, negotiators also agreed on legislation that would ban diversity, equity and inclusion offices at Texas public universities, making Texas the second state to do so, after Florida.

Still, an array of social conservatives’ priorities — posting the Ten Commandments in public school classrooms and banning tenure at public universities, — died in conference committees. And while the Legislature agreed to ban sexually explicit performances from taking place in front of children, it’s unclear what practical significance, if any, the law might have, since most drag performances do not involve children and the law’s definition of what is sexually explicit is likely to face court challenges.

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Nowhere was the GOP chasm more apparent than the fight over Paxton’s future. Hard-line conservatives fought to protect one of their own, criticizing the impeachment process as an effort to overturn the will of voters. Former President Donald Trump also entered the fray, blasting “Republicans in name only” for targeting a patriot and calling out Gov. Greg Abbott for failing to protect Paxton.

It wasn’t enough. About 70% of House Republicans voted Saturday to impeach — 60 of the 85 Republicans in the 150-seat chamber. That included a coalition of center-right and conservative Republicans who defied their party’s far right and heeded the call to protect the state from a public official who had abused his office and power for personal gain.

That division will continue to fester as the Senate takes up Paxton’s impeachment trial, with continued pro-Paxton pressure likely to come from Trump, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and Republican Party Chair Matt Rinaldi.

The gap between the far right’s most ambitious legislative agenda and the reality that emerged on Monday is partly the result of genuine policy differences.

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The Republican Party’s center-right faction favors a traditional pro-business, low-regulation agenda. The more conservative wing is skeptical of “woke” corporations and more concerned with protecting gun rights, restricting immigration (which is largely the purview of the federal government), making sure abortion remains illegal and curbing LGBTQ influences.

Often, members of that wing express skepticism that House Speaker Dade Phelan’s is truly committed. In the run-up to impeachment, their common attack line was to paint Phelan as a liberal or soft Republican who allowed Democrats to lead the charge.

Paxton himself pounced on that skepticism Saturday night.

“Phelan’s coalition of Democrats and liberal Republicans is now in lockstep with the Biden Administration, the abortion industry, anti-gun zealots, and woke corporations to sabotage my work as Attorney General,” he wrote in a statement after the impeachment vote. Trump has called Phelan a RINO.

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But that characterization ignores that the House has moved to the right in some ways during Phelan’s still fairly new tenure. In 2021, his first legislative session, the chamber was involved in passing what was at the time the most restrictive abortion law in the country. And his chamber led the charge on a bill to allow people to carry handguns without a state-issued permit.

Still, in the Legislature, the House and Senate usually stand as proxies in the ideological fray, with the House representing the center-right and the Senate the conservative wing. This session as in the last, the Senate, under Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s leadership, rapidly passed a conservative wish list as early as possible. Some gained traction in the House, such as limits on transgender medical care and the ban on DEI offices. Other ideas find a chilly reception — a school voucher-style program and the abolition of tenure for university professors — and were ultimately doomed.

This session’s tensions reached a denouement Saturday as the House approved 20 articles of impeachment against Paxton, laying the first glove on a political leader who was reelected twice despite long-standing criminal charges of securities fraud and a federal investigation into allegations that he used the powers of his office to help a friend and political donor.

During Paxton’s reelection campaign last year, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn called the attorney general’s laundry list of legal problems “an embarrassment.” Paxton fired back, calling Cornyn a squishy conservative who compromised with “radical Senate Democrats in D.C.”

Sensing vulnerability, three well-known Republicans — then-Land Commissioner George P. Bush, former state Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman and then-U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert — challenged Paxton in the GOP primary, arguing that his legal entanglements were a distraction and made him unfit for office.

But Paxton almost won the primary outright and went on to blow away Bush in the runoff, then decisively defeated Democrat Rochelle Garza in November.

Republican voters rewarded Paxton for launching a series of legal challenges on abortion and Democratic policies on immigration and the environment — dealing a blow to the party’s center-right faction by rebuffing Bush and Guzman.

The House’s impeachment of Paxton is another battle in the continuing war between the party’s factions.

“If Star Wars had ‘The Empire Strikes Back,’ this is ‘The House Strikes Back,’” said Mark Jones, a political scientist at Rice University. “Dade Phelan and the House Republicans have been on the defensive all session. This is a chance for them to strike a blow against the conservative wing of the party that’s been criticizing them and attacking them the entire session.”

Before the impeachment vote, the 85 Republicans in the House were hounded by conservative political groups that were backing Paxton. Defend Texas Liberty PAC spent the days and hours before impeachment sending text blasts asking voters to urge their elected officials to support Paxton. The group received an added boost when Trump cast his lot with Paxton, giving Defend Texas Liberty ammunition to use in follow-up messages.

In the end, 60 Republicans pushed past those efforts to vote for Paxton’s impeachment. But with a Senate impeachment trial not yet scheduled, senators can expect additional pressure from groups on both sides of the impeachment question.

“It’s going to be a lot more difficult for the senators,” Jones said. “Because Phelan kept this under wrap until the end, there wasn’t a lot of time for Paxton’s defenders to react. Now, they’re going to have a few weeks.”

Paxton has already said he expects the Senate to be “fair and just.”

Trump, Cruz and other conservative stalwarts may play a more significant role heading toward a Senate trial, Jones said.

“What Cruz and Trump do is they provide political cover for those Republican senators who want to vote for Paxton but don’t want to be seen as backing a corrupt official who’s committed a number of illegal acts,” Jones said. “They can say, ‘I’m with Trump and Sen. Cruz.’”

Other Republican officials in the state, like Abbott, who has been silent on impeachment, will also be put in the uncomfortable position of weighing in on the matter.

Late Saturday, Trump called out Abbott specifically, declaring that Abbott was “MISSING IN ACTION!”

Throughout his time as governor, Abbott has moved to the right along with the GOP base, but he is frequently criticized by the party’s conservative wing as insufficiently conservative.

“Abbott is not one who’s out there in front being aggressive, and risk-taking has never been Abbott’s style,” Jones said. “This is one of those situations where whatever you do, you’re going to alienate somebody.”

On the political front, House Republicans face election every two years and will have to explain their impeachment votes to a GOP primary base that has stuck by Paxton.

“Phelan as well as some of his leadership team will now have to face primary challengers that they most likely would not have faced had they not gone this route of trying to impeach Paxton,” Jones said.

Many of the Republicans who voted in favor of impeachment portrayed their decisions as nonpolitical, including Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park, one of the most conservative members of the House.

“I understand my vote will elicit both praise and criticism from different quarters,” Cain said. “However, my role as a representative is not to prioritize popularity but to act according to what I believe is right.”

If two-thirds of senators decline to support impeachment, Paxton opponents can find themselves in a more difficult position, Jones said.

”Because they’ll have a sitting attorney general who’s angry with them and a Republican presidential candidate in Trump who will be campaigning in Texas and probably campaigning with those primary challengers,” Jones said.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.