With the effort to remove him from office in the rearview mirror, the road ahead for Paxton is ripe with political potential. But even for the ascendant attorney general who has batted away allegations of abuse of power and corruption, looming criminal charges and a federal investigation threaten to upend his latest win.
Paxton became the first Texas official to face an impeachment trial and beat the charges. The verdict was an undeniable victory for a man accused by fellow Republicans of abuse of office, bribery and obstruction of justice.
The senators who decided his fate broke with their House colleagues, voting to protect the state’s top lawyer. Only two Republican senators crossed over to support any of the impeachment articles. Not only did the lawmakers clear Paxton, but they boosted both his power within the party and his bonafides with conservative primary voters.
What will he do with this advantage?
Paxton seems giddy about his prospects. Just after this weekend’s vote, he boasted he will soon “address the nation and Texas” on former Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s new show and told President Joe Biden, his favorite adversary, to “buckle up.”
If his past actions are any guide, Paxton won’t avoid the impeachment saga. Instead, he’ll lean into it, using the verdict to further charm the conservative base. He may even use it as a springboard to higher office.
“His choices are expanded,” said Bill Miller, a longtime friend of Paxton’s and co-founder of a powerful Austin lobbying firm. “He’s got the wind at his back. He’s sailing clear.”
Paxton’s allies promise to use the impeachment verdict against those who launched the case. His “not guilty” verdict will undoubtedly be a cudgel in their hands, said Dick DeGuerin, one of the attorneys who prosecuted the impeachment case against Paxton.
“He who strikes the king must kill him,” DeGeurin told The Dallas Morning News. “I shudder to think what Paxton will do now that he is reinstated.”
Despite his impeachment win, Paxton’s most serious problems still may be ahead. He is facing pending criminal charges in state court, a legal ethics case, whistleblower lawsuit and an ongoing FBI investigation.
Paxton’s new options
No fewer than six attorneys general in Texas have ascended to higher office, including the two who preceded Paxton.
In 2015, Greg Abbott moved from the AG’s headquarters at the Price Daniel Sr., building four blocks south to the Governor’s Mansion. Before Abbott, John Cornyn jumped from attorney general to the U.S. Senate, where he is now the chamber’s second-ranking Republican behind Sen. Mitch McConnell.
After the House impeached Paxton on May 27, polling from the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin showed his job approval rating among Texas Republicans had dropped considerably from 65% favorable to 46%.
Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project, said he expects Paxton to see a bounce after his victory over impeachment.
“It’s certainly a big moment for him and a big moment for his political allies,” Henson said.
Impeachments, after all, seem more regular these days. Former President Donald Trump faced two. President Biden is threatened with one. As with Trump, each attack may endear Paxton more with his base, political observers say.
Conservative political strategist Luke Macias said the Senate seat held by Cornyn, one of the few public critics of Paxton over the years, may be a perfect target for Paxton. The senior senator isn’t up for reelection until 2026, giving the attorney general time to finish out his term.
“Ken Paxton will definitely be in a position come 2026 to consider, depending on how the dominoes fall, what office he might jump into next, and that could definitely be a job promotion.” said Macias, who is a leader of the arch-conservative Defend Texas Liberty political action committee.
Macias’ organization, funded by Texas fossil fuel mogul brothers Farris and Dan Wilks and Timothy Dunn, opposed Paxton’s impeachment. It funneled $3 million in loans and donations to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presided over the impeachment trial, in the weeks leading up to the proceeding.
Macias has said the money had nothing to do with impeachment and was given to Patrick to reward him for furthering a conservative agenda during this year’s session of the Legislature.
Paxton’s national platform continues to grow exponentially as attorney general.
Paxton used the agency, typically tasked with more mundane issues such as consumer protection and enforcing child support laws, as a cudgel against liberal policies and politicians. He sued the Obama and Biden administrations dozens of times, claiming some big wins.
Ripple effects for Texas politics
Paxton’s impeachment will undoubtedly ripple through the 2024 elections.
“This was a political earthquake,” Miller said. Whenever there’s an earthquake there are aftershocks. “This will be no different.”
The epicenter is Paxton’s home turf in Collin County.
All five of the House Republicans who represent the county voted for the attorney general’s impeachment. Allen Republican Rep. Jeff Leach, a House manager who gave closing arguments Friday to oust Paxton, is likely to draw a primary challenger, said Collin County GOP Chairman Abraham George. Challengers for Reps. Candy Noble, R-Lucas, and Matt Shaheen, R-Plano, are likely on the horizon as well.
Paxton’s acquittal created a “civil war” in the Texas GOP, noted Lisa Turner, state director of the Democrat-aligned Lone Star Project. It’s something she hopes the left could use to its advantage.
“When your enemy is destroying each other, just get out of the way for a minute,” Turner said.
George shrugged off the infighting as a mere squabble that will be quashed at a general election in November 2024, when Republicans’ clear opponent will be Democrats and the Biden administration.
In Austin, the fighting could have a more immediate effect.
Patrick took aim at House Republicans and Speaker Dade Phelan when wrapping up the trial. He characterized the impeachment as hasty and irresponsible, called for a full financial audit of the effort and said the Texas Constitution should be amended to prevent such a swift impeachment like Paxton’s.
Phelan followed up by issuing a statement calling Patrick’s words a “tirade” that clearly indicated the fix was in from the get-go.
Time won’t be allowed to heal any wounds as Abbott is likely to call on them to work together in an October special session to tackle one of his top priorities: school choice legislation that will allow Texans to use taxpayer money to pay for private schools.
“There’s an old saying in politics, that trust is the coin of the realm,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political scientist at the University of Houston. “If you lose trust, it’s really hard to be able to maintain the glue that is needed to bridge legislative differences.”
Phelan and rural House Republicans were a clear obstacle to passing school voucher-like legislation in the spring. Patrick has long supported school choice, and the chamber he leads will likely pass Abbott’s plan with little resistance.
Should Phelan continue to cross the governor and Patrick by not passing a school choice plan, it might further isolate the speaker, and conservative political players such as Defend Texas Liberty would be emboldened to attack House Republicans, Macias said.
Phelan always has a nuclear option — working with Democrats.
“I wouldn’t write Phelan’s obituary yet,” noted Mark Jones, a political scientist at Rice University.
“He still has the Straus option left to him,” he added, referring to former Speaker Joe Straus, a Republican who became the chamber’s leader by assembling a coalition of Republicans and Democrats. He, too, butted heads with Patrick.
Paxton’s ability to brush aside opprobrium and obloquy in Texas politics is nearly unrivaled. No matter how many times he was accused of bribery or fraud or pettier misdeeds, nothing weighed him down permanently.
Four of the state employees who raised the corruption allegations against Paxton that led to his impeachment sued Paxton’s agency for retaliation. That lawsuit is still active after lawmakers refused to fund the $3.3 million settlement.
Paxton’s acquittal in his impeachment trial, however, matters little if he is convicted in a criminal court.
If Trump wins the White House once more, he could pardon Paxton from serving federal time. However, he can’t save him from the Texas criminal justice system.
In 2015, Paxton was charged with three felonies, including two counts of securities fraud.
The allegations are that he didn’t tell investors in a McKinney tech firm that he was getting a commission off the referral, and that he failed to register with the state securities board. The potential penalties are serious: hefty prison time and tens of thousands in fines.
The fraud case has been, and may still remain, the realest threat to his personal and political future. A trial has been delayed time and again, but the case is now moving forward for the first time in years with a hearing in Houston scheduled for October.