With Paxton acquittal, Texas conservatives flex their muscles
Before this month, the last time a member of Texas’s plural state executive branch faced an impeachment trial was in 1917, when Gov. James “Pa” Ferguson (D) was convicted and banned from state office for life.
On Saturday, Texas’s most recent impeachment trial ended with the opposite result, a resounding acquittal of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R). Even the articles of impeachment (16 total) with the most votes (14) fell well short of the 21 needed to convict.
Paxton’s acquittal was primarily the result of the outsized role played in Texas by the most passionate and active Republicans, who, while representing only around 5 percent of Texas’s 18 million registered voters, are kingmakers within the Republican primary, where turnout ranges from approximately 1 million (in a statewide runoff) to 3 million (in a very competitive presidential primary).
The evidence presented against Paxton in the impeachment trial, a political trial rather than a criminal or civil trial, demonstrated that Paxton abused his powers as attorney general in multiple ways to benefit disgraced investor Nate Paul. According to the Texas Whistleblower Act, he then retaliated against his senior staffers (most with impeccable conservative credentials) when they approached the FBI with their concerns after their efforts to convince Paxton to cease aiding Paul had consistently failed.
In spite of the strength of this evidence, Texas Senate Republicans acquited the attorney general, appeasing the GOP grassroots activists and elites who had been strenuously advocating for an acquittal, and ignoring both the evidence and the more subdued and quieter calls by other Republicans (not to mention pretty much every Democrat) for conviction.
Key to the acquittal was Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R), who for the past six years has increasingly determined what happens, and does not happen, in the Texas Senate. Unlike in many states, in Texas the constitution endows the Texas lieutenant governor with considerable power as the leader of the Senate, a power Patrick has enhanced by helping to purge the Senate of its more moderate Republican senators over the past eight years. In their place, Patrick has helped to elect senators who share his policy priorities and who respect his leadership. It is difficult to imagine that the acquittal would have occurred had Patrick favored conviction.
The decision by the Republican-controlled Senate reflected the reality that in Texas, political power continues to be determined in the GOP primaries in March (first round) and May (runoff), rather than in the November general election.
The last time a Democrat won a statewide race in Texas was 1994. And in the most recent statewide elections, in 2022, the closest a Democrat came to defeating a Republican was 10 percentage points, when Paxton bested Democrat Rochelle Garza 53.42 percent to 43.66 percent.
Since redistricting in 2021, all 19 Republican state senators (out of 31) have been in safe Republican seats, where they are virtual locks to win in November, and the only threat to their reelection is in the GOP primary.
Given this reality, acquittal can be seen as the smart strategic move for Senate Republicans, even though the consequence was to return the legally and ethically troubled Paxton to his post as the Lone Star State’s chief law enforcement officer.
And while Paxton still faces a state securities fraud trial as well as a continued FBI investigation, Saturday’s acquittal suggests he will avoid any adverse legal outcomes in the short to medium term.
First, any initial loss in his state securities fraud case at the district level in Democratic Harris County (Houston), where the judge is a partisan Democrat and the jury will be made up predominantly of Democrats, would eventually be appealed to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. The court’s nine Republican members all face re-election by the same Republican primary electorate that the Republican-controlled Texas Senate opted to appease.
Second, Paxton’s acquittal will allow him to more effectively portray any future Biden administration Department of Justice (DOJ) case against him for his involvement with Nate Paul as politically motivated and part of the same “witch hunt” that failed this month.
And if Donald Trump is elected president in 2024, one would expect any case against Paxton to be less of a priority for a Trump DOJ.
Mark P. Jones is the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy’s fellow in political science and the Joseph D. Jamail chair in Latin American Studies at Rice University as well as a co-author of “Texas Politics Today.” Follow him on X @MarkPJonesTX.