Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s (R) weekend acquittal has exposed the deep divisions in the Lone Star State’s GOP, which may be difficult to mend long after news about the impeachment trial has faded.
The fight largely pits grassroots Republicans and supporters of former President Trump, with whom Paxton has aligned himself, against a more traditional, business-friendly GOP that was more sympathetic to impeaching the attorney general.
In Texas’s embattled Legislature, the House is more of an establishment body, while the Senate is more Trump-friendly.
This was borne out in the impeachment votes in the chambers, where a majority of Republicans in the House voted to impeach Paxton but only two Republican senators cast votes to convict him on any charges.
“What we saw over the last 10 days in Texas is the latest example of a decadelong battle between establishment, mainstream forces in the GOP and the business community, and the grassroots,” said GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak, whose firm is based in Austin and Washington, D.C. “And Paxton has been a central figure for some time.”
Paxton’s not guilty verdict is likely to embolden his side of the political battle, and there are already calls for retribution on those who voted against him in the House.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who had been presiding over the trial, broke his relative silence and bashed the House for moving forward with the impeachment. He also called for an audit of taxpayer funds spent by the House during the process, arguing that millions of dollars had been “wasted” and that “our founders expected better.”
“With all due respect to the House, we didn’t need to be told in the final arguments how important this vote was. … If only the House members who voted for impeachment would have followed that instruction in the House, we may not have been here,” Patrick said.
Paxton — a key Trump ally — and his supporters have taken particular aim at Republican Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan, whom Paxton labeled “liberal.”
They painted the state Speaker as responsible for kicking off the impeachment inquiry in the House.
“You and your band of RINOs are now on notice,” Defend Texas Liberty PAC leader Jonathan Stickland said in a social media post over the weekend, referring to Phelan as a “Republican in name only.” “You will be held accountable for this entire sham. We will never stop. Retire now.”
Phelan doubled down on his stance in a statement after the verdict.
“It is unfortunate that the outcome of this process will ultimately relinquish control of the state’s top law enforcement agency to an individual who, I believe, clearly abused his power, compromised his agency and its employees, and moved mountains to protect and benefit himself,” the Texas Speaker said.
Austin-based GOP strategist Brendan Steinhauser suggested that the scrutiny surrounding the impeachment proceedings could pose problems in upcoming elections for the Republican state lawmakers who backed impeachment and conviction.
“The politics of this suggests that those rank-and-file Texas House members who voted for impeachment are going to be doing a lot of explaining. And when you’re explaining, you’re losing,” he said. “I don’t believe that 25 or 30 House Republicans will get defeated in a primary, but I think there’s gonna be a price to pay for some of them.”
Mackowiak said he can’t imagine most of the pro-impeachment House members “feel like that was a smart political move at this point,” as tensions over the matter look like they could impact the 2024 elections.
Trump took to Truth Social to congratulate Texas and the state Senate “for rejecting POLITICAL PERSECUTION” with the acquittal.
“Now Attorney General Ken Paxton can get back to work,” Trump wrote. In another post, he also called for Phelan to resign “after pushing this Disgraceful Sham.”
Paxton had been accused of misusing the powers of the attorney general’s office to help his friend and campaign donor, an Austin-based real estate developer. After the not guilty verdicts, Paxton was set to return to work Monday after a suspension that started when the state House impeached him in May.
No more than 14 state senators voted to convict on any of the articles, with just two of 19 Republican senators siding with Democrats on many of the counts. When the Republican-majority House impeached Paxton in May — just the third time in state history that a sitting official has been impeached — the vote was an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote of 121-23.
“It really does show the difference between the House and the Senate. They really are mirror images of each other reflected,” Mackowiak said of the contrasting turnout from Republicans in either state chamber.
In his statement after the verdict, Paxton echoed Trump, who faces his own legal problems, by railing against “the weaponization of the impeachment process to settle political differences.”
President Biden is facing his own impeachment inquiry in the U.S. House, where Republicans have been accused of playing politics.
Still, the Paxton argument could echo in Texas, where Republican voters are distrustful of investigatory institutions such as the Justice Department and FBI and are more inclined to put their faith behind those being investigated, Steinhauser said.
“And so when Donald Trump or Ken Paxton says, ‘Hey, this is all politically motivated, these are my political enemies coming after me, these guys are a bunch of Democrats, or these are a bunch of establishment Republicans coming after me,’ Republican voters believe it,” he said.
Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law, suggested on the other hand that the “essentially party-line voting” on the impeachment articles indicates there was “pressure to acquit, and even threats of retribution from Trump and many Republicans, especially in Texas.”
Steinhauser said he thinks Paxton will be emboldened by the impeachment battle, and that as he continues to get the support of leaders in his party at both the state and national levels. he could be encouraged to make a run for governor.
But impeachment isn’t the last of Paxton’s legal woes. Though he returns to the attorney general’s office, he still faces a securities fraud trial for two felony charges he was indicted on in 2015. He’s also been under investigation by the FBI since October 2020.
“The Senate’s refusal to remove Ken Paxton from office is, however, not the end of this matter. Ken Paxton is the subject of multiple other lawsuits, indictments and investigations,” Phelan, the state Speaker, said in his post-acquittal statement.
“If new facts continue to come out, those who allowed him to keep his office will have much to answer for.”