Loyalty is a good trait, especially in politics.
But it should be earned, and it should have some limits.
Attorney General Ken Paxton enjoys a fervent base of voters who have stuck with him for a decade, no matter what he’s done to disgrace his office. Even as most House Republicans voted Saturday to impeach him, seeing strong evidence of bribery and other crimes that merit a Senate trial, his fans vow to fight for him until the end.
The shorthand for why they do so is that the (now suspended) attorney general is a “true conservative.” But it looks a lot like the cult of personality that surrounds Donald Trump. In other words, they support Paxton because he “fights” and he makes the right people mad.
Substantively, they’re wrong. But politically, they’re powerful.
Paxton has ridden the wave of a reality in Texas politics: Republican primaries are the elections that matter most, and they draw a small portion of voters. When they occasionally result in runoffs, even fewer show up. The decision of those who do show up invariably carries the day in the general election: More voters turn out then, but most simply vote for the party with which they align (whether they acknowledge it or not). And Texas is a GOP state, period.
When he first ran for AG in 2014, Paxton was a little-known state senator from Collin County. He led the primary, but a majority voted for one of two other candidates.
In the runoff, Paxton’s voters showed up. He took 65% against state Rep. Dan Branch, an establishment Republican. Only about 753,000 Texans voted in the runoff, a drop of 41% from the primary.
Give Paxton and his team credit — they played under the rules of the day and won. And once a Texas Republican is entrenched in office, good luck dislodging him or her.
Casual observers of politics look at Paxton winning statewide three times, each time with more baggage than the last, and ask how it can be. This is how: A small number of dedicated voters wields outsized influence.
And yet, Paxton has not been invincible. In his first re-election campaign, 2018, he won by just 3.5 percentage points against an unknown Democrat. That was a bad year for Texas Republicans, relatively speaking, because of the backlash to Trump’s presidency.
In the 2022 GOP primary, more voters preferred an alternative to Paxton, who took 42% of the vote against three challengers. But in the runoff against George P. Bush, the incumbent won 68%. The voting dropoff was even bigger than in 2014 — a whopping 61% of those who cast ballots in the initial round didn’t show up for the runoff.
Get the picture? A small number of voters who will crawl to the polls for you is much more valuable than broader but more casual support.
The bafflement with Paxton is why. He’s not a remarkable campaigner, a highly skilled lawyer or a charismatic leader. He benefits from the right enemies, real or perceived. His gross sycophancy on behalf of Trump has earned the former president’s favor, and that matters a great deal in GOP politics.
The notion that he’s some conservative legal hero is laughable, though. Any Republican attorney general in this era would aggressively sue the Obama or Biden administrations, especially as they attempt to cripple the Texas energy industry and turn the border into a catastrophe.
There’s ample evidence that Paxton is not nearly effective enough, not that his fans want to hear it. He’s chased away good employees, leaving one of the state’s largest and most crucial agencies understaffed and poorly motivated. His inability to retain top legal talent leaves him more reliant on expensive outside law firms, the kind of waste and inefficiency that conservatives normally abhor in government.
In this impeachment fight, Paxton’s fans see him as the target of a squishy moderate establishment, led by House Speaker Dade Phelan. Since Texas Republicans won control of the state nearly three decades ago, there’s been a rump of candidates and voters who define themselves as the “true conservatives.” It’s always a small group, partly because they’re constantly shunning people over real or perceived violations of dogma.
But this is another case of outsized influence — these far-right agitators don’t win many elections, but they’ve pulled the party toward them by posing a threat in primaries.
Some are predicting an epic political revenge, though the idea that races in 2024 or 2026 will turn on the fate of Ken Paxton seems absurd.
Still, they vote in the elections that matter, while less wild-eyed Republicans don’t. Until that changes, the Ken Paxtons of the party will benefit, even if the rest of us are left scratching our heads.