From the heart of Austin, the impeachment saga of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has unfurled, raising pertinent inquiries about the duration of the Republicans’ tolerance for alleged malfeasance within their own ranks. Paxton’s predicament offers a foreboding glimpse into the looming turbulence of the 2024 election cycle.
Paxton has been dogged by corruption allegations for years, the intensity of which was rekindled when he attempted to foot taxpayers with a hefty $3.3 million bill, allegedly related to a controversial agreement with whistleblowers from his office. The whistleblowers raised concerns in 2020 over Paxton’s ties with Austin-based real estate developer Nate Paul.
A House ethics committee launched an investigation into Paxton’s legal expenditures in tandem with scrutinizing his connections with Paul and other questionable aspects of his career. Paxton was hit with 20 counts of alleged wrongdoing on Saturday and now finds himself under the scrutiny of a Senate trial, which requires a two-thirds majority to depose him from his office.
The rush to impeach Paxton by the end of Monday’s session was the culmination of a protracted investigation. Yet, the charges against him were hardly novel to House Republicans, who spearheaded the impeachment proceedings.
Paxton’s tenure as attorney general has been a rollercoaster ride of legal entanglements, which trace back to his 2014 primary campaign when his opponent, Dan Branch, used allegations of Paxton’s securities fraud as leverage in his campaign strategy. However, these charges fell on deaf ears among primary voters, leading to Paxton’s victory against Branch, followed by his triumph in the general election.
Despite Paxton being embroiled in securities fraud charges since 2015, few Republicans, particularly in the legislature, vocalized their opposition. His re-election in 2018 took place under the specter of these charges. Fast forward to 2020, allegations from Paul combined with Paxton’s FBI investigation caught the attention of Texas Governor Greg Abbott, who labeled them as ‘concerning’, yet, 2021 legislative session passed by with no concrete action against Paxton.
Paxton’s resounding victory in the 2022 GOP primary over land commissioner George P. Bush sent shockwaves, despite harsh criticism from Senator John Cornyn, a high-ranking Texas Republican. Paxton’s political resilience seemed impervious, fortified by his staunch far-right supporters and the endorsement of former President Donald Trump.
As the impeachment debate unfolded, the gravity of the allegations against Paxton prompted even his detractors in the House to label them as “alarming” and “astonishing”. The impeachment’s genesis is attributed to Paxton’s audacious request to have taxpayers fund his legal expenses, which led to an expansive investigation.
There remains a question mark over whether House Speaker Dade Phelan, along with other GOP House members, would have pursued Paxton without the tacit consent of prominent Republicans. There is a lingering suspicion that Governor Abbott and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick had prior knowledge of the impending impeachment storm.
It’s worth noting that the ethical committee’s members carried out their duties with utmost discretion. This resulted in a startling report which evidently rattled Phelan and his allies, culminating in their decision to attempt to unseat Paxton, who had emerged as a bugbear for the House and an embarrassment to the Republicans who envisioned better for their party.
While Paxton manages to secure re-election, polling data suggests his fame pales in comparison to Abbott and other Republican leaders. This raises a query: are Texans indifferent to Paxton’s fate?
The political chessboard in 2023 still accommodates the possibility that GOP House members were driven by their conviction in removing Paxton. The Senate’s potential acquittal of Paxton could pose challenges
for these GOP House members during their 2024 re-election campaigns.
Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz’s denouncement of House Republicans’ decision to impeach Paxton insinuates a schism within conservative circles outside the legislature regarding the trial proceedings. Rep. Charlie Geren alleged that Paxton threatened political retribution against lawmakers voting for his impeachment, yet a staggering 121 out of 149 members voted in favor of the resolution.
As the 2024 election draws closer, tensions within the Texas GOP are expected to escalate, particularly as Republicans pick their presidential candidate from a field that includes Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Paxton, in turn, might adopt a martyr’s narrative, a far cry from his current role as the attorney general.