By James Barragán, The Texas Tribune
“Ken Paxton impeachment fight exposes deep fissures among Texas Republicans” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
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The impeachment of Attorney General Ken Paxton exposed long-simmering and bitter divisions within the Texas Republican Party — infighting that has hindered the ability to unite behind a single vision for the state’s future despite a generation of political dominance.
Just this legislative session, Republicans were unable to find agreement on school choice, stricter immigration laws and other big-ticket promises that could have given Texas bragging rights as a conservative hothouse, on par with Florida.
Nowhere was the GOP chasm more apparent than the fight over Paxton’s future. Hard-line conservatives fought to protect one of their own, criticizing the impeachment process as an effort to overturn the will of voters. Former President Donald Trump also entered the fray, blasting “Republicans in name only” for targeting a patriot and calling out Gov. Greg Abbott for failing to protect Paxton.
It wasn’t enough. About 70% of House Republicans voted Saturday to impeach — 60 of the 85 Republicans in the 149-member chamber. That included a coalition of center-right and conservative Republicans who defied their party’s far right and heeded the call to protect the state from a public official who had abused his office and power for personal gain.
That division will continue to fester as the Senate takes up Paxton’s impeachment trial, with continued pro-Paxton pressure likely to come from Trump, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and Republican Party Chair Matt Rinaldi.
Some of the tension arises from differing political goals.
The Republican Party’s center-right faction favors a loose regulatory environment and economic policies that entice businesses to move to the state. The more conservative wing opposes some policies that favor big business and emphasizes social issues like loosening gun laws and limiting abortion, immigration and LGBTQ rights in the state.
Often, members of that wing express skepticism about House Speaker Dade Phelan’s support for those social issues. In the run-up to impeachment, their common attack line was to paint Phelan as a liberal or soft Republican who allowed Democrats to lead the charge.
Paxton himself pounced on that skepticism Saturday night.
“Phelan’s coalition of Democrats and liberal Republicans is now in lockstep with the Biden Administration, the abortion industry, anti-gun zealots, and woke corporations to sabotage my work as Attorney General,” he wrote in a statement after the impeachment vote.
But that skepticism ignores that the House has moved to the right in some ways during Phelan’s time in charge. In 2021, his first legislative session, the chamber was involved in passing what was at the time the most restrictive abortion law in the country. And his chamber led the charge on a bill to allow people to carry handguns without a state-issued permit.
Still, in the Legislature, the House and Senate usually stand as proxies in the ideological fray, with the House representing the center-right and the Senate the conservative wing.
Under Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s leadership, the Senate rapidly passes a conservative wish list of ideas as early as possible each legislative session. Some gain traction in the House, such as limits on transgender medical care and a ban on diversity, equity and inclusion offices at public universities. Other ideas find a chilly reception, dooming efforts this session to approve a school voucher-style program and end tenure for university professors, among other priorities.
The House approved 20 articles of impeachment against Paxton, laying the first glove on a political leader who was reelected twice despite long-standing criminal charges of securities fraud and a federal investigation into allegations that he used the powers of his office to help a friend and political donor.
During Paxton’s reelection campaign last year, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn called the attorney general’s laundry list of legal problems “an embarrassment.” Paxton fired back, calling Cornyn a squishy conservative who compromised with “radical Senate Democrats in D.C.”
Sensing vulnerability, three well-known Republicans — then-Land Commissioner George P. Bush, former state Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman and then-U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert — challenged Paxton in the GOP primary, arguing that his legal entanglements were a distraction and made him unfit for office.
But Paxton almost won the primary outright and went on to blow away Bush in the runoff, then decisively defeated Democrat Rochelle Garza in November.
Republican voters rewarded Paxton for launching a series of legal challenges on abortion and Democratic policies on immigration and the environment — dealing a blow to the party’s center-right faction by rebuffing Bush and Guzman.
The House’s impeachment of Paxton is another battle in the continuing war between the party’s factions.
“If Star Wars had ‘The Empire Strikes Back,’ this is ‘The House Strikes Back,’” said Mark Jones, a political scientist at Rice University. “Dade Phelan and the House Republicans have been on the defensive all session. This is a chance for them to strike a blow against the conservative wing of the party that’s been criticizing them and attacking them the entire session.”
Before the impeachment vote, the 85 Republicans in the House were hounded by conservative political groups that were backing Paxton. Defend Texas Liberty PAC spent the days and hours before impeachment sending text blasts asking voters to urge their elected officials to support Paxton. The group received an added boost when Trump cast his lot with Paxton, giving Defend Texas Liberty ammunition to use in follow-up messages.
In the end, 60 Republicans pushed past those efforts to vote for Paxton’s impeachment. But with a Senate impeachment trial not yet scheduled, senators can expect additional pressure from groups on both sides of the impeachment question.
“It’s going to be a lot more difficult for the senators,” Jones said. “Because Phelan kept this under wrap until the end, there wasn’t a lot of time for Paxton’s defenders to react. Now, they’re going to have a few weeks.”
Paxton has already said he expects the Senate to be “fair and just.”
Trump, Cruz and other conservative stalwarts may play a more significant role heading toward a Senate trial, Jones said.
“What Cruz and Trump do is they provide political cover for those Republican senators who want to vote for Paxton but don’t want to be seen as backing a corrupt official who’s committed a number of illegal acts,” Jones said. “They can say, ‘I’m with Trump and Sen. Cruz.’”
Other Republican officials in the state, like Abbott, who has been silent on impeachment, will also be put in the uncomfortable position of weighing in on the matter.
Late Saturday, Trump called out Abbott specifically, declaring that Abbott was “MISSING IN ACTION!”
Throughout his time as governor, Abbott has moved to the right along with the GOP base, but he is frequently criticized by the party’s conservative wing as insufficiently conservative.
“Abbott is not one who’s out there in front being aggressive, and risk-taking has never been Abbott’s style,” Jones said. “This is one of those situations where whatever you do, you’re going to alienate somebody.”
On the political front, House Republicans face election every two years and will have to explain their impeachment votes to a GOP primary base that has stuck by Paxton.
“Phelan as well as some of his leadership team will now have to face primary challengers that they most likely would not have faced had they not gone this route of trying to impeach Paxton,” Jones said.
Many of the Republicans who voted in favor of impeachment portrayed their decisions as nonpolitical, including Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park, one of the most conservative members of the House.
“I understand my vote will elicit both praise and criticism from different quarters,” Cain said. “However, my role as a representative is not to prioritize popularity but to act according to what I believe is right.”
If two-thirds of senators decline to support impeachment, Paxton opponents can find themselves in a more difficult position, Jones said.
”Because they’ll have a sitting attorney general who’s angry with them and a Republican presidential candidate in Trump who will be campaigning in Texas and probably campaigning with those primary challengers,” Jones said.
Disclosure: Rice University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/05/28/ken-paxton-impeach-republican-infighting/.
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