By Kate McGee, The Texas Tribune
“These 2 senators were the only Republicans to vote for Paxton impeachment articles” 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 only two Republican senators to vote for articles of impeachment against Attorney General Ken Paxton — Robert Nichols of Jacksonville and Kelly Hancock of North Richland Hills — are different brands of Texas conservative.
According to their voting records this past legislative session, Nichols is one of the least conservative members of the state Senate, while only three senators had a more conservative voting history than Hancock, a Texas Tribune analysis found.
But on Saturday, they found common ground on a major vote that separated them from the rest of their party in the Senate when they each voted in favor of 13 impeachment articles removing Paxton from office.
Hancock said his votes were not taken lightly.
“It was my constitutional obligation to seek the truth based on the facts made available through witness testimony and all documents admitted into evidence, then vote accordingly,” Hancock said in a statement. “My vote on each article reflects that responsibility.”
Nichols did not respond to requests for comment.
But longtime Texas politicos say the votes from these two lawmakers were not entirely surprising.
“They’re principled individuals, and they weren’t going to be bullied,” former state Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, told The Texas Tribune.
Bill Miller, a longtime Austin lobbyist, said he always expected Nichols to vote to convict and was not shocked that Nichols broke from his party.
“He’s the kind of person who, once he makes up his mind, there’s no use talking to him about an alternative view,” Miller said. “He’s just that kind of guy.”
Nichols, who was first elected in 2006 to represent East Texas, has had a steady hold on his district. Last year, he won reelection with nearly 80% of the vote and wasn’t challenged in the primary. The last time he faced a primary opponent was 2012, and he defeated the Tea Party-inspired candidate by 50 percentage points.
Representing the Dallas suburbs, Hancock served in the Texas House from 2007-13, when he was elected to the Senate. During last year’s reelection race he also did not face a primary challenger and won the general election with 60% of the vote.
Nichols and Hancock next face reelection in 2026. Neither have made public statements about their reelection plans.
But Miller said it’s an open secret that Nichols does not plan to run for reelection, though the senator had not publicly confirmed that.
“There is a certain freedom that that gives an elected official who is not seeking approval from voters again,” he said.
Nichols has broken from his party before on a variety of issues.
He was the first Republican to say he would vote for a rape exception to the state’s new abortion law. He wouldn’t go along with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s attempts to make it harder for the minority party to break quorum after Democrats left Texas for Washington, D.C. to prevent legislation from passing. And he was the only Republican in the Senate who voted against Senate Bill 8, Patrick’s bill to create education savings accounts that parents could use to pay for private school.
While Republicans who buck their party typically face major pushback, political experts say Nichols has managed to avoid that treatment in the Texas Senate.
“There’s really less attention on this,” Mark Owens, a political scientist and former professor at the University of Texas at Tyler, told the Tribune earlier this year. “I think it’s also the fact that he has those years of service. … He is a force in and of himself.”
Hancock has also pushed back against political trends in his party, though he paid a price.
In 2021, Hancock refused to side with Patrick’s proposal to force energy companies to repay $16 billion in electricity charges that accrued during the statewide power outages in February of that year.
Hancock agreed with House leaders and Gov. Greg Abbott who feared the move would create chaos within global energy markets.
Patrick stripped him of his leadership of the Senate Business and Commerce Committee and put him in charge of the Veterans and Border Security Committee, a less prominent position. Patrick also removed border security from the purview of that committee, a move widely seen as a punishment for Hancock.
“[He] was treated terribly and unjustifiably for it,” Seliger said. “And so he knows better than most people just what the implications are of bucking the mainstream.”
Seliger, a moderate Republican from Amarillo, also knows what it’s like to face the wrath of an angry Patrick after he voted against two of the lieutenant governor’s priority bills in 2017. The next session, he lost his title as chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee. When districts were redrawn in 2021, the Senate shifted population away from Seliger’s home base and toward Midland, where one of his primary challengers lived. He did not seek reelection after the 2021 session.
The two lawmakers can expect a backlash, Seliger said.
“There will be pushback and there will be accusations that they’re RINOs and terrible and mindless things like that,” he said. “And that’s the definition of principle: that you do what you think is best regardless of those things.”
As reaction to Paxton’s acquittal poured in on social media, far right conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan posted photos of the two lawmakers.
“Joining the #TxLege Senate Democrat caucus as honorary members are Kelly Hancock and Robert Nichols,” he wrote. “The ‘R’ next to their names stands for ‘reprobate.’”
After Saturday’s votes, Hancock exited the Capitol in a hurry, having changed from his suit into a white golf shirt to visit his newborn grandchild.
Asked about his votes, Hancock responded that he “wasn’t siding with anyone” but declined to comment further.
Nichols was one of the few senators who did not release a statement explaining their vote.
But he and the rest of the Senate could soon return to the Capitol. Abbott is expected to call a special session to pass school voucher legislation — another issue on which Nichols has broken with party leadership.
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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/09/16/ken-paxton-impeachment-kelly-hancock-robert-nichols/.
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