“Don’t mess with Texas,” the saying goes. Ken Paxton, attorney general of Texas, was only too happy to mess with others in December 2020, when he asked the Supreme Court to toss four states’ electoral votes for Joe Biden. The Court dismissed the suit, noting that it was not for Texas to question “the manner in which another State conducts its elections.” In legal terms, the Court’s point was that Texas lacked standing to sue. Of course, that was not the only problem with the case. Some of Paxton’s arguments were embarrassing. He claimed that the odds of Biden winning all four of the states at issue, given the vote tallies as of 3 a.m. on election night, was “one in a quadrillion to the fourth power.” More fundamentally, instead of challenging voting rules ahead of the election, Paxton was opportunistically trying to disenfranchise select voters after the fact. As Tim Murphy recently put it in Mother Jones, Paxton’s filing “was a post-legal document—less a sincere constitutional argument than a coup threat in legalese.”
Paxton—who was re-elected in 2018 by a weak 4-point margin on the same ticket that saw Gov. Greg Abbott, a fellow Republican, re-elected by more than 13 points—is once again up for re-election this year. He faces a primary on March 1 against three challengers, including George P. Bush, son of Jeb Bush and the state’s land commissioner, and late-entrant Louie Gohmert, a Tea Party-turned-MAGA U.S. representative primarily known for banging desks and shouting. It’s far from clear that Paxton will garner the majority vote he needs to avoid a runoff. Yet his weak position has nothing to do with his deranged Nic Cage-would-star-in-the-film election lawsuit on behalf of Donald Trump. To the contrary, Paxton’s blind loyalty to Trump is the signature of his campaign. The crux of the primary is a dispute between Paxton and Gohmert over the genuineness of Trump’s endorsement of Paxton. No, Paxton’s vulnerability lies elsewhere.
Paxton may or may not have once stolen a $1,000 pen from a courthouse security tray. It was a misunderstanding, he claims. He may or may not have sought investors for a dodgy software firm without disclosing that he’d been paid to do so. He calls his shares in the company a “gift”; “God doesn’t want me to take your money,” the founder told him during a meeting at a Dairy Queen. Paxton may or may not have used his office (not to mention burner phones) to assist a sketchy real estate developer—a man who, in turn, may or may not be using knowledge of Paxton’s alleged extramarital affair to blackmail Paxton. The FBI is investigating the matter, but Paxton asserts that the allegations are “overblown.” Paxton may or may not be violating Texas open-records laws by refusing to release his emails and texts from his trip to Washington, D.C., for the Jan. 6th rally and riot. According to Paxton’s office, the newspapers filing records requests are “baselessly speculat[ing]” that undisclosed communications exist.
Who’s to say? Maybe Ken Paxton really did think that shiny Montblanc pen was his. And although Paxton has admitted to acting as an unregistered securities broker, was indicted for securities fraud in 2015, and has served most of his time in office while out on bail, the felony charges against him remain unproven. Through a set of legal maneuvers worthy of a Dickens novel, allies of Paxton have managed to deprive the prosecution of funding, bog the process down in satellite disputes, and postpone a trial indefinitely. The claim that Paxton abused his office, to be sure, comes from former high-level staffers, who claim the attorney general engaged in a series of “bizarre” antics on behalf of his “friend” the real-estate mogul. But those staffers simply went “rogue,” Paxton responds. Paxton has even been exonerated—in a report compiled by the office of Ken Paxton. And why should Paxton’s communications on Jan. 6th matter? Sure, Paxton spoke at the rally, but the violence that followed was caused by Antifa. So says Ken Paxton.
The source of Paxton’s political success is hard to pin down. It’s not the man’s charisma (he has none), nor is it his intellect (to repeat: “one in a quadrillion to the fourth power”). Ken Paxton, for his part, cites the appeal of his mellifluous name. That, to say the least, is a stretch.
But if it’s a bit mysterious how Paxton got where he is, it’s not hard to explain how he has stayed there. Paxton is adept at the Trumpian style of politics. Always attack, never defend. Accuse your accusers. Muddy the water. Aside from Trump himself, no one “floods the zone with shit”—in Steve Bannon’s famous phrasing—quite like Paxton. The scandals are so numerous, their facts so convoluted, the obfuscations so bewildering, it’s easy to disengage. The details fade into the fog of culture war. Paxton’s counterthrusts, by contrast, rely on a simple narrative, one that can meet any and every allegation. If so many elements of the system—state prosecutors, the feds, his own staffers—hate him this much, doesn’t that mean Ken Paxton is on to something? He fights!
Moreover, Paxton is—to return to his greatest strength—a fanatical Trumpist. When he is not misbehaving on his own behalf, it’s a safe bet that he’s doing so for Trump. After Trump was ejected from social media for inciting the Jan. 6th riot, for instance, Paxton promised to combat the major platforms “with all I’ve got.” Days later, he launched an investigation of Twitter. In an interview the following month, he boasted that his office is pursuing “the whole issue of the president being de-platformed.” Twitter challenged the investigation in court, pointing out that, if taken at his word, Paxton is attacking Twitter’s First Amendment right to moderate the speech on its website. Now Texas claims that the probe is about consumer protection.
Paxton is campaigning as a “values conservative endorsed by Trump”—but the only “value” in question is courting Trump’s good opinion. Anyone who disregards that value is suspect. Last month, the nine Republican judges on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled, 8 to 1, that Paxton may not unilaterally prosecute violations of the state’s election laws. In response, Paxton went on Mike Lindell’s webcast channel, speculated that the judges are part of a left-wing (George Soros-backed?) conspiracy, and urged voters to “look [the judges] up” and “call them, send mail, send email.” (“How many new ways can Texas AG Ken Paxton find to disrespect the rule of law?” asked the headline of a Fort Worth Star-Telegram editorial on the interview.)
“Ken, I’ll tell you what, I am with you so much you have no idea—you have no idea.” On that December remark from Trump depends Paxton’s political survival. Paxton’s rivals are pitching themselves to Texas’s Republican electorate as Trump-aligned but scandal-free. Perhaps in their efforts to use Paxton’s character against him, Bush or Gohmert will succeed where past candidates have failed. But the point stands: Only Paxton enjoys the express endorsement of the Dear Leader. He holds the golden ticket. The polls suggest that, notwithstanding the miasma of discredit that wafts off his person, the nomination remains his to lose.
“Don’t mess with Texas” started as a slogan for a successful state-sponsored campaign against littering. In Texas, some kinds of trash are easier to clean up than others.