The controversies surrounding Attorney General Ken Paxton do not bode well for the Republican Party at either the state or national level. The impeachment process revealed deep fissures and animosities among Texas Republicans, and these will no doubt continue to fester as other legal proceedings against Paxton proceed. These controversies may well weaken the state party, and since Texas is the largest Republican-dominated state in the country, whatever weakens the state GOP will weaken Republican efforts to regain the White House, retain the U.S. House of Representatives, and regain the U.S. Senate.
Republican supporters of Paxton’s impeachment claim Paxton is unusually and irredeemably corrupt, and therefore deserved to be removed from office. But Paxton and his supporters say the process was an attempt by the “Bush Wing” of the Republican Party—also known as Chamber of Commerce Republicans, country club Republicans, or RINOs (Republicans in Name Only)—to crush the GOP’s leading conservative champion.
Whatever the legitimacy of the claims made by those who impeached and attempted to remove Paxton from office, Paxton’s supporters are far stronger than those of the Bush dynasty. For example, in the 2022 Republican primary for attorney general, Paxton won 43% of the vote while George P. Bush—grandson of President Bush 41 and nephew of President Bush 43—won only 22%. In the runoff, Paxton won 68% of the vote for Bush’s 32%. At the conclusion of Paxton’s impeachment trial, one of his lawyers triumphantly claimed that the Bush era of GOP dominance was over. The election results seem to bear that out.
But does the growing strength of hardcore conservatives within the state GOP make the GOP itself stronger? Or will the takeover of the GOP by “Paxton Republicans” weaken the GOP’s ability to keep the Democrats out of power? The fate of the Arizona Republican Party and its candidates offers reason for concern.
In 2022 Arizona Republicans nominated former news anchor Kari Lake for governor. A solid Trump supporter who maintained that the Democrats stole the 2020 election when they carried Arizona for Biden, she nonetheless initially proved to be an effective campaigner against the lackluster Democratic hack also running for governor. In the closing weeks of her campaign polls showed, much to the horror of Trump’s opponents, that she was becoming more and more likely to win the governorship. But just as she seemed poised to win, she threw away her chances by saying that the moderately conservative supporters of the late Senator John McCain were neither wanted nor needed in the Arizona GOP. The final polls showed a sudden drop in her support as she read the “McCain Republicans” out of the party. She lost the governorship.
And therein lies the danger to the Texas GOP. The 2018 general election showed considerable erosion in voter support for Republican candidates. The GOP lost about a dozen seats in the state House of Representatives and several seats in Congress. All the statewide Republican executives—including Paxton—were re-elected, but their victory margins were cut in half. The erosion of GOP support among the electorate was halted, at least temporarily, by Donald Trump’s unexpectedly strong showing among Hispanic voters in 2020, along with the state party organization’s strong get-out-the-vote tactics. But while the GOP and its statewide candidates—including Paxton—held their own in 2022, their victory margins have not yet returned to the levels of 2014. Winning 52% or 53% of the vote in general elections is enough to claim victory, but Democrats, more so now than 10 years ago, remain within striking distance of winning statewide office. The Trump/Paxton/conservative wing of the state GOP simply can’t afford to alienate the “Bush Republicans” to the point where the latter either stay home on election day or actually vote Democratic.
But the divisions within the GOP are likely to grow, at least for the foreseeable future. The Collin County GOP chair has said that the 5 Republican state representatives who voted to impeach Paxton (who’s also from Collin County) may face primary opposition next year, and no doubt other pro-impeachment representatives will face primary challenges as well. But will the more conservative challengers who win primaries still be able to put together winning general election coalitions–or will their appeal to the voters be too narrow to achieve victory. And should the state party as a whole become more conservative, will it lose its ability to appeal to a broad enough segment of the electorate to remain in power?
And adding to the determination of conservative Paxton supporters to rid the party of “Bush Republicans” are the ongoing and growing legal troubles of Paxton himself. Since 2015 he’s been under indictment for allegedly violating federal security trading laws. A hearing is currently scheduled for next month to schedule a long-delayed trial. And contractor Nate Paul, from whom Paxton was accused of accepting bribes, is also scheduled for trial soon. Indeed, Paxton himself runs the risk of being indicted in federal court for his alleged interactions with Paul. No doubt the FBI has been following the Paxton impeachment very carefully, acquiring many new ideas and much evidence for its own investigations.
As Paxton’s legal troubles mount, so too will his support within the Texas GOP mount as well, just as each indictment of Donald Trump has strengthened his hold over the national GOP. Both Paxton and Trump are seen as among the last and greatest champions fighting on behalf of forgotten Americans against the Democratic and Republican elites. Both will continue to be seen by their supporters as victims of the “Democan” or “Republicratic” elites. But should the triumphant conservative wing of the Texas Republican Party drive out the more moderate conservatives, as Kari Lake did in Arizona, the Texas Republicans may soon find themselves relegated to minority status. In the fight between “Paxton/Trump Republicans” and “Bush Republicans,” the greatest winners may prove to be the Democrats. The impact this will have on state and national elections will be explored in a new column soon.
Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton from 1987 until 2023. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present). He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014. He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.