Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton beat impeachment. Now he wants Super Tuesday revenge on his foes

Mar 1, 2024, 10:25 PM

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton beat impeachment. On Super Tuesday, he wants political revenge.

The Republican, who just six months ago was on the brink of removal from office, is charging into Texas’ primaries on a dramatic campaign to oust dozens in his own party. They include rank-and-file legislators, state judges and one of the most powerful figures in Texas: Republican House Speaker Dade Phelan, who oversaw the historic vote last year to impeach Paxton on corruption charges.

Paxton’s purge attempt is part of a wild brawl engulfing the state’s dominant political party, where the attacks are blunt and the haymakers personal. Phelan recently punched back with a video reminding voters of Paxton’s extramarital affair, saying Paxton broke an “oath to his wife and God.”

Paxton himself is not on the ballot — he won a third term in 2022 — but the clean-the-House effort by one of former President Donald Trump ‘s most vocal defenders could reshape the Texas GOP for years to come, tilting the deeply conservative Legislature further to the right.

“I’ve never see anything like this primary,” said Bill Miller, a longtime Republican strategist in Texas. “The party is at civil war. There’s too much stuff going on to call it anything else.”

Paxton has targeted more than 30 Republican incumbents who drew primary challengers. And he didn’t stop there. Flexing his post-acquittal political muscle, the attorney general is trying to remove three female Republican judges from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, one of the most conservative panels in the country, after it limited the powers of his office in a 2021 ruling.

All the while, Paxton is still in legal jeopardy.

He is facing trial in April on felony security fraud charges that could lead to 90 years in prison if convicted. He is also fighting a subpoena for sworn testimony in a civil lawsuit that mirrors some of the impeachment charges. And a federal criminal investigation is ongoing into some of the same allegations.

“By the grace of God I’m here today,” Paxton told a political rally in suburban Dallas last month. “This matters more than anything I’ve ever done, that we win these races and that we win the Texas House.”

Some of Paxton’s endorsements, and the millions of dollars flowing to them from third-party groups, clash with the Super Tuesday agenda of Republican Gov. Greg Abbott. The governor has his own list of GOP House members he’s trying to throw overboard, angry that they voted against using tax money for private schools.

The double-barreled attacks have put extreme pressure on those lawmakers who happen to have fallen into the crosshairs of both men.

Abbott concentrated on a policy fight, but “(Paxton) is like a rabid dog that simply is angry at a large majority of House members,” said Rice University political science professor Mark P. Jones. “He is willing to back anyone who wanted to mount a primary challenge.”

Paxton’s biggest target is Phelan and the symbolic victory that would come with toppling House leadership.

Phelan’s two sessions as House speaker were a bonanza for conservatives: Since 2021, Texas has passed some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country, supported Abbott’s headline-making anti-immigration crackdown, banned gender-affirming medical care for transgender minors, and eliminated diversity, equity and inclusion programs in higher education.

But it was Phelan’s House that also set Paxton’s impeachment in motion, and the two men have blistered each other with attacks ever since. Paxton has accused Phelan of being drunk on the job, and has campaigned against Phelan in his home district. Trump has piled on, endorsing Phelan’s opponent.

Phelan responded with a scathing campaign ad recounting some of the impeachment corruption allegations. It specifically noted Paxton’s affair with a legislative staffer.

“Vengeful Paxton is the reason Trump’s involved himself in our race,” Phelan says in the 30-second spot. “If Paxton will break an oath to his wife and God, why would he tell Trump — or you — the truth?”

Even if most of Paxton’s endorsed challengers lose, knocking out a House speaker would be a “political earthquake,” Miller said.

At the courthouse, Paxton has targeted the three judges who were part of an 8-1 majority that stripped the attorney general’s power to prosecute voter fraud without permission from local district attorneys.

The voter fraud issue closely ties Paxton with Trump. Paxton led an effort in 2020 that asked the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Trump’s electoral defeat to President Joe Biden.

Paxton’s aim is to remove two of the court’s longest-serving judges: Judge Barbara Hervey was elected in 2001 and Presiding Judge Sharon Keller was elected in 1994. Judge Michelle Slaughter was elected in 2018.

“The Court follows the law, period,” Slaughter posted on X, formerly known as Twitter. “We cannot and will not be partisan political activists.”

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Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton beat impeachment. Now he wants Super Tuesday revenge on his foes