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Texas Republicans could be headed for a runoff in heated attorney general primary

By Gregory Krieg, CNN

The most hotly contested statewide primary in Texas on Tuesday centers on the future of state Attorney General Ken Paxton, the Republican who spearheaded a notorious failed legal challenge to the 2020 election results and, with a slew of corruption allegations hanging over his campaign, is now facing the prospect of being pushed into a runoff for the GOP nomination.

Recent polling of the race has cast doubt over whether Paxton can win the contest outright, and a chance at a third term in November, in the first primary round. Though he leads the pack, with 47% according to a February survey from the University of Texas at Austin and the Texas Politics Project, Paxton needs a majority on Election Day to avoid being drawn into a one-on-one contest with the runner-up in a heavyweight field of potential runners-up that includes state Land Commissioner George P. Bush, former state Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman and US Rep. Louie Gohmert.

The campaign has mostly evolved along two tracks: Bush, Guzman and the late-entering Gohmert have sought to chip away at Paxton over his ethics scandals, which include a remarkable episode in 2020 when top lieutenants in his own office leveled allegations of bribery, abuse of office and “other potential criminal offenses” to law enforcement. Paxton has not been charged and has sought to cast the accusations as sour grapes. But his critics and opponents have warned that a potential indictment in the coming months, along with other lingering legal issues, could endanger Republican hopes of another statewide election sweep. Still, as election day nears, and early voting continues, the challengers have ratcheted up attacks on one another, as they jockey for second place.

On Thursday night in Austin, the three challengers met for a debate, which Paxton skipped, and Guzman turned her fire on Bush, questioning his integrity, credentials for the state’s top law enforcement job and accused him of lying about her commitment to continuing construction on a border wall.

Bush, in response, suggested Guzman was a “gutter politician,” before zeroing in on Paxton.

“If Ken Paxton is nominated again, we lose to the Democrats. We lose to [potential Democratic nominee] Rochelle Garza,” Bush said, targeting concerns over Paxton’s legal issues and how they might hobble him in a general election.

Gohmert, who is more ideologically aligned with Paxton and vying for many of the same conservative voters loyal to Donald Trump, sought to downplay the former President’s endorsement of the incumbent and jabbed at Paxton for, he claimed, lobbying Trump.

“When President Trump called me after I announced, he said, ‘I was told you were definitely not running.’ Well, I didn’t tell him that,” Gohmert said. “But he said Paxton was calling him constantly asking for the endorsement.”

Legal woes

Paxton won reelection in 2018 despite being under indictment for securities fraud going back to 2015. That case remains unresolved and, as Bush alluded to during the debate, there is a possibility Paxton could face more legal trouble before the year is out.

Paxton’s absence from the debate on Thursday is in line with a strategy, according to campaign observers, of seeking to side-step scrutiny over his legal issues — including those stemming from the 2020 letter.

“He says as little about it as he can. When he does speak to it, he claims that the charges are politically motivated or driven by disgruntled former employees who are on the wrong side of office politics,” Matthew Wilson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University, told CNN.

Wilson said Paxton’s claims about his former top aides don’t pass muster, but doubted they would damage him if he were to win the Republican nomination.

“These are not people that can easily be dismissed as RINOs or closet liberals. These are Republican folks who are saying this guy’s just not honest,” Wilson said. “It is damaging — to a degree. It’s why he’s got three primary opponents. But, increasingly, we are in an era where people just don’t care about the ethical improprieties of people on their own side of the political aisle.”

In a statement shortly after his formers aides’ allegations were made public in 2020, Paxton described the signatories as “rogue employees” and said he would not resign in the face of “false allegations.” The letter, which touched off some calls for Paxton to step down, stated: “We have a good faith belief that the Attorney General is violating federal and/or state law, including prohibitions relating to improper influence, abuse of office, bribery and other potential criminal offenses.” Paxton also claimed to CNN that the accusations against him were intended to obstruct an inquiry into alleged criminal behavior by other officials in his office.

Paxton has sought to consolidate the conservative vote in the primary with a series of recent lawsuits — including one targeting the Biden administration over “its illegal mask mandate for airlines and airports” — and opinions, most notably one delivered this week, “concluding that performing certain ‘sex-change’ procedures on children, and prescribing puberty-blockers to them, is ‘child abuse’ under Texas law.”

Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican also seeking reelection, delivered the same message to state agencies later in the week, a move that, while not changing state law, set off a nationwide backlash from transgender advocates and allies, who have called out the move as part of a broader right-wing drive to demonize transgender youth and lay the groundwork for denying them medical care.

Asked about the opinion at the debate, all three candidates onstage said they agreed, but Bush and Gohmert questioned why it was timed just ahead of the final day of early voting on Tuesday.

The challengers split, however, when asked by a moderator whether President Joe Biden won the 2020 election. Bush raised his hand to affirm the results. Gohmert kept his down and said, “I don’t know whether he did or not.” Guzman, seeming to waver, offered a more legalistic reply, saying, “It’s undetermined from my perspective, but yes, I’m raising my hand, he’s our president. … We need to look at what we do going forward.”

Gohmert, who was among the GOP House members to object to the certification of the election, then added that Biden is, in fact, “the legitimate president.”

Paxton, who was one of the speakers to address the pro-Trump crowd in Washington on the morning of January 6, 2021, drew headlines in December 2020 when he filed suit against Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — four battleground states that broke for Biden — as part of a Trump-backed bid to invalidate millions of ballots and overturn the results of the election. The US Supreme Court dismissed the lawsuit, with no public dissents, stating that Texas lacked the standing to file it.

But Wilson, the SMU professor, said the failed attempt likely succeeded as a political ploy ahead of the primary.

“It has probably helped him,” Wilson said of Paxton, “in the sense that it has cemented him as the champion of the die-hard Trumpists.”

The attorney general’s use of his office to score political points has been a theme of his campaign, said Charles Blain, president of Urban Reform and an Abbott campaign veteran from 2014. Blain and his group have not endorsed any of the primary candidates.

“What [Paxton] is doing right now is trying to use that office to protect legal interests of Texans and to feed into or appeal to primary voters,” Blain said, ticking off an assortment of recent lawsuits and investigations launched by Paxton. “These are a lot of things that the primary voters are concerned about and care about, and I think this directly appeals to them. And so I think that’s a unique development in the race, because all of those came within the past, I would say, two-and-a-half to three weeks.”

Runoff looms

Whether it is enough to secure Paxton the nomination outright on Tuesday remains an open question, though most observers now expect the campaign to go to a runoff that would not be decided until late May.

Should he fall short Tuesday, Paxton would still enter the runoff as the favorite. But each of the three challengers — all well-funded and with clear political bases of support — pose a threat. Guzman, from her time on the state’s high court, has been a popular figure and, along with Bush, could benefit from signs of a shift among Latino voters in 2020 toward the Republican Party.

If elected, Guzman would become the state’s first female and Latina attorney general. Bush stands to benefit — now and in a potential runoff — from his family’s history in Texas politics. Former Presidents George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush, his uncle and late grandfather, respectively, helped build a political power base in the state. Despite clashes between his father, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and Trump, the name still carries weight with elements of the party establishment and more moderate GOP voters.

Gohmert, too, despite never holding statewide office, has a national political profile and, observers note, could be best positioned to siphon Trump voters away from Paxton. Paxton has knocked Gohmert over his attendance record in Congress. Gohmert responded, in a statement to The Texas Tribune, by describing his missed votes as “procedural in nature.”

“Once again,” Gohmert added, “Ken fails to tell the truth to Texas voters, and his pattern of dishonesty is disqualifying as our state’s top Attorney.”

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