Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.
The Republicans trying to unseat embattled Attorney General Ken Paxton are unsparing in their criticism of the incumbent from their own party — and beginning to draw some hard contrasts with one another.
During separate one-on-one interviews for the 2021 Texas Tribune Festival, the three Republican primary challengers took Paxton to task for the legal problems he has accrued in office, with two even saying he should resign. At the same time, each made the case for why they should be the main GOP alternative to the incumbent, raising differences based on experience — legal, executive and political — as well as conservative credentials.
As he seeks a third term, Paxton is being challenged by fellow Republicans George P. Bush, the land commissioner; Eva Guzman, a former state Supreme Court justice; and Matt Krause, a state representative from Fort Worth. Bush and Guzman have been running since June, while Krause entered the race last week, saying he did not think Bush or Guzman was capable of taking out the incumbent.
Paxton has the endorsement of former President Donald Trump, though his opponents are unfazed, pressing forward with hopes of making next year’s primary a referendum on the beleaguered incumbent.
Paxton has been indicted on securities fraud charges since his first months in office six years ago. He more recently came under FBI investigation over allegations by some of his former deputies that he abused his office to aid a wealthy donor. He has denied wrongdoing in both cases, while painting his primary foes as ambitious politicians who are doing the bidding of Democrats and making it harder for the GOP to hold the key office next year.
During a radio interview after Krause launched his bid, Paxton said he had talked in advance with the state lawmaker, a onetime ally, and told him, “I got shot in the back by my own guy[s]” — referring to his former staff members — “and you’re telling me now that you should leave me for the bad guys to destroy.”
Conceding the call was “very tense,” Krause said during the TribFest interview that a different metaphor came to mind.
“I think it’s more akin to somebody else shooting themselves in the foot over and over and over and still wanting to lead everybody out onto the battlefield,” Krause said.
Krause’s interview airs at 10:30 a.m. Friday, while Guzman’s is at noon Friday and Bush’s is at noon Saturday.
In their interviews, Bush and Guzman said Paxton should step down, or at least not stand for reelection. Guzman was the most pointed.
“When you have an attorney general who is so preoccupied with his own legal drama, troubles, charges, indictments, investigations, Texans aren’t getting out of the attorney general’s office what they deserve,” she said. “He should resign and focus on his legal defense.”
Bush also answered in the affirmative when asked if Paxton should resign.
“I’ve always thought he disqualified himself from further service, and ultimately ... that’s his call, but it is something he needs to think about,” Bush said. “There’s nothing wrong with saying, ‘I’m not gonna run again and I’ve had a good run,’ and keep your bar license and perhaps a little bit of your integrity, but that might be too much to ask.”
Krause declined to call for Paxton’s resignation, saying the decision is up to Paxton.
Differences among primary challengers
Bush was the first major primary challenger to announce against Paxton, getting in the race in early June. He said he is not worried about the crowd that the primary has attracted, joking that “the water’s warm” and suggesting “maybe even a few more” candidates could join the primary, though he did not elaborate.
He said his takeaway from the primary field is that Texans are “ready for a change.” Still, he made his case for why he is superior to the other challengers, and he suggested he was particularly unbothered by the latest entrant.
“I really think that if you look at Matt’s message, I think that it’ll actually pull a lot from the current incumbent,” Bush said.
Krause is pitching himself as the “faithful conservative fighter” in the race, running as a Paxton-like conservative — but without the legal cloud hanging over him. He has said he decided to run in the primary because he was not seeing Bush or Guzman resonate with rank-and-file GOP voters. He reiterated that in his interview, saying it does not seem there has been “anyone who’s really kind of connected with the grassroots.”
Guzman has already sought to distinguish herself from Bush when it comes to their legal credentials. She has drawn attention to the fact that he chose to classify his law license as inactive in 2010 and did not reinstate it as active until last year.
In her interview, Guzman took broader aim at Bush, not just raising the questions about his legal experience but also criticizing his office’s oversight of the Alamo and administration of recovery funds after Hurricane Harvey.
“He is not qualified to serve as Texas’ next attorney general,” Guzman said. “His record, his lack of legal experience and his flawed judgment make him unqualified for the office. He’s a nice man; he’s not qualified for this office.”
Bush defended his legal experience in his interview. He said he made his law license inactive in 2010 because that is when he deployed to Afghanistan. He continued to keep it inactive after he got back, he added, because it was not necessary at the General Land Office, which has its own lawyers.
“It’s basically a formality, and once a lawyer, always a lawyer, and this campaign is truly about leading an agency,” Bush said, pivoting to his own contrast with Guzman. “The thing about Eva is that she’s never run anything, in the private sector or in the public sector. ... I have 800 full-time employees. She wants to talk about executive leadership — I’m more than happy to have that discussion.”
Grappling with Trump’s endorsement
Regardless of the individual strengths of the primary challengers, Paxton still has the backing of Trump, who remains highly popular with Republican voters. Paxton mentioned the former president three times in a four-sentence statement responding to Krause’s candidacy last week.
Trump endorsed Paxton in late July after Bush spent weeks vying for the former president’s support. Bush has accused Paxton of misleading Trump to secure his endorsement, a point that the land commissioner reiterated in his interview, claiming Paxton “wasn’t exactly forthright with his legal challenges to the president or his team.” At the same time, Bush said Jake Ellzey’s recent election to Congress — against a Trump-backed opponent —shows there is “still a very wide pathway for a Republican in a primary as long as you are for many of the policies of [Trump] and you reach out to his supporters.”
Recalling a recent conversation with Trump, Bush seemed to suggest Trump could revisit his endorsement of Paxton.
“[Trump] said if there’s updates legally on Ken, he’d be open to future conversations,” Bush said.
Krause acknowledged Trump still holds considerable sway with primary voters. But he argued that any voter concerned with Trump’s endorsement “could take out the incumbent’s name, put my name right in there, and you’re gonna see all these policies that we’ve championed over the years — it’s the same ones that were used to get General Paxton the endorsement” of Trump.
“If that does sway you, I think you’ll find in our campaign the exact same kind of fight, the exact same kind of policy,” Krause said.
At the same time, Krause noted the Trump endorsement produced “really no noticeable bump” for Paxton in a poll that came out over the weekend. The survey from The Dallas Morning News and University of Texas at Tyler found Paxton leading the primary with 43% of the vote, only 1 percent point higher since the last time the pollsters gauged the contest, which was before Trump’s endorsement.
“So I think people are looking even maybe past that endorsement to some of the things we’ve been talking about today, some of the policy areas,” Krause said.
James Barragán contributed reporting.
If you appreciate reporting like this, you need to be at the all-virtual 2021 Texas Tribune Festival happening now through Sept. 25. Join as big names from politics, public policy and the media share what’s next for Texas and beyond. Explore live and on-demand programming, including dozens of free events, at tribfest.org.