Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.
Baseless claims of widespread voter fraud and rallying cries for “election integrity” have become recurring themes in the Republican primary for Texas attorney general — a job from which the state’s current top lawyer has sought to crack down on supposed illegal voting and joined efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election.
Although there is no evidence that voter fraud affected the 2020 presidential election, Attorney General Ken Paxton and one of the candidates hoping to knock him off in the primary, U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert, have repeatedly doubted or outright denounced President Joe Biden’s win. Gohmert has falsely claimed that Biden stole the election, and the longtime Tyler congressman signed on to Paxton’s failed lawsuit challenging the electoral results in four states Biden won.
Hours before the U.S. Capitol was stormed on Jan. 6, 2021, Paxton said on Twitter that “a lot of voters, as well as myself, believe something went wrong in this election.”
A month earlier, in a statement attaching his name to Paxton’s lawsuit, Gohmert said “it is quite clear that this race was stolen from President Trump."
Republican claims of election fraud in swing states have been discredited by election officials and former U.S. Attorney General William Barr, who said there was no evidence of widespread fraud that could have swayed the results of the presidential election.
Despite the falsehoods, undermining Biden’s win is a politically savvy move for those vying in GOP primaries, according to recent polling and political experts. About two-thirds of Texas Republicans said they didn’t think Biden legitimately won the election, according to a recent online poll of registered voters by the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin.
“The majority of Republican primary voters are very likely open to the argument that Joe Biden did not legitimately win the election,” said Jim Henson, a pollster and director of the Texas Politics Project. “It’s not a fringe position in the Republican party. It’s become orthodoxy.”
The other Republican attorney general contenders, Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush and former Texas Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman, have vaguely promoted the office’s role in maintaining election security but have otherwise been quieter on the subject.
Unlike the other candidates, Bush has publicly acknowledged that Biden won the election, but he criticized Paxton’s lawsuit challenging the president’s win as “too little, too late.”
Their relative silence may reflect the political disadvantage Bush and Guzman face among Republican voters who have seen Paxton and Gohmert lead the charge on the issue.
“[Paxton and Gohmert] have got a high degree of credibility on this otherwise noncredible topic,” Henson said. “It would be hard for either Bush or Guzman to wedge themselves in on that.”
None of the campaigns for the four candidates responded to questions from The Texas Tribune on the perceived role of election integrity for the Texas attorney general, or the candidates’ beliefs on the legitimacy of Biden’s electoral win.
Unsubstantiated challenges to the Democrat’s presidency have taken hold in Republican campaigns throughout the state and country, with broad support from the most conservative voters, who often sway primary elections. The belief is prominent in Republican races for Congress and secretaries of state, who are states’ chief election officials, according to Rick Hasen, an elections lawyer and professor at the University of California, Irvine.
It’s a political shift that Hasen argues is dangerous for democracy, especially in the race for attorney general.
“It’s very worrisome when people who are charged with enforcing the law embrace a lie that seeks to undermine the rule of law,” Hasen said. “What saved us from a potentially stolen election by Donald Trump in 2020 were Republican officials who stood up to him.”
Under Paxton, the Texas attorney general’s office has sought to ramp up prosecution of illegal voting. That included his order to arrest Hervis Rogers, a Houston man who gained media attention for waiting in line for six hours to vote in 2020. A year later, Paxton accused Rogers of illegally voting while he was on parole, and the 63-year-old man faces between two and 20 years in prison.
The all-Republican Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, however, recently restricted the attorney general’s power in such matters. In December, the state’s highest criminal court issued a groundbreaking 8-1 opinion that ruled the attorney general’s office can’t prosecute alleged voter fraud on its own. The state’s lawyer can only get involved in the prosecution of a criminal case, whether it be related to voting or not, when asked to by a local district or county attorney, the court said.
Bush blamed Paxton for the ruling, interpreting it as a consequence of his opponent’s persistent legal troubles.
“We’ve sadly seen Ken Paxton’s last remaining authority in criminal law, which is voter fraud ... was stripped,” Bush said after the court’s ruling. “[Paxton’s office] has run amok because of the lack of accountability at the top of the chain of command.”
Paxton has been under federal indictment since 2015 on felony securities fraud charges. He also reportedly came under FBI investigation in 2020 after eight of his former top deputies accused him of abusing his office to do favors for a political donor. Paxton has denied wrongdoing in both cases.
Both Paxton and Gohmert have also been at the center of controversies related to the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol. Paxton spoke at the pro-Trump rally preceding the Capitol’s breach and is fighting efforts for him to release his communications from that day under open-records laws. And Capitol Police were concerned that Gohmert was possibly encouraging political violence in the lead-up to Jan. 6, according to Politico.
Paxton is still leading the polls, but he may be headed for a runoff election. In Texas, if no candidate receives a majority of the vote, a runoff election is held between the top two vote-getters.
Texas Politics Project’s poll from early February showed Paxton receiving support from 49% of polled Republican voters. Twenty percent said they intended to vote for Bush, 15% for Gohmert and 14% for Guzman. A poll released Sunday from the The Dallas Morning News and University of Texas at Tyler put Paxton’s support from Texas voters at 39%, with Bush at 25%, Guzman at 13% and Gohmert at 7%.
Disclosure: Politico and the University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.