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Despite an endorsement from former President Donald Trump, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton failed to garner enough Republican support in Tuesday's GOP primary to avoid a runoff. The embattled incumbent, under indictment since 2015 and facing an FBI probe into how he runs his office, will face Land Commissioner George P. Bush, scion of a political dynasty, in a May 24 runoff, according to Decision Desk HQ.
Paxton, the two-term incumbent, boasted the largest campaign war chest. But in a field of four candidates, he was unable to secure more than 50% of the vote, setting him up on the defensive in the biggest fight of his political life.
Former Texas Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman and Bush were neck and neck throughout Tuesday evening, but Bush was able to pull ahead as election day results were tallied. U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert of Tyler trailed them for much of the night. Neither Guzman nor Gohmert had conceded late Tuesday night.
With legal clouds hanging over his candidacy, Paxton is a prime target for Democrats in the general election. His intraparty challengers have said if Paxton wins, the Republicans would essentially hand the general election to Democrats. Bush hammered that point after news outlets determined he would be Paxton's challenger in a runoff.
"That's what's at stake in this race," he said. "That's what this campaign is about. It's not about one individual. It's about preserving conservative values in our state."
At an election night watch party in McKinney on Tuesday night, Paxton acknowledged he was heading toward a runoff race and pitched himself as the candidate against the "establishment." Late in the campaign, Paxton had also labeled Guzman as the "establishment" candidate.
"May 24 is not that far away. Tomorrow we start 0-0," Paxton told the crowd. "If you want to keep winning for Texas, if you want to be part of saving Texas and saving this country, we're going to have to fight the fight for the next two and a half months, get our vote back out, unite the conservatives."
For months, Paxton’s opponents have blasted him for his legal troubles, which they have flagged as a knock on his integrity and a distraction in his ability to effectively carry out his duties. Eight of Paxton’s former top deputies accused him of bribery and abuse of office, which the FBI is now investigating. Paxton also has been under indictment since 2015 on securities fraud charges. He has repeatedly denied wrongdoing.
Bush said he would continue to educate voters about Paxton's legal troubles and the FBI investigation into him for bribery and abuse of office, citing that only 1 in 3 Republican voters knew about those troubles during the campaign.
"He is going to divert attention away from his legal problems and personal challenges," Bush said of Paxton. "I’m going to be the most effective to secure the border, back law enforcement and take on issues that we've been talking about on this campaign. So he can talk all he wants, but we're going to have three months to have this debate if he dares leave his basement."
At the Bush campaign's watch party in Austin, supporters were cautiously celebratory once the state had counted more than 70% of the votes and Bush's lead over Guzman continued to expand. After speaking with reporters without declaring victory around 10:30 p.m., Bush walked into a room full of supporters who loudly cheered for him.
"We knew it was going to be a long night," said Jay Zeidman, one of Bush's supporters, who said election night was a roller coaster of emotions. "As a friend, just watching him go through the emotions over the last few months, being away from his family a lot, putting in the time and the miles. I just couldn't be prouder of the race he's run. ... Tonight is a culmination of what we've experienced.
Bush challenged Paxton to five televised debates across Texas but said, "I suspect that he won't show up to anything."
Bush said he would hit the ground running Wednesday "as if we're starting a new campaign." He also said he'd reach out to Guzman and Gohmert, as well as their supporters, to ask them to join his effort to "restore honesty and integrity" to the attorney general's office.
"This is a cause greater than self," Bush said. "This isn't about me. It's about making sure that we lock arms and make this change."
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Bush pitched himself as the best candidate because of his track record in the private sector, serving in the U.S. military and running a large state agency with 800 employees. Guzman touted her 22 years of legal experience in state courts and questioned Bush’s legal chops, criticizing him for suspending his law license over the last decade.
Gohmert offered voters a candidate whose conservative politics were similar to Paxton’s but without the legal baggage. Both candidates are dedicated acolytes of Trump, though Paxton was the one to win his endorsement.
As election day neared, Paxton started taking his opponents more seriously as polls revealed uncertainty that Paxton could win outright.
He recognized Gohmert’s threat and began running negative TV ads against him in Gohmert’s home region of East Texas. A week before the election, Paxton ran TV ads that blasted Gohmert for missing hundreds of votes in Congress during his 17 years in office. Gohmert said that criticism showed Paxton’s desperation and aired his own ad accusing Paxton of dishonesty.
Paxton also took out ads against Guzman, painting her as the “most liberal justice on the Texas Supreme Court” and a supporter of critical race theory.
While all four candidates were well funded, Paxton had the biggest war chest, with $7.5 million on hand at the end of January. Bush, the runner-up in the money race at that time, had $2.6 million. Gohmert had less than $1 million in the bank during the same period.
Guzman also raked in a lot of cash, raising $1 million in 10 days to kick off her campaign. She attracted the support of major political groups like Texans for Lawsuit Reform, which endorsed her in a rare move against an incumbent.
On the Democratic side, Rochelle Garza, a former American Civil Liberties Union lawyer from Brownsville, was the top vote-getter and is headed into a May runoff. But it is still unclear whom she will face as Joe Jaworski, an attorney and former Galveston mayor, and Lee Merritt, a high-profile civil rights lawyer, were in a tight battle for second place early Wednesday.
"I am incredibly honored for every vote our campaign received in this election and the broad movement we were able to build in only four short months," Garza said. "This campaign expanded overnight with people from all across the state and country who saw themselves in this campaign and who believed in the future of Texas enough to invest in it."
"I got in this race to fight for Texas families, protect voting and reproductive rights, and hold corporations and bad actors to account when they take advantage of Texans," she added. "Indicted Ken Paxton is the most corrupt attorney general in the country, and our campaign is ready to defeat him this November.”
Jaworski said in a tweet that his team was reviewing the results as they came in and expected a "late night." Merritt said he was confident he would make it into the runoff but would not have final vote results Tuesday night because of technical issues in Harris County's reporting of the vote counts.
Garza ran on protecting the right to vote and to have an abortion in the state. Jaworski ran on taking on corruption in state government. Merritt ran on changing the criminal justice system, protecting the right to vote and defending abortion rights. Mike Fields, a former Republican Harris County judge, ran in the Democratic primary on providing a centrist candidate who contrasted with the polarization presented by candidates from both parties.
Disclosure: Texans for Lawsuit Reform has been a financial supporter 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.