George P. Bush, Ken Paxton prepare for a bitter primary runoff battle for Texas attorney general

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and George P. Bush at their election night watch parties on March 1, 2022. (The Texas Tribune, The Texas Tribune)

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Ken Paxton wasted no time Wednesday morning, jumping on a conservative talk radio show in the early hours to start building his case against his opponent in the Republican primary runoff for attorney general.

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“If conservatives unite … we can end the Bush dynasty,” he said of George P. Bush, the last remaining member of the state’s most well-known political family to hold office in Texas.

“I think a lot of Republicans have had enough of it,” Paxton told Lubbock radio host Chad Hasty later Wednesday. “The Bushes have had their chances. It’s time for the dynasty to end. It’s time for somebody to get in there and fight and not capitulate to the establishment.”

Late Tuesday night, Paxton and Bush, the land commissioner, bested two other Republicans — former state Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman and U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert of Tyler — in what was the most competitive and contentious primary race of the season.

But it’s only about to get uglier and more personal.

The runoff election is May 24. Until then, Bush is poised to continue his monthslong assault on Paxton’s integrity, centered around his six-year-old securities fraud indictment and a more recent investigation by the FBI into allegations that he abused his office. (He denies wrongdoing in both.)

While Paxton seems to believe Bush’s famous family is a liability for the candidate, Bush’s campaign says he brings broader appeal than his last name suggests.

“He’s always been this uniter in the party, and that’s what you’re gonna see in this runoff,” said Karina Erickson, a Bush campaign spokesperson.

But Bush is the underdog in the race. He had fewer votes than Paxton in the primary, and Paxton carries the coveted endorsement from former President Donald Trump. Bush said Wednesday morning in a radio interview that he will ask Trump to reconsider his Paxton endorsement, which Paxton later dismissed as a “made-up fantasy.”

Paxton’s opponents say that his legal troubles risk handing over the attorney general’s office to a Democrat in the November general election if he is chosen as their party’s nominee. But Paxton still had strong support in the primary despite not reaching the threshold to avoid a runoff.

With almost all of the votes counted on Wednesday, Paxton led the primary with 43%, followed by Bush with 23%. Guzman had 18%, and Gohmert 17%. With more than 800,000 votes, Paxton had nearly double the 430,000 votes Bush had garnered.

While it looked like Guzman was competitive for the No. 2 spot early Tuesday night, her vote share sank as more election day votes came in. Both Bush and Paxton saw her rising toward the end of the primary and bombarded her with attack ads on TV. Paxton spent close to $1 million alone on an anti-Guzman blitz in the final five days, calling her “too woke” for Texas.

The effect was evident in the results: After earning 21% of the early vote, Guzman got only 14% on election day.

“I respect the decision made by Texas voters for this Republican primary,” Guzman said in a statement Wednesday. “I will continue to work for the conservative values of the Texas Republican Party and will do all in my power to stand for the rule of law, and integrity and honesty in all aspects of our society.”

Guzman was the top fundraiser among Paxton’s challengers, thanks in no small part to her backing from Texans for Lawsuit Reform, the deep-pocketed tort reform group. A TLR spokesperson, Lucy Nashed, said in a statement Wednesday that the group “will make a determination about any continued role in this race in the coming weeks.”

Bush is going to need all the support he can get. Former Texas Secretary of State Rolando Pablos, who supports Bush, said he would have to convince the nearly 60% of voters who did not vote for Paxton in Tuesday night’s election to come over to his camp.

“I hope that they all coalesce around George and they come and support him,” Pablos said. “That’s going to be very important for him.”

But early Wednesday there were signs that Republican voters would not immediately join Bush in his bid to oust Paxton. Gohmert, in a radio interview, declined to endorse him on Wednesday and told his supporters to “follow your conscience.” He said that if Guzman had made the runoff, he would have endorsed her.

Asked what is keeping him from endorsing Bush, Gohmert said, “Eva was right,” bringing up her concerns about Bush’s legal background, including the fact he classified his law license as inactive from 2010-2020.

“He hasn’t spent a lot of time in a courtroom,” Gohmert said.

Bunni Pounds, a former GOP consultant, said Bush has high negatives from different sectors of the Republican primary electorate. Those who are fans of members of his family like his uncle, former President George W. Bush, and his father, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, see him as abandoning the establishment Republican principles that led to their success and leaning in too far to Trump to woo his endorsement. But socially conservative Republicans see him as insufficiently strong on their issues because of his family’s more moderate political leanings.

To gain ground on Paxton, Pounds said, Bush will have to harp on conservative talking points like securing the border and fighting the Biden administration. But the voters who opted for Gohmert or Guzman may be hard to convince.

“It's really going to come down to people picking between not their favorite people in this race,” she said. “It's going to be ‘I’m going to have to make a choice’ — if they even come out for it.”

The runoff also could put more pressure on top Texas Republicans to take sides after they largely stayed out of the primary. That includes Gov. Greg Abbott, who declined to say Tuesday whether he voted for Paxton in the primary.

“We haven’t taken a position on the AG’s race, and I don’t know that we will,” Abbott’s top political adviser, Dave Carney, said during a post-primary call with reporters Wednesday morning.

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz declined to get involved in the primary, despite his past support for Paxton, while U.S. Sen. John Cornyn also remained neutral. Speaking with Dallas radio host Mark Davis on Wednesday morning, Cornyn said he would let voters decide the runoff but called it an “important” runoff and the claims against Paxton in the FBI probe “very concerning.”

“I do think it’s important that we have an attorney general that we can be proud of,” Cornyn said.

More personal

Few doubt the runoff will get nastier — and more personal.

In the primary, Paxton weathered persistent attacks that he does not have the integrity for the job given his 2015 securities fraud indictment and more recent FBI investigation into claims he abused his office to help a wealthy donor. He has denied wrongdoing in both instances.

Bush campaigned against Paxton as an “indicted felon” — only half-true because he has only been charged and has not gone to trial yet — and even brought up allegations that Paxton had an extramarital affair that came out as a result of the FBI investigation.

Pounds said Bush would have to spend serious money to hit Paxton on those issues because many Republican voters are unaware of the extent of his legal troubles and “personal improprieties.”

“The only way that Bush is successful is if he goes all-out negative against [Attorney] General Paxton and makes the case he's unworthy for the office,” she said. “I don't see any other path to victory and even, if that, I don't think the Republican base will go for that considering Paxton is one of their fighters.”

On Wednesday morning, Paxton warned Bush against getting too personal in the runoff, claiming Bush “knows it’s gonna change the dynamic of the race.”

"There are things that I haven't talked about that will be talked about,” Paxton said ominously, without elaborating.

Bush’s supporters agree he needs to educate more voters about Paxton’s legal problems. One of the final polls before the primary found that a third of GOP voters remained unsure if Paxton has the integrity to be attorney general.

“I don’t expect this to be a dirty-tactics [campaign], I expect this to be an information campaign,” said Jay Zeidman, a Bush friend who helps raise money for the campaign. “I think that’s how George wins. He just has to get that message out.”

Paxton has embraced his role as a conservative warrior who goes against the “establishment.” On Tuesday, he said the establishment had “got what they wanted” by forcing him into a runoff.

Pounds said Paxton should lean into his role as a “fighter” for conservative issues.

“The base right now is angry. They want action and they see Ken as pursuing action, trying to get the administration to shut down the border, bring freedom against vaccine mandates and all the things they feel [are] anti-liberty,” she said. “Paxton’s strategy should just be to emphasize all of the lawsuits against the Biden administration.”

The Bush legacy

Bush’s family will undoubtedly come up more in the runoff. Paxton already laid the groundwork in the primary, saying in one fundraising letter that Bush’s relatives’ opposition to Trump “speaks for itself” and that Bush “believes it’s his birthright to ascend to higher office.”

The refrain will be familiar to political observers. At an attorney general debate in February, Guzman called Bush “entitled” and said he was angry because he assumed he would be Paxton’s only challenger.

Bush kept his family at arm’s length in the primary but did not avoid them completely. He got a late $100,000 donation from his uncle, while his dad attended his primary night party in Austin.

His family’s legacy — which also includes his grandfather, former President George H.W. Bush, and U.S. Senator Prescott Bush — has been a subject of dismay from conservatives in recent years who criticize the Bushes as too soft on social issues.

Bush and his supporters regularly emphasize that he is his own man, noting he broke with his prominent relatives to support Trump in the 2016 general election.

“He has embraced it and charted his own path, and I think you have to judge him on more than his name,” Zeidman said.

Two Texas politicians bid farewell

Whatever happens in the runoff, one thing was clear Wednesday: The primary ended the careers of two figures who have become staples in Texas politics. Guzman had been known for crossing milestones, becoming the first Hispanic woman to serve on the Texas Supreme Court and earning the distinction of the highest vote-getter in state history in 2016.

Nashed, the spokesperson for Texans for Lawsuit Reform, said the group expects that Guzman “still has a bright future as a Texas leader.”

As for Gohmert, he gave up a safe seat in Congress — one he has held for 17 years — to run for attorney general. He has become known as a bombastic figure in Washington but beloved among Republicans back home, as shown by the fact he carried over a dozen counties in East Texas on Tuesday.

The Smith County judge, Nathaniel Moran, easily won the GOP primary to replace Gohmert in Congress. Moran cuts a more mild-mannered profile than Gohmert, who stayed out of the primary to succeed him.

Asked if he would ever consider making a comeback run for Congress, Gohmert, 68, told Davis he had “no plans whatsoever” to do so.

Disclosure: Texans for Lawsuit Reform and Texas Secretary of State 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.

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