Why Ken Paxton’s supporters in the Texas attorney general race are unbothered by his mounting scandals

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton attended a campaign event Monday in Bulverde. Paxton criticized President Joe Bidens immigration policies, championed voter fraud in Texas and praised the leaked Supreme Court draft opinion that would overturn Roe v. Wade. (Kaylee Greenlee Beal For The Texas Tribune, Kaylee Greenlee Beal For The Texas Tribune)

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SPRING BRANCH — On the first day of early voting for his Republican primary runoff, Attorney General Ken Paxton spoke to a crowd of supporters where he barely acknowledged the contest and totally ignored his well-known challenger, Land Commissioner George P. Bush.

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It underscored a confidence as Paxton closes in on the Tuesday runoff where polls show he is well positioned to beat Bush, who has relentlessly attacked Paxton’s integrity as the incumbent fends off a number of personal and legal scandals. But Paxton’s supporters are unswayed by his baggage — if not outright dismissive — as they stick with him based on his record of battling the federal government in court.

“I really don’t care as long as he’s fighting the fight,” said Chris Byrd, a member of the State Republican Executive Committee who went to see Paxton speak to the Bulverde Spring Branch Conservative Republicans. “Like him or not, Ken Paxton has exhibited more courage in fighting evil than any attorney general we’ve had.”

Paxton was indicted for felony securities fraud charges several months after he first became attorney general in 2015. In 2020, the FBI began investigating him over claims by former deputies that he abused his office to help a wealthy donor. He has denied wrongdoing in both cases.

Bush has said the legal issues make Paxton unfit for office and could risk the important seat for Republicans in November. And he has increasingly attacked Paxton over an even more personal issue: an extramarital affair that he reportedly had that is connected to the FBI probe.

Separately, Paxton is openly feuding with the state bar, which is suing him over his lawsuit challenging the 2020 election results in four battleground states.

But after an action-packed primary with two other prominent GOP challengers — U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert of Tyler and Eva Guzman, a former Texas Supreme Court justice — the race is ending on a relatively low-key note. Public and private polls point to a Paxton victory, though a Dallas Morning News-University of Texas at Tyler poll released Sunday proved to be an outlier in giving Paxton only a single-digit lead. More Republican officials, like Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, have coalesced behind Paxton, while Gohmert and Guzman have declined to endorse Bush despite their well-documented objections to Paxton. And Paxton has refused to debate Bush, confident he is already on a winning trajectory.

Bush outraised Paxton on their only campaign finance report for the runoff — $2.3 million to $2 million — though Paxton had six times more cash on hand than Bush did.

Paxton has urged runoff voters to “end the Bush dynasty.” Bush has countered that with an ad where he says he is “proud of my family’s contributions to Texas and America, but this race isn’t about my last name — it’s about Ken Paxton’s crimes.”

At the meeting of the Bulverde Spring Branch Conservative Republicans, which has endorsed Paxton, supporters said they backed Paxton since the beginning of the primary, hardly considered the alternatives and care more about his job performance than his personal legal issues.

“I like that he’s a fighter,” said Colette Laine, a Spring Branch coffee shop owner. “I like that he has a lot of lawsuits out. He’s really utilizing his office.”

She added that any personal ethical baggage “doesn’t weigh much” on her decision to support Paxton because she is more focused on how he is doing his job.

The data supports such sentiment. The UT-Tyler poll asked Paxton supporters what they like about him more than Bush, and the No. 1 reason was “job performance.” Thirty-four percent picked that reason, while only 8% said “integrity.” Integrity, meanwhile, was the top reason cited by Bush voters.

Paxton focused almost exclusively on his work in office as he addressed the group Monday. He recounted at length how his office defended the state’s near-total abortion ban at the U.S. Supreme Court last year. He went over the 12 lawsuits that his office filed ahead of the 2020 election seeking to stop local governments from changing election procedures in the name of the coronavirus pandemic. And he touted his legal battles against the Biden administration, specifically on border issues like the “remain in Mexico” policy that requires some asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico while their immigration proceedings unfold.

Rather than acknowledge his runoff opponent, Paxton appeared more animated by his growing chorus of detractors among fellow legal professionals. In addition to the state bar, Paxton has gone to war against the all-Republican Court of Criminal Appeals for a ruling last year that stripped the attorney general of his power to unilaterally prosecute voter fraud.

Paxton’s broadsides against the court have raised concerns with legal experts, but he was unapologetic Monday evening, suggesting the court purposely waited until two days after the primary filing deadline to issue its opinion as a way to avoid political blowback.

“We got to make sure the next round that we pay attention to those people and get rid of everybody but Kevin Yeary,” Paxton said, referring to the one dissenting judge in the 8-1 ruling. “And I’m gonna keep talking about this even though the bar says I’m not allowed to.”

The crowd of over 100 people gave Paxton a standing ovation as he left the room after speaking.

Linden Sisk, the group’s treasurer, said afterward he likes Paxton because he is “standing up for the Constitution and fighting against federal government overreach.” Sandy Mitchel, a Bulverde retiree, said she likes that Paxton is a conservative, a Christian and “out for the people.” And Mark, who declined to provide his last name, said he was supporting Paxton because he has “been fighting the fight — and winning.”

That is a key word in Paxton’s campaign, which hands out literature boasting of his Trump endorsement — complete with a screenshot of the July 2021 statement — that Paxton is “defending Texas and winning,” with an emphasis on the last two words. The literature says Paxton has “sued the Biden administration over 25 times on issues like illegal immigration and mask/vaccine mandates and has won over 90% of the time.” A Houston Chronicle analysis published last month found that Paxton’s win rate is “closer to 71% including cases where judges temporarily blocked President Joe Biden’s policies but a final resolution is still pending.”

Almost none of the Paxton supporters The Texas Tribune spoke with said they even considered supporting Bush, using words like “establishment,” “globalist” and “wealthy elite” to describe him and his famous political family.

When it came to the claims of abuse in office against Paxton, they showed some familiarity but little concern.

“Those are unproven allegations” coming from “disgruntled employees,” Sisk said. “Anybody can make an allegation,” he added, and “everybody’s entitled” to due process, including Paxton.

“I’ve looked into it,” Mitchel said. “I think a lot of it is made-up things, and I believe him when he tells us what he’s doing [in office]. He does his job.”

Paxton sought to clear himself last year with an unsigned 374-page report produced by his office, but that was met with wide skepticism given the source. The former deputies, who are now suing him in a whistleblower lawsuit, spoke out ahead of the primary, accusing him of making “numerous false and misleading public statements” on the campaign trail.

As the runoffs nears, Bush has more specifically attacked Paxton over the reported affair, despite saying at the beginning of the primary that he would not make an issue out of it. But if Paxton’s supporters are troubled by it, they are not saying so. In April, the Tribune reached out to a dozen and a half Paxton endorsers to see if they were concerned about the alleged affair. Most did not respond at all, a few declined to comment and one, the Collin County Conservative Republicans, provided a statement that blasted the Tribune for asking, calling the organization a “slimy publication and a mouthpiece for the leftist agenda.”

Republican voters already gave Paxton a pass on his legal woes when he won reelection in 2018 without drawing a single primary opponent. Back then, his main vulnerability was the securities fraud case.

But the whistleblower claims that followed gave new hope to Paxton’s critics, partly because they were coming from respected conservative lawyers who could not be easily dismissed as politically motivated. Paxton’s opponents in the March primary campaigned most heavily on that controversy — and while Paxton always remained in the lead, they expressed confidence that his fortunes would change once voters learned more about his problems in the runoff.

“Only 1 of 3 Republicans know that Ken Paxton is facing three felony counts in Houston court, is facing an FBI investigation looking into bribery, corruption — so part of that is on me,” Bush said on the night of the primary. “I’m gonna have to educate the public on this issue.”

Polls show there has been little movement to that end.

In UT-Tyler polling, the share of Republican voters who believe that Paxton has the integrity to serve as attorney general is virtually unchanged from the primary. Its February survey found 50% of GOP voters believed that; its May poll put the number at 49%. The share of Republican voters who were unsure also barely moved, remaining at about a third.

In any case, Republican voters are largely aware of Paxton’s legal troubles, according to another pollster, the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. Its April survey found that 81% of Republican voters said they had heard about the “legal problems of Attorney General Ken Paxton” to some degree. The last time the pollster asked the question was in October 2016, and the figure was 71%.

Paxton’s campaign declined to comment for this story. But with days until the runoff, the campaign has continued to show Republicans are uniting behind the incumbent despite his vulnerabilities. On Wednesday morning, a majority of the State Republican Executive Committee endorsed Paxton.

James Barragán contributed to this report.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin 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 Tribunes journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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