Texas’ GOP runoffs hinge on a name that’s not on the ballot


By Ross Ramsey

Donald Trump could decide who gets the GOP nomination for attorney general of Texas and, in the process, could be a factor in runoffs farther down that party’s ballot in May.

The former president’s endorsement of Ken Paxton, the besieged incumbent AG, was central to Paxton’s first-place finish in the first round of the primaries. It wasn’t enough — Paxton is on his way to a runoff with Land Commissioner George P. Bush — but it kept him alive.

If that race draws a crowd — it will be at the top of the GOP’s runoff ticket — the voters Paxton and Bush lure to the polls will be voting in down-ballot races. And because runoffs typically have even lower turnout than primaries, small changes in who votes could have an outsize effect. A wave of Trump Republicans could be a boon to conservatives in other runoff races, and a bad omen for candidates who aren’t in the former president’s fold.

Paxton’s TV commercials on the way to this week’s primary featured Trump as prominently as the candidate’s own name. Paxton had the blessing of the popular former president in a race where Republican voters were trying to pick and choose from four well-known candidates. That signal muted attacks from whistleblowers who said Paxton was misusing his public office to help a political donor — and from a lingering 2015 felony securities fraud indictment against him that has never gone to trial.

Even with all of that, Paxton got 42.7% of the vote in Tuesday’s primary. On the upside for Paxton, that was nearly twice the support Bush mustered, enough to finish first among the four candidates. On the downside, it means the incumbent failed to command even half of the support of the voters in his own party — a sign that they’re willing to make a switch if the right candidate comes along.

It’s going to be hard for those voters to ignore Trump’s embrace. The former president remains popular with Texas Republicans, and he rebuffed Bush’s courting in favor of Paxton.

Paxton has been up against establishment names before, running for speaker in 2011 against Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, who he tried to paint as insufficiently conservative. That fell far short of success, despite the loud conservative activists who backed him. He topped a couple of mainstream Republicans in his first race for attorney general, but the electorate was different. He wasn’t vying for votes from legislators in both political parties or even for the votes of Republican legislators. Instead, he was able to rely on conservative activists’ strength in a low-turnout GOP primary — the same sort of primary he was in on Tuesday. He was in a runoff that year, too, which he won by almost 27 percentage points.

In 2018, no Republicans challenged him, but Democrat Justin Nelson came close in the general election, losing to the incumbent by 3.6 percentage points.

Paxton is wounded this time. Voters brushed off his indictment when they reelected him in 2018. The abuse of office allegations are new and were the focus of his three challengers, each of whom mostly agreed with him on policy while arguing that a nominee with ethical clouds over him would be an easier target for Democrats in November.

But Trump has a favorite in the race, and he’s a favorite of the state’s Republican voters. In a February 2022 University of Texas/Texas Politics Project poll, 80% of self-identified Republican voters had either a “very” or “somewhat” favorable opinion of the former president. More than half of those — 52% — were very favorable.

Bush has consistently positioned himself to the right of his father, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and his uncle, former president George W. Bush. He’s tried to win Trump’s favor, even opening his campaign by handing out drink Koozies with a drawing of Trump shaking his hand over the words, “This is the only Bush that likes me. This is the Bush that got it right. I like him.”

He likes Paxton more, however, and that makes a difference in a runoff. Most of the state’s Republican primary voters, even with their strong affection for the former president, voted against Trump’s pick for attorney general. On the other hand, Trump’s support might be the biggest reason the incumbent made it to the runoff.

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