Paxton’s legal issues don’t concern his Republican supporters

Some voters find it hard to get excited about politicians, who they see as being easily corrupted once they get to Washington. But many Republican voters are confident in one thing: their vote for Attorney General Ken Paxton in this month’s GOP runoff election.

The fact that Paxton is facing felony fraud charges and an FBI investigation into accusations of bribery gives his supporters little pause. They sees it as a “political thing.”

Republican rivals hoped Paxton’s mounting legal troubles would be his downfall this election cycle, and they may have contributed to pushing him into his first runoff as an incumbent. Yet as early voting begins this week for the May 24 contest, the attack line isn’t resonating with conservative voters, an apparent boon for Paxton as he fights for a third term as the state’s top lawyer.

Many primary voters haven’t heard much about his legal problems. Others don’t care. Some write it off as politically motivated.

Paxton’s camp is encouraging that line of thought.

“Political witch hunts are real,” a campaign representative told dozens of Republican women at a brunch event in Arlington last month. “When you have a strong attorney general fighting for the state, everybody wants to take him out.”

Political watchers say it’s easy for GOP voters to look past Paxton’s legal troubles when he has an endorsement from former President Donald Trump and a history of suing over issues that animate the most conservative voters, such as immigration.

Also helping Paxton is an opponent whose Bush family name is enough to repel at least a sizable number of GOP primary voters, according to recent public polling, as well as an electorate primed to see any criticism as “fake news.”

“In the past, you had an electoral system that sought robust conversation about all the candidates,” said Stephanie Martin, a professor of political communication at Southern Methodist University. “But now you have a forcefield around candidates for particular kinds of charges that are in fact very serious.”

Only a small portion of Republican voters – about 16% – think Paxton does not have the integrity required to be the state’s attorney general, according to a Dallas Morning News-University of Texas at Tyler poll released Sunday. The figure hasn’t budged in months despite challenger George P. Bush’s heavy criticism of Paxton’s ethics, including a fresh ad calling the incumbent a “crook.”

Yet, as Bush continues to hammer the issue, the poll found that for the first time, a plurality of Texas voters across all parties believe Paxton lacks integrity for the job, suggesting there could be an impact on the incumbent’s prospects in the November general election.

Paxton denies wrongdoing and has pleaded not guilty to securities fraud charges that were brought in 2015. Paxton is accused of persuading friends to invest in a McKinney technology company without telling them he was getting a commission. An ongoing fight over where to try Paxton has delayed proceedings.

More recently, the FBI began investigating after Paxton’s top deputies accused him of abusing the office to help a campaign donor. The federal probe that began in late 2020 has yet to produce any charges. A whistleblower lawsuit filed by four of the former aides further detailed their accusations that Paxton had swapped political favors for the donor’s help with a home remodel and a job for his alleged mistress.

As he fights the cases in court, Paxton has accused his former employees of going rogue and in a move that raised eyebrows, his office produced a report clearing him of wrongdoing. Paxton’s legal team has also argued he and other elected officials cannot be sued under the state’s whistleblower act – a question the Texas Supreme Court is now being asked to decide.

In a statement, Paxton’s campaign chided the media for reporting on “dated and completely false” allegations about the state’s attorney general.

Many other big names in Texas politics are staying out of the primary fray, including Gov. Greg Abbott and U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, who both previously served as the attorney general. Neither of the Republicans knocked out of contention in the March 1 primary, Gohmert and former Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman, have endorsed a candidate.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and more recently Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller have come out in favor of Paxton.

It’s the first time Paxton has drawn a primary challenger since taking statewide office in 2015. He won re-election in 2018 by less than four percentage points against a Democrat who focused on Paxton’s securities fraud indictment.

The more time that passes, the better for Paxton’s reelection chances, said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political scientist at the University of Houston. Research shows the scandals that hit hardest are the most recent and financial in nature, he said.

“Paxton already won elections with ethical issues hanging over his head,” he said. “Because it’s been around so long, it’s ho-hum for voters.”

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