Picking sides in the Texas GOP over Ken Paxton

When Congressman Chip Roy (R-TX-21) finally weighed in on the impeachment trial against his former boss Attorney General Ken Paxton, he tossed a lit match onto the flammable passions of Texas’ political right.

“I stand squarely alongside David Maxwell [and] those standing with him,” Roy said on social media after the testimony of former Texas Ranger and Office of the Attorney General (OAG) “whistleblower.” “He is a Texas Ranger, law enforcement veteran over 4 decades, [and] my friend. His integrity is rock solid against political hot air.”

Roy had been quiet since he called for Paxton’s resignation back in October 2020 — a call that came after some of Paxton’s top staffers went to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) with allegations of abuse of office and potential bribery.

The conservative congressman is no stranger to strife at the OAG; he was the predecessor of Jeff Mateer, the former first assistant attorney general, whose resignation got the ball rolling and culminated in this recent impeachment spectacle.

Roy was pushed out as first assistant in 2015 after a public feud with Paxton, who appeared chafed that the staffer found the media limelight over his boss.

And now, breaking his silence on the proceedings, Roy has cannonballed back into the long-running dispute over Paxton, the allegations against him, and the merits of the Texas House’s impeachment case.

Roy — who is rated the most conservative member of the U.S. House of Representatives by the American Conservative Union — is a darling of the conservative movement in Texas despite occasionally touching a nerve among some of his supporters, including by objecting to the effort to reject certain states’ electors in the 2020 election.

The post came in response to criticism of Maxwell’s statements from those on the pro-Paxton side of the impeachment debate, including over a tense exchange with Paxton defense attorney Dan Cogdell.

It inflamed the debate already sweeping through Texas’ political right. On the one side were those backing the credibility of the OAG whistleblowers and the concerns they raised: Roy, Louie Gohmert, former Gov. Rick Perry, Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), Karl Rove, Speaker Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont), Breitbart reporter Brandon Darby, and more.

Politics makes for strange bedfellows.

On the other side were Paxton backers arguing that the House’s case against the attorney general lacked solid evidence and was the result of a glorified grudge: Texas GOP Chair Matt Rinaldi, Rep. Ronny Jackson (R-TX-13), Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Donald Trump, Donald Trump, Jr., Glenn Beck and others at BlazeTV, most of the state’s conservative talk radio hosts, Jonathan Stickland and his Defend Texas Liberty machine, and more.

That “more” includes a litany of middling conservative influencers on the national level being paid $50 per tweet through the firm Influenceable, a fact first reported by Current Revolt.

This put Roy opposite two of his former bosses: Paxton and then Cruz, who said upon acquittal, “This was the right outcome, consistent with the will of the voters.”

Breaking down the impeachment tally in the House yields no clear trend of where conservatives and moderates fell on the issue. Of the 23 “nays” on the Paxton impeachment, less than one-third fell into the most conservative quartile of the GOP caucus, according to Rice University’s post-session rankings. Of the top 10 most conservative members in the ranking, only three voted against impeachment.

Ten of the 23 “nays” fell in the third quartile and three were in the most liberal tranche, according to the rankings.

Among those who voted to impeach, the numbers were more evenly distributed across the quartiles: 14 in the first, 17 in the second, 11 in the third, and 18 in the fourth.

If figures and the roll call vote aren’t enough, take recent polling from the Texas Politics Project that shows Republicans and conservatives are solidly divided on the impeachment.

Asked if the House was justified in impeaching Paxton, 28 percent of Republican respondents said yes while 33 percent said no — and 39 percent said they didn’t know. Among conservatives, the crosstabs show a similar but slightly closer margin: 27 percent said yes and 31 percent said no.

Despite what either side in the fight might believe, or want to believe, there is no consensus among the state’s majority party — neither in its figureheads, nor its Legislature, nor its voters.

Even the Senate, whose GOP caucus voted almost entirely for acquittal, showed a clear difference of opinion at the trial’s outset with most voting to deny the defense’s motions to dismiss the articles against Paxton. Add to that the 10 hours of deliberation the senators engaged in before settling on the final vote, which showed there was no swift verdict of acquittal.

There have been claims of a “GOP Civil War” sparked by the Paxton impeachment, and that it would have been worse had he been convicted.

But the party of the right in Texas has long been in incontrovertible conflict with itself — less a two-sided struggle and more a multi-faction guerrilla fight with guns pointed in all directions.

The one statewide official who criticized Paxton’s impeachment before the trial was Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller. Twelve years ago, the two were at each other’s throats over the speakership.

“Ken Paxton promises that he will be more conservative than Joe Straus, but the record is clear,” Miller wrote a conservative activist in 2011, justifying his decision to support state Rep. Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) for speaker over Paxton.

“At a time when we needed him to stand up for conservative values, Ken Paxton was willing to put geography ahead of conservative values,” Miller added, referring to Paxton’s support for state Rep. Brian McCall from Paxton’s own Collin County for speaker over former Speaker Tom Craddick (R-Midland). “I am simply not willing to reward that kind of betrayal.”

Now the pair is aligned in opposition to Phelan and his lieutenants in the House.

When former state senator and gubernatorial candidate Don Huffines finally weighed in on the impeachment at the trial’s closing arguments, he came down in favor of the defendant — whose wife Sen. Angela Paxton (R-McKinney) defeated Huffines’ brother Phillip in a costly and brutal primary. Earlier this summer, Huffines told Dallas radio host Mark Davis that he had serious concerns about the allegations.

Ultimately, he decided the House Board of Managers hadn’t done enough to prove its case. But the initial skepticism about the attorney general put him opposite Stickland and Defend Texas Liberty, which pumped more than $3.5 million into Huffines’ 2022 campaign for governor.

David Simpson — a product of the Ron Paul wing of the GOP and a former state representative who finished second against Sen. Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola) in the 2016 Texas Senate race — was a frequent supporter of impeachment, believing the evidence brought against Paxton was clear and convincing. 

Louie Gohmert, the longtime conservative congressman from East Texas who unsuccessfully ran against Paxton last year, similarly supported the attorney general’s impeachment. Gohmert wrote an op-ed in the Daily Caller titled “Ken Paxton Is Not A Victim.”

Throw in the state’s “Big Three” — Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and Phelan — and the picture gets even messier; Phelan falls opposite Patrick, continuing the pair’s long-running feud, with Abbott in a lukewarm middle ground.

The Texas GOP’s State Republican Executive Committee (SREC) appears primed to approve a censure resolution later this year against Phelan sent by the Orange County GOP, which explicitly includes a variety of policy grievances but is undoubtedly shepherded by the impeachment animus. But even while the SREC may lean heavily toward censure, there are members within the body who have pumped the brakes or opposed it outright.

The divide has set the table for a rip-roaring primary, especially for the rank-and-file House Republicans who voted for impeachment; primary opponents have already lined up for state Reps. Lynn Stucky (R-Denton), Glenn Rogers (R-Graford), Ernest Bailes (R-Shepherd), Stan Gerdes (R-Smithville), Mano DeAyala (R-Houston), Justin Holland (R-Rockwall), and more.

Add to that the two House members whose primaries Paxton has signaled a willingness to be substantially involved in: Phelan, who faces David Covey, and House Board of Managers Chair Andrew Murr (R-Junction), who faces another challenge from his 2022 opponent Wesley Virdell.

More challengers are sure to surface in the coming months.

This episode of the drama that is the Texas GOP, while on steroids in both acrimony and historical significance, is largely a continuation of the same intra-party struggle. That’s reality for a state with prolonged one-party rule, passing two decades now of Republican dominance.

Back when they had an ironclad grip on the state, Texas Democrats felt the same internal division too. The last time a statewide official was impeached, it was the GOP in the political wilderness and Democrats who looked to oust their Democratic governor.

The long-existent rift on the right in Texas has grown into a full-blown chasm during the once-in-a-century impeachment trial against Paxton. Like with most issues in Texas, there is no unity on the right — neither in the party, nor the conservative movement, nor the grassroots.

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