The worst attorney general in the US finally gets his comeupance

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R)
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) Photo: Screenshot

It couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) is deserving of every bit of grief he is currently getting. Last Saturday, the Texas state House of Representatives voted 121-23 to impeach him for using his office to benefit a campaign donor.

Or, perhaps more accurately, the latest example of Paxton apparently using his office to benefit a campaign donor. There have been a string of such accusations in the past, which Paxton has somehow shrugged off. There’s also the fact that Paxton has been under indictment since 2015 for defrauding investors in a tech startup. For whatever reason, those two felony charges are still pending eight years later and don’t appear to have hindered the career of the state’s top law enforcement officer.

Although the impeachment charges were brought by a bipartisan committee, for all intents and purposes the state legislature is a wholly owned subsidiary of the GOP. Of the 150 members in the House, 86 are Republicans; in the Senate, 19 of the 31 members are Republicans. In short, nothing happens in the body without the blessing of the party.

That’s why the impeachment battle is so monumental. It’s not just about Paxton. It’s about the GOP.

On one side, you have Paxton, who has made his career as the kind of knuckle-dragging extremist beloved of the MAGA world. This is the man who ordered families supportive of their trans children to be investigated for child abuse and who promised to bring a lawsuit to reinstate sodomy laws. Between his regular attacks on LGBTQ+ rights, endless lawsuits against Democratic legislation (Affordable Care Act, immigration, gun control), and allegiance to Donald Trump, Paxton has emerged as a hero in the far-right legal world. Voters seem to approve, electing him to three terms, the last in 2022, by comfortable margins.

However, his fellow politicians are a lot less enamored, as are some of the people who work for him. A group of attorneys in his office brought a whistleblower suit against him in 2020, saying that their boss was corrupt. Paxton fired them, but earlier this year reached a $3.3 million settlement with the four, all of whom had been political allies of Paxton’s. Paxton then tried to get the state legislature to pick up the tab.

It’s not just the allegations of corruption that are the problem, however. There is a political divide at work too. In a sense, it’s a battle between the MAGA world and establishment Republicans.

Indeed, Trump himself framed it that way. Just prior to the impeachment vote, the ex-president posted on his social media platform, “It is the Radical Left Democrats, RINOS, and Criminals that never stop. ELECTION INTERFERENCE! Free Ken Paxton, let them wait for the next election!”  Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) also leapt to Paxton’s defense before the impeachment vote.

There are two groups of conservative Republicans in Texas. There are the Paxtons of the world, who see the culture wars as their own Alamo. Then there are types like House Speaker Dade Phelan, who is more focused on less regulation and a friendlier environment for businesses. Phelan recognizes that harping too much on social issues won’t sit well with big business.

“Phelan’s coalition of Democrats and liberal Republicans is now in lockstep with the Biden administration, the abortion industry, anti-gun zealots, and woke corporations to sabotage my work as Attorney General,” Paxton snarled prior to the vote.

The ultra-conservative members of the House echoed Paxton’s claim that the impeachment was politically motivated. Republican state Rep. John Smithee called the vote “a Saturday mob out for an afternoon lynching.” (It’s always nice to see white men use racially insensitive language to defend their own.)

But by most measures, the pro-business coalition is being overtaken by the culture warriors. This session, the state legislature passed some extreme bills that smelled of Christian nationalism, including mandating the Ten Commandments in school classrooms and placing chaplains in schools as counselors.

In some ways, the impeachment is the revenge of the establishment Republicans. Paxton’s shenanigans have long been an embarrassment, but asking the legislature to pay for them was the ideal opportunity to call him out. The overwhelming vote against him is a sign that his fellow Republicans believe there is safety in numbers.

That may be a risky gamble, though. Right now, Paxton is suspended from office. To remove him from his job altogether, 20 of the 31 senators must vote to convict him. The twelve Democrats seem like a sure thing. With a smaller number of Republican senators who are more inclined to be of the same political mind as Paxton, the attorney general may have a fighting chance.

Paxton has at least one vote in his corner. His wife, Angela, is a Texas state senator.

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