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The Legacy from Texas AG Ken Paxton's Impeachment Trial

His acquittal makes Paxton a dominant player in Republican primary politics, where hard-right conservatives that share his ideology influence the small primary electorate.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, center, sits with his defense attorneys Tony Buzbee, left, and Mitch Little during Day 9 of Paxton's impeachment trial in the Senate Chamber at the Texas Capitol in Austin on Sept. 15, 2023.
(Juan Figueroa/The Dallas Morning News/TNS)
Ken Paxton’s historic impeachment trial is fodder for history books.

On Saturday the attorney general was acquitted on 16 of 20 articles of impeachment by a Republican-controlled Senate; another four articles were dismissed following the verdict. Paxton was allowed to return to work immediately, after having been suspended in May when the House voted to impeach him.

The Paxton saga is not over and he’ll impact Texas politics for years to come.

His acquittal makes Paxton a dominant player in Republican primary politics, where hard-right conservatives that share his ideology influence the small primary electorate.

In general elections, where moderates and progressives are more prominent, Paxton could struggle, particularly since the trial exposed troubling allegations of bribery and infidelity that voters may consider more serious than GOP senators did.

Regardless, Paxton is a force in GOP politics, though he’ll need some breaks to stay on top.

With all that in mind, here are three takeaways from the impeachment trial.

Paxton is the darling of Texas hard-right conservatives

Paxton has embraced the hard-right of the Texas Republican Party. That’s why GOP insurgents lobbied senators to acquit him on charges brought by the Texas House, where Republican members overwhelmingly voted to impeach him.

With the Senate acquittal, Paxton will be difficult to defeat in a Republican primary. That means he’ll have options for higher office in 2026, when his term as attorney general expires.

Expect him to consider running for governor against incumbent Republican Greg Abbott, who would be seeking a historic fourth term. Paxton also could run for the Senate seat held by Republican John Cornyn, a former Texas attorney general who is in his fourth term in the Senate and is up for reelection in 2026.

There could be other options. If former President Donald Trump wins the White House in 2024, he’ll likely consider Paxton for a Cabinet position, perhaps U.S. attorney general. Trump has backed Paxton during the impeachment ordeal, and Paxton brought the ill-fated lawsuit to toss out election results in several battleground states. Paxton also spoke at Trump’s Jan. 6 rally that preceded the Capitol riot.

Paxton’s political prospects hinge on his ability to overcome lingering legal problems, including a 2015 securities fraud indictment and an FBI investigation into matters discussed during the impeachment trial.

The House and Senate are bitter rivals

Immediately after Paxton was acquitted, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who served as judge in the trial, lambasted the House for dumping impeachment articles on the Senate in what he described as a flawed process.

House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, shot back that Patrick was biased and suggested he influenced the outcome of the trial.

Patrick and Phelan have never had a good relationship. That won’t change for an expected upcoming special session that Gov. Greg Abbott is expected to call to ask lawmakers to develop a voucherlike program that would allow students to use public money to attend private schools.

During the regular session, House members made it clear voucherlike programs are a nonstarter. A coalition of rural and urban lawmakers have blocked such proposals in Texas.

Patrick and the Senate approve of school choice, but the aftermath of the Paxton impeachment may make it difficult for the House and Senate to reach consensus on a bill to send Abbott.

Democrats could benefit from Paxton’s impeachment

While his standing with primary voters will improve, the impeachment trial has made him a fragile general election candidate.

Paxton has been the weakest link of GOP’s statewide election candidates. However, Democrats have not been able to take advantage because of lackluster candidates and a disconnect with Texas voters.

Polls have shown that many had only a mild knowledge of Paxton’s legal problems. The impeachment trial has shown voters an unsavory side of Paxton, one that could repulse some general election voters.

That said, Democrats haven’t won a statewide race since 1994, so Paxton probably isn’t too worried about losing to them.

©2023 The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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