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The Political Penalty for a House Speaker's 'Audacious Move'

Following Ken Paxton's acquittal on corruption charges, the attorney general is seeking revenge against House members who voted to impeach him. He'll likely claim some victories but not change the overall balance of power within that body.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton on the Senate floor at the Capitol on Sept. 15, 2023.
(Juan Figueroa/The Dallas Morning News/TNS)
In Brief:
  • Ken Paxton and other Texas hardline conservatives pledge primary challenges against the 60 GOP House members who voted to impeach him.

  • That creates a political problem for those members, but most are expected to survive.

  • It's only the latest in a long series of disputes between the House and Senate.

  • Legislators are punished all the time for voting against the preferred positions of their party. But what happens when a majority of a party’s caucus is punished for its vote?

    That’s become a primary question in Texas politics. Ken Paxton, the Republican attorney general, was acquitted by the state Senate last month in an impeachment trial that turned on questions of bribery and abuse of office. Paxton and his allies now want revenge against the GOP state representatives who voted to impeach him back in May.

    “Speaker @DadePhelan, you and your band of RINOs are now on notice, you will be held accountable for this entire sham #PaxtonTrial,” former state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, the president of Defend Texas Liberty PAC, wrote in a social media post after the trial. “We will never stop. Retire now.”

    Angry conservatives have plenty of targets. In fact, they probably have too many of them. A total of 60 House Republicans voted in favor of impeachment. (Only two Republican senators voted for conviction and they aren't up for re-election in 2024.) “This isn’t the first foray of these groups and these donors in challenging members in the more center-right House,” says Mark P. Jones, a political scientist at Rice University. “Their past efforts have shown that in the best-case scenario, they can probably field somewhere between 10 and 20 viable challengers to sitting House members.”

    The potentially besieged incumbents represent the more business-friendly wing of the party, which means they’ll get plenty of help from Texans for Lawsuit Reform and other deep-pocketed groups. “Don’t forget, the forces they are challenging as ‘the establishment’ do have the inherent advantage of that affiliation — they will have access to a lot of funding to fight off challenges,” says James Henson, who directs the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas.

    Paxton’s counteroffensive, in other words, is not likely to fundamentally alter the balance of power in the Texas House. But Speaker Dade Phelan and his allies will still pay a political price for seeking to oust Paxton. There could easily be a half-dozen state House Republicans who lose their seats in GOP primaries next year, Jones predicts, whether due to anger over the Paxton vote, or because that ends up being the straw that break’s the camel’s vote in terms of voter displeasure about their records as a whole.

    “Dade Phelan did make a very audacious move, and he crashed and burned,” Jones says. “And the failure of his audacious move is likely to cost, at least in part, some of his House members their seats.”

    Paxton as Cause Célèbre

    Paxton has spent most of his tenure as state AG under some sort of legal cloud. He was indicted on securities fraud back in 2015, not long after he first took office. That case has never gone to trial. Paxton did appear in court in August and a trial date is expected to be set next month.

    His impeachment hinged on accusations that he had abused his office to help a developer. The FBI has been investigating those allegations for the past three years. That federal investigation remains ongoing, despite his acquittal in the state Senate. “A lot can happen between now and the kickoff of the more public stages of the primary season next year to harm Paxton’s cause, like more criminal indictments,” Henson says.

    Paxton’s supporters used many of the same arguments, as well as similar language, as defenders of former President Donald Trump — repeatedly calling his impeachment a “sham,” for instance. But while Paxton comes from the same wing of the party as Trump, and had his support throughout the impeachment process, he doesn’t command the same level of loyalty as Trump. “Outside of perhaps some of the Collin County seats, where Paxton is from, I don’t think the Paxton [impeachment] vote itself is going to the pivotal vote,” says Jones, the Rice professor.

    Arguments Within the GOP

    This is just the latest skirmish in a longstanding battle between hard-right conservatives who are often animated by social issues and more centrist conservatives concerned with bread-and-butter issues such as education, taxes and transportation. Former Speaker Joe Straus often rejected conservative proposals sent over from the Senate, a role that Phelan has now inherited.

    During this year’s legislative session, House and Senate Republicans were at odds over a host of issues, including casino gambling, private school choice and the best way to deliver property tax relief. "California Dade over there wants to give us a tax plan like California and New Jersey and other blue states that skyrocket the tax rate, and property taxes under their plan will actually go up in several years," Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the Texas Senate, said in May. "So, we’re not going to let that happen."

    The Legislature ultimately approved an $18 billion property tax cut in a special session over the summer. Last week, GOP Gov. Greg Abbott called a special session in October to try to get a deal on school vouchers.

    Republicans have thoroughly dominated Texas politics for the past quarter-century, but the political and legal bickering within the GOP this year shows that wearing the same partisan colors does not always guarantee harmony. At the end of the regular session, Abbott vetoed more than 70 bills, hoping to force legislators to act on property taxes.

    The squabbles are certain to spill into 2024, given the thirst for revenge among Paxton and his supporters. During the impeachment trial, Paxton’s wife, state Sen. Angela Paxton, tweeted Bible verses daily. “After weeks of invocation of the spirit of the New Testament, Ken Paxton has clearly moved more in an Old Testament direction,” Henson says, “with the post-trial tone being more like, ‘Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord.’”
    Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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