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Grieder: Republicans need to take Ken Paxton to task, if they want to unseat him in the GOP primary

Houston Chronicle logo Houston Chronicle 9/18/2021 By Erica Grieder, Staff writer

They seem to be lining up to challenge Texas’ two-term attorney general, Ken Paxton. Wonder why?

State Rep. Matt Krause, a Republican from Fort Worth first elected in 2012, recently announced that he was joining the field of GOP candidates seeking to unseat Paxton. It already includes Land Commissioner George P. Bush and former Texas Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman.

Two Democrats — former Galveston Mayor Joe Jaworski and Dallas civil rights attorney Lee Merritt — have also set their sights on Paxton. They will face off for their party’s nomination.

Krause and Bush are not seeking releection to their respective posts in order to run, and Guzman stepped down from the state Supreme Court before announcing her bid. So it’s safe to assume that they’re running to win, rather than to raise their public profiles.

Why then are Paxton’s Republican challengers approaching this primary with such a diffident attitude to the man they’re trying to unseat?

Take Krause, for example, since he just got in the race.

“As your Attorney General, I will continue to fight to keep critical race theory out of our schools, protect Texas families from the crisis at our southern border, and stand proudly with our men and women in law enforcement,” he said in a campaign announcement.

This would be a fine pitch, perhaps, in a typical Republican primary. Krause is a founding member of the Texas House’s Freedom Caucus and had one of the most conservative voting records of any member during this year’s regular legislative session, according to an annual ranking put out by political scientist Mark Jones of Rice University.

But Paxton himself is a pretty far-right guy, who was endorsed by most of the Freedom Caucus types, including Krause, in his first bid for attorney general seven years ago. And more to the point, Paxton — the state’s chief law enforcement officer — continues to face a plethora of legal problems.

Since 2015, Paxton has been under indictment for alleged violations of state securities law, all of them felonies. The case remarkably has yet to go to trial, allowing Paxton to do what he does best — file lawsuits promoting conservative causes, like those brought against school districts over mask mandates intended to keep kids safe. Paxton is also reportedly the focus of an FBI investigation after seven of his top aides accused him of abusing his office to help a donor. All have since resigned or been fired. Paxton also faces a civil lawsuit brought by four of those whistle-blowers, who argue that they were fired in retaliation. Paxton has denied all of the accusations.

That seems like relevant information for Texas voters to have about Paxton — as well as worthwhile information to highlight, if you’re trying to beat the guy. And yet Krause, for his part, didn’t point out any of this in announcing his campaign — instead referencing Paxton’s legal troubles as obliquely as possible.

“It’s more important than ever that we have an Attorney General who will focus completely on fighting to protect Texas,” Krause said in his statement.

In subsequent interviews with Hearst Newspapers and other outlets, he’s acknowledged Paxton’s legal woes, but suggested that these are a political liability rather than legitimate, troubling issues that should completely disqualify his candidacy.

“There would be that cloud there if he's the nominee,” Krause told north Texas radio host Mark Davis on Thursday.

Indeed, there would. In 2018, Paxton barely won re-election against Democrat Justin Nelson, an attorney with an impeccable professional record but limited finances and a relatively low name ID.

Bush and Guzman, to be fair, have indicated that Paxton’s checkered record will be a focal point of their respective campaigns.

“Enough is enough, Ken,” Bush said at his own campaign kickoff, in June. “You’ve brought way too much scandal and too little integrity to this office. And as a career politician for 20 years, it's time for you to go.”

Still, at this same event, Bush was distributing koozies with a silhouette of himself and former President Donald J. Trump, whose endorsement he was seeking. Talk about a great way to muddle a message about integrity. (Trump went on to endorse Paxton, anyway—not a huge surprise, given that Paxton went to court late last year to try and overturn Democrat Joe Biden’s electoral college victory. The Supreme Court rejected the bid in a one-page order for “lack of standing.”)

In any case, this kid-gloves approach to Paxton is not working, for his Republican challengers. The embattled incumbent is struggling a bit with fundraising. Still, he retains strong support among Republicans and conservatives, according to polling from the University of Texas/Texas Politics Project last month.

In particular, fully 50 percent of Texans who identify as “extremely conservative” approve strongly of the job he’s doing. And why would Paxton’s challengers be surprised by that, given their relative circumspection about the scandals surrounding him — which will surely be the key issue in the general election, should he survive the primary?

“I think it’s just individual cases of personal ambition,” Paxton told radio host Davis on Friday. “I personally think we’ve got enough trouble running against the Democratic Party and being indicted.”

Let’s be clear about something: Paxton is the only person in this field who’s under indictment. In fact, he’s the only statewide or otherwise prominent Republican elected official in Texas currently under indictment. You don’t actually have to be embroiled in scandal to succeed in the GOP primary.

And if Krause, Bush, or Guzman want to beat Paxton — or convey the impression that the Republican Party of Texas stands for the rule of law — they should be driving that point home every single day between now and the primary.

erica.grieder@chron.com

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