Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, whose impeachment trial kicked off last week, has repeatedly tied his fate to that of another famously embattled figure in Republican politics: former President Donald Trump. In the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election, Paxton involved himself in the sprawling scheme to overturn its results by petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court to block President Joe Biden’s victory over Trump. During twice-indicted Paxton’s most recent reelection campaign, in 2022, Trump granted him his endorsement over a crowded field of Republican candidates favored by the state establishment—including former representative and Trump ally Louie Gohmert.
And, like Trump, Paxton’s most ardent supporters consist of the same deep-state conspiracists who believe Paxton is simply the victim of a politically motivated witch hunt. Last week, Donald Trump Jr. marked the occasion of Paxton’s impeachment by tweeting his support, with the familiar conspiratorial tinges: “Today marks another milestone in Ken Paxton’s career of fighting the Austin Swamp and Establishment. Ken will survive and will continue to combat the Swamp in Texas to put America First.”
As Paxton’s impeachment proceedings run parallel to Trump’s own array of criminal proceedings, now dominating the national stage, the Texas Republican Party is faced with a decision between immorality and short-term political consequences that the national GOP already famously failed in its reckless support for Trump’s ambitions. This time, however, members of the far right in Texas appear poised to draw a line in the sand: In May, the Republican-led House voted 121–23 to impeach Paxton on 20 articles, including abuse of public trust, unfitness for office, and bribery.
“The oath of office that we all took to protect the citizens of the state and to uphold the laws of this state and this Constitution mean something. It isn’t just words on paper. It’s literally an oath to God,” said State Representative Andrew Murr, who led the House General Investigating Committee responsible for bringing the charges against Paxton, in his opening statement to the Senate, where the final decision of impeachment now rests.
Those prosecuting Paxton have persistently pointed to the far-right credentials of their witnesses as proof of their credibility. Murr is a rural Texas conservative who authored a recently enacted law restricting books with LGBTQ themes in the state’s public school libraries. Moreover, four members of the Texas Freedom Caucus—the last vestige of the Tea Party in Texas state politics—were among those who voted to impeach Paxton in the House.
However, the decision to impeach Paxton will ultimately come down to the votes of nine Republican senators—the number needed to achieve a two-thirds majority, under the safe assumption that all 12 Senate Democrats will vote to impeach. (The Senate has 31 members, but Paxton’s wife, Senator Angela Paxton, is barred from voting.) Texas Capitol insiders say it’s unlikely any senator is still making up their mind. But their decision may have less to do with morals or high-flung ideals about the oaths they’ve taken than making a gamble on the future direction of their party.
“If it gets nine Republicans, it will have as much to do with external influence as it does with facts presented, testimony, and things like that,” said former Texas Senator Kel Seliger, a self-described moderate who resigned from the Senate after public clashes with Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick during the 2021 state legislative session. (Patrick, who’s presiding over the impeachment trial, is known to rule his chamber with an iron first; his opinions may yet come into play for the final verdict.)
Seven Texas Republican Senate seats are up for reelection in 2024, meaning they will face a primary election in March. The Texas Republican primary isn’t just a Lone Star State affair, it’s often considered among the most important elections in the country. Its outsize importance is even more striking when you consider the numbers involved: A paltry 12.39 percent of Texas Republican voters turned out to vote in the last presidential primary election in 2020. Those who do show up to vote skew ultraconservative, and it’s that segment of Republicans that has pulled the state party platform further and further to right—especially on “red meat” issues like LGBTQ rights and restricting “wokeness” in public schools and state universities—as candidates do backbends to appeal to this base. From there, what happens in Texas has a tidal pull on the conservative movement nationwide.
Small margins mean Paxton can still have a powerful influence on the way Texas’s influential elections shake out—and his allies have vowed to go after any state legislators who vote to impeach him. “It’s going to be one heck of a RINO hunt in the next GOP primary,” as former state Representative Jonathan Stickland tweeted last week, in a threat to fund challengers to incumbent senators through his far-right Defend Texas Liberty PAC. He is just one part of an incredibly vocal grassroots segment of Texas’s right-wing movement that has called on its members to put pressure on their elected officials to stand with Paxton.
It’s not clear how successful any stand-with-Paxton movement might be, as those who’ve swung behind impeaching him will be exerting influence of their own. And if Republican incumbents place their bets on a Paxton impeachment and are unsuccessful, “there’s safety in numbers,” said Mark P. Jones, a fellow in political science at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. Even in the heyday of PACs like Empower Texans, he said, “They would be hard-pressed to really mount a serious challenge against more than 15 or 20 legislators.”
But the political forces riled up by the 2024 presidential election have made these gambles more risky. A bet against the disenfranchised base could easily bring retribution if Trump turns out to have pull with Texas voters in the March primary. Findings from the Texas Politics Project just a few days ago indicate 79 percent of Texas conservatives hold a favorable view of the former president—a much greater share than that of establishment candidate Ron DeSantis, who holds favorability with 67 percent.
More than a week into the trial, the prosecution’s case doesn’t appear to be driven by the kind of bombshell revelations that might sway hard-core Paxton supporters. Instead, prosecutors have followed a strategy of supplying a steady diet of evidence for their claims in an attempt to present the sort of substantive case that might convince members of the public who are still sitting on the fence about Paxton’s impeachment—largely leaving theatrics to Paxton’s defenders. There are persuadable voters out there: Another Texas Politics Project poll found only 24 percent of Texas Republicans thought Paxton should be impeached, compared with 32 percent who said he shouldn’t. But there was a plurality of voters, 43 percent, who said they either didn’t know or had no opinion on the matter. The more people the prosecution can shift into the impeachment camp, the more cover they’ll provide for the senators who’ll have to sign their name to a decision.
Senators have already dropped hints on how that vote may play out through their votes on motions to dismiss all or some articles of impeachment on the trial’s first day. Six Republican senators indicated their fealty to the sitting attorney general by voting to dismiss all articles of impeachment outright, before presentation of evidence. Of those six, three were among the senators who will face a primary in March: Paul Bettencourt, Tan Parker, and Donna Campbell. Another seven Republican senators voted not to drop any of the articles of impeachment—alongside the chamber’s 12 Democrats—and five more voted to partially dismiss the articles, thus indicating a willingness to at least hear the prosecution out.
Impeachment should not be expected to yield a political victory for Democrats in Texas. In fact, by some measures, the far-right wing of the party may even see short-term benefits. Jones described impeachment as a potential “double win” for Texas Governor Greg Abbott. “It gets rid of someone he wanted gone—he was unwilling to take the risk of openly backing [Paxton challenger] Eva Guzman in the 2022 primary. It also allows him to name the next attorney general.”
It also appears to be the safer choice for establishment conservatives. Senator John Cornyn, who just days ago condemned Paxton as an “embarrassment,” has also expressed reservations about Trump’s behavior. Earlier this year, he said the party needs to focus on sending a candidate to the general election who can win, “I don’t think President Trump understands that when you run in a general election, you have to appeal to voters beyond your base.” And while Seliger doesn’t believe the Texas Republican Party is quite ripe for a schism, he does believe the party is heading toward a longer-term shift away from the trajectory on which misinformation mavens and valueless culture warriors like Paxton and Trump were leading it. “Polarization is going to cost us seriously as a party. The Republicans’ biggest problem right now isn’t Democrats, it’s other Republicans.”