by David Leffler
The stories flooded across the country in 2015. “Grand Jury Indicts Texas Attorney General, Ken Paxton, on Felony Charges,” a New York Times headline read. Another by the Texas Tribune declared “Paxton Surrenders in Securities Fraud Indictment.” Nevermind that it had only been a matter of months since the North Dakota native had won a rigorous 2014 primary, thanks in large part to his Tea Party laurels. With three pending felony criminal charges — all of which were connected to his illicit soliciting of clients and investors for two companies he was associated with — it appeared Paxton’s blossoming political career was coming to a screeching halt. Instead, it was just the beginning.
In the nearly six years since, the attorney general has become arguably the most contentious figure in Texas politics. He’s delayed his still-pending felony charges through a series of legal maneuvers like trial venue requests, a strategy he’s deployed since 2015. He’s maintained his grip on power through a combination of political savviness, conservative bravado, and ceaseless corruption. And he’s ensured that, regardless of the trouble he’s found himself in, Lone Star Republicans have his back. (Case in point: He won re-election in Texas by nearly 300,000 votes in 2018.) Through it all, Paxton has demonstrated a Trumpian ability to overcome ruinous controversies that would typically make a politician radioactive. After all, how many lawmakers could last half a year in office while facing felony indictments, let alone a decade? Much of this can be attributed to his Republican counterparts, who couldn’t even muster a primary challenge against him three years ago. There’s also his carefully crafted public image — a persona he’s honed through frequent appearances on programs like Fox & Friends and with right-wing media magnates like Glenn Beck. At one point, as Texas Monthly documented in 2016, Paxton even conducted more than twenty TV interviews in a single day. Over time, he’s proven time and time again that, try as you might, you just can’t kill him. The man is a political cockroach.
Then, everything changed last fall. In October, eight of Paxton’s top aides abruptly departed from his office, telling law enforcement (including the FBI) that their boss had committed a number of crimes, such as accepting bribes and abusing his power. At the center of their concerns was Paxton’s efforts to deliver preferential treatment to Nate Paul, an embattled real estate mogul and political donor who provided $25,000 to the Republican’s 2018 campaign. Most notably, the attorney general sought out investigations against a federal judge and the FBI, alleging that they broke the law when searching Paul’s offices and home in 2019. Paul also admitted to employing a woman at the attorney general’s recommendation with whom Paxton reportedly had an extramarital affair.
True to form, the Republican didn’t bow under the pressure of this latest batch of catastrophic findings. Instead, he tripled down, firing four whistleblowers and dismissing his aides’ claims as nothing more than falsified attacks from “rogue employees.” For a while, it worked. For a while, it looked like the zombie attorney general would, once again, come back from the dead to haunt us all. Nothing could kill him. Every controversy made him smarter, stronger, bolder.
But as the months have passed, it’s become increasingly evident that Paxton’s days may truly be numbered. For one, his desperate public courtship of a preemptive pardon from former president Donald Trump fell flat in January — a significant blow considering he’s finally due in court this December. Just as importantly, his fellow Republicans are no longer standing pat. Already, Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush (yes, that Bush) and Eva Guzman, the first Latina Texas Supreme Court justice, have announced that they’re challenging Paxton in next year’s attorney general primary. More contenders could be coming soon, too. It’s official: Blood is in the water.
Given these developments, it’s fair to say that Paxton’s chances of weathering this storm are far slimmer than in the past. Yes, he’s on the brink of making his long-awaited entry into the courtroom for his 2015 indictments, albeit potentially in Collin County, where he has plenty of connections. But the newest allegations, all of which are being investigated by the FBI, are what could ultimately cost the attorney general his chances at re-election and even conclude with him serving time.
Nothing is guaranteed until that day comes, though. Because lord knows that Paxton, ever the survivor, is going to do everything he can to fight, scrap, and lie his way through his greatest challenge yet. Only time will tell if the political cockroach will once again emerge unscathed.