Ken Paxton’s Impeachment Reveals Texas GOP Schism: Political Scientist

  • Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton was impeached from office Saturday. 
  • Many of the Texas House members who voted to impeach him were Republicans themselves. 
  • The vote reveals a more prominent split between the far-right and moderate wings of the GOP.

After eight years of surrounding himself in controversy — but never getting himself in trouble — Ken Paxton, the attorney general of Texas closely linked to the MAGA movement, was swiftly impeached on Saturday.

On Wednesday, a Texas House investigative committee revealed it had been looking into Paxton’s dealings with political donor Nate Paul — stemming from a 2020 whistleblower letter — and accused the attorney general of criminal conduct. The next day, the committee investigating him filed 20 articles of impeachment, alleging Paxton had engaged in bribery, obstruction of justice, false statements in official records, and more while in office.

By Saturday, Paxton — a mainstay in right-wing Texas politics for over two decades — was suspended from his post following a historic 121-23 vote to adopt the 20 articles of impeachment. 

The attorney general’s office called the vote an “irresponsible, unfounded, and illegal impeachment,” maintaining that all his actions in office were lawful and that he never gave Paul special treatment.

For some, the impeachment seemed long overdue. Paxton has been facing a criminal indictment on felony securities fraud charges and multiple investigations since being sworn into the attorney general’s office in 2015. 

‘An embarrassment to the state’

Although the timing of Paxton’s may take some by surprise, Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University, told Insider that the Trump-loving attorney general, who moderates might consider “overboard on socially conservative issues” had not been popular among some Republicans for quite some time. All they needed was the perfect opportunity. 

“They were tolerating him, but also thinking of him as an embarrassment to the state and to the Republican Party in the state… And so I think this was an opportunity to clear this guy off the statewide scene and to limit further embarrassment,” Jillson told Insider. 

The opportunity arose, Jillson said, when Paxton, who owed four former staffers $3.3 million as part of a whistleblower lawsuit after he fired some of them out for speaking out, pled with the Texas House Appropriations subcommittee in February to increase the budget for the attorney general’s office to pay off the settlement.

Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan, a moderate Republican who later helped impeach Paxton, was vocally opposed, calling it an improper use of taxpayer dollars. The funding request jumpstarted the investigation into Paxton’s allegations, a spokesperson told The New York Times.

Jillson also noted that the overwhelming majority to impeach Paxton — even in a Republican-dominated House, with members who have previously backed him — suggested the years of criminal allegations had become a focal point for many members. 

“That suggests to me that the vote was not really on the debate or on the transcript that the investigations committee provided to members, but it was on what every member has watched over the last eight or nine years regarding Ken Paxton’s political and personal behavior,” Jillson said. 

However, he says morality was most likely not at play. For Texas House Republicans, it was more about strategy.

“It’s not that morality doesn’t sometimes rear its head and in politics, but it is rare for it to drive events,” Jillson said. “But when events make the moral element of a question unavoidable then there is a rush to declare that you’ve always felt deeply concerned about behavior like this.” 

GOP moderates and radicals on the national stage

Jillson noted that the conflict between more radical elements of the party and moderates in Texas has been evolving over the past decade, ushered in by the Tea Party in 2010. The split is evident, he said, in the way, Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, also close to former President Donald Trump, has become “increasingly and visibly dismissive” of Phelan.

It’s also evident in the disagreements on policy, on everything from property taxes to public funding for private school education, The New York Times noted.

This GOP-on-GOP conflict in Texas reflects a national struggle between Republicans that rarely, if ever, plays out the way it did in Texas, Jillson said.

Jillson pointed to the multiple disputes between House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and the Freedom Caucus — a far-right wing in the House — on everything from who should be the Speaker to the recent debt ceiling negotiations, where GOP lawmakers accused McCarthy of “emasculating himself” by compromising with President Joe Biden.

But unlike Texas Republicans, less far-right GOP members like McCarthy don’t have a majority to stand on, as the only nine-seat lead means that to get things done, Republicans have to stick together.

“McCarthy is very vulnerable, and so he is even more reluctant than the Texas Republican majority to go out against one of his own members,” Jillson said. 

A Representative for Paxton did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.

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