As Ken Paxton settles back into the attorney general’s office he was so harshly rousted from more than 100 days ago, the question of his impeachment fate is answered. While courtroom dates lie ahead for him, the next political question is: What happens to those who sought his head on a spike?
Texas primaries are more than five months away. The 60 Republican House members who voted for impeachment have been skewered by critics for months already. That fate may now fall to Senators Kelly Hancock of North Richland Hills and Robert Nichols of Jacksonville, the only Republicans to align with Democrats on many of the 16 counts voted on Saturday morning.
This impeachment drama has been framed as a conservative attorney general hounded by Democrats and squishy moderates, and there is validity to that. But it’s obviously not the complete story. Several reliable conservatives were among those who voted to impeach in the House. Speculation leans toward how many of those chose to echo the hostilities of Speaker Dade Phelan, who admitted, as did his House impeachment managers, that the catalyst for an investigation was the settlement agreement between Paxton and a pack of so-called whistleblowers who accused the AG of abusing his office.
In the Senate, while Nichols is not a staunch conservative, Hancock surely is. And while we’re at it, so were the whistleblowers, many of whom were drawn into Paxton’s orbit by the appeal of his robust agenda and its strong anchor in faith. So, what led people who had spent years fighting alongside Paxton to decide to fight against him?
Answers will vary, and mind-reading is impossible. But in my months of talking to countless people with varying levels of familiarity with the entire cast of characters, a theory takes shape that is as plausible as any: It is their very affinity for Paxton that led them to be repelled by the actions enumerated in the articles of impeachment.
There were two broad categories — the political favoritism shown to developer Nate Paul, and the personal transgressions against the only senator barred from voting, wife Angela Paxton of McKinney. While no article specifically addressed infidelity, the House managers were eager for testimony reflecting the impact that chapter had on the loyal troops. And they did not disappoint, with repeated stories of the dark days of navigating those misdeeds.
Far more testimony surrounded the measures that Paxton sought for the benefit of Paul, a friend and donor who came across in the trial as wholly unworthy of such deference. The Senate reflected the opinion, surely held by most Republican voters, that while the contortions on Paul’s behalf may not have been wise, they did not warrant ejection from the office Paxton that voters resoundingly returned him to mere months before the impeachment fires were lit.
The theory, which all are welcome to embrace or dismiss, is that Paxton’s subordinates, and many of his former allies in the Legislature, were so wounded by the pain of processing the personal stumble of someone they admired so deeply, that they sought any avenue to make him pay, even an arcane storyline that dwelled forever on the replacement of countertops.
Any legislator, employee in the attorney general’s office or voter is entitled to disapprove of any of the Paxton behavior laid out in the trial. But the question for these last two weeks has been: Do the sentiments of the aggrieved witnesses and the agenda of the House managers justify reversing an election held amid broad knowledge of the controversies that led to impeachment? While the trial may have been some of his voters’ first exposure to these events, it is hard to imagine many of them suddenly regretting their support.
Prosecutor Rusty Hardin promised evidence that would seem “10 times worse” than our grasp of the events as the trial began. That claim has landed with a loud thud, as has the overall effort to oust Paxton. Ripples from the effort may turn into waves; Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who necessarily held his tongue through the process of presiding over the proceedings, instantly shed that restraint the moment Paxton’s acquittal was confirmed.
He scolded the House for its methods and its motivations, promising a full audit of the costs they have exacted and a push for constitutional prohibitions against further impeachments based on such a thin premise.
As Paxton reclaims his office chair, he additionally benefits from millions of dollars in campaign funds raised in just the last few weeks, exemplifying the Donald Trump lesson that it can be helpful to have the right enemies. Paxton’s call to “clean house” clearly refers to the one in Austin with a capital H.
Will there be a price to pay for opposing him? Voters made their wishes about him clear last November; they will now properly answer that question in March.
Mark Davis hosts a morning radio show in Dallas-Fort Worth on 660-AM and at 660amtheanswer.com. Follow him on Twitter: @markdavis.
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