The State of Paxton v. Bush

What’s worse for a Republican in 2022: To be an alleged felon, or to bear the same last name as Jeb and the Georges?

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A version of this story ran in the March / April 2022 issue.

In 2014, under the pall of fraud allegations, then-state Senator Ken Paxton hauled in just under 45 percent of the GOP primary vote as he secured first place against a pair of establishment-aligned opponents in his bid for Texas Attorney General.

The third-place finisher endorsed the runner-up in the runoff, citing concerns about Paxton’s emerging ethical challenges. “The Attorney General must have integrity, honesty, and high moral character,” Barry Smitherman said in his endorsement of state Representative Dan Branch. 

But in a year of anti-establishment tea party fervor among the party’s base, Paxton’s pledge to continue then-Attorney General Greg Abbott’s legacy of using the office as a perch to sue President Barack Obama was enough to win. In the 2014 runoff, Paxton—buoyed by a $1 million loan from a new right-wing PAC called Empower Texans—trounced Branch by nearly 30 points. 

Eight years later, Texas political observers might feel a sense of déjà vu. Attorney General Paxton, still under siege and scandal, was forced into another runoff battle by a stable of political rivals in this year’s March primary. And once again, despite being a two-term incumbent, he’s positioned himself as the conservative insurgent against the powerful establishment. 

“Clearly, to the establishment, they got what they wanted. They got me in a runoff,” Paxton said after the primary. “But this is nothing new for me,” he added, alluding to his 2014 runoff against an opponent from the “same group of people” gunning for him now. 

His opponent in this runoff is a fitting avatar: George P. Bush, son of Jeb. The scion of the Bush political dynasty, who became the Texas land commissioner the same year Paxton entered statewide office, was once seen as the future of a more diverse Republican Party. Now he’s racing to the right, while trying to convince GOP voters that the myriad allegations of corruption and ethical wrongdoings warrant turning on Paxton, a diehard Trump loyalist. 

Since he was elected, Paxton has used his office to file an endless barrage of lawsuits targeting the culture-war obsessions of the Trumpified GOP. All the while, his legal troubles have continued to stack up. Soon after taking office, Paxton was indicted on felony charges of securities fraud, though he’s thus far managed to avoid facing trial. He is also currently under FBI investigation for allegations of corruption and bribery stemming from his relationship with a prominent real estate developer in Austin that arose ahead of the 2020 elections. 

Heading into 2022, Paxton looked more vulnerable than ever before and his challengers saw a chance to pick him off from the herd of statewide incumbents. Bush was the first to announce his challenge to Paxton in 2021. He was soon joined by ex-Texas Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman, who received the endorsement and ample campaign funding of Texans for Lawsuit Reform, a key pillar of corporate Republicanism in the state. 

Guzman and Bush ferociously attacked each other in the primary and spent millions vying for the attention of mainstream conservative voters fed up with Paxton’s endless stream of corruption. East Texas Congressman Louie Gohmert jumped in the race, too, posing the most direct challenge to Paxton’s hold on the far-right Trumpian base of the party. All the candidates railed against Paxton for his various ethical scandals while trying to mark themselves as the real conservative in the race. 

This required some political footwork from Bush, since his family’s once shining political brand has become toxic as Trump won the GOP nomination in 2016 and Trumpism has taken over Texas. Since then, Bush has carefully tried to distance himself from his family—and pledge fealty to the former president, who lauded him as “the only Bush that likes me.” Bush clung to that line, stamping it on campaign koozies that featured an image of him and the president embracing. George P. groveled before Trump, hoping to steal away a presumed endorsement for Paxton. As expected, the ploy didn’t work. 

Undeterred, Bush continued framing himself as the most diehard border warrior in the field, cutting an ad with footage of himself in sunglasses driving a four-wheeler along a stretch of border wall. 

By the morning after the primary, it was clear Bush had made it into the runoff. Paxton took nearly 43 percent of the vote while Bush secured 23 percent, well ahead of Guzman and Gohmert. 

Paxton hasn’t hesitated in attacking Bush and his family. In a fundraising letter ahead of the primary, he lambasted the family’s opposition to Trump and wrote that  Bush “believes it’s his birthright to ascend to higher office.” The day after the primary, Paxton told a conservative talk radio host, “The Bushes have had their chances. It’s time for the dynasty to end. It’s time for somebody to get in there and fight and not capitulate to the establishment.”

George P., meanwhile, has stressed that his political ambitions trump his Bush blood. “You know, I think my family’s picture in American politics is secure,” he told the Washington Post. “But Texans know me as my own man, and my own family encouraged me to be my own man.” Upon making it into the runoff, Bush floated the idea that Trump might reconsider his endorsement. Paxton dismissed the notion as a “made-up fantasy.” 

Runoffs are notoriously dangerous terrain for Texas incumbents. But Paxton may still have the upper hand in what is likely to be an exceptionally low-turnout affair, in which only the most committed party faithful show up. Those GOP voters have already shown a high tolerance for political corruption and ethical indiscretions. Much like Trump, Paxton has long insisted his scandals are merely the machinations of his Republican-in-name-only enemies in the political establishment. 

That was enough to whip Branch in 2014. This time around, will it be enough to beat the Bushes?