AUSTIN, Texas — Republican state senators Tuesday waved off a far-right pressure campaign to cancel the impeachment trial of embattled Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton — and with it, the looming threat of retribution.
Paxton’s trial represents a civil war between members of the ruling GOP coalition — a fracture that appears to be widening.
The failure of the Paxton faction to persuade the state Senate to throw out the trial represented a danger sign for his immediate prospects.
But that failure also represented something much larger: a significant setback for the state’s far right, which has long relied on the threat of a right-flank challenger to cow the state’s moderate Republicans.
In late August, The Texas Tribune broke the story that Paxton’s allies in the Christian nationalist movement were pressuring GOP senators to vote to throw the trial out — or face familiar consequences.
“Anyone that votes against Ken Paxton in this impeachment is risking their entire political career, and we will make sure that is the case,” right-wing activist Jonathan Stickland, who runs the pro-Paxton Defend Texas Liberty PAC, told Steve Bannon in a mid-August interview.
Stickland singled out six Republican senators: Kelly Hancock (North Richland Hills), Mayes Middleton (Galveston), Bryan Hughes (Mineola), Charles Schwertner (Georgetown), Charles Perry (Lubbock) and Drew Springer (Muenster).
“We’re gonna make all these six famous in the days ahead,” Bannon replied, as Stickland threatened to sponsor primary campaigns against any Republicans who voted against Paxton.
But only Hancock, from the Dallas-Fort Worth area, voted to throw out the charges entirely.
Two others — Perry of the Panhandle city of Lubbock, and Schwertner, from a conservative suburb of liberal Austin — voted for less-sweeping measures that nonetheless would have effectively ended the trial.
All six of the targeted senators represented small cities or exurbs — both of which in Texas usually signify Republican strongholds.
By defying Paxton’s supporters, the three dissidents — Middleton, Springer and Hughes — signaled their willingness to run the risk of the most fearsome threat that the Texas right can offer: a contested primary among the famously conservative Republican primary electorate.
For decades, that threat has been a key cudgel wielded against the moderate, libertarian-leaning Republicans by the ascendant Christian right — two quasi-parties within the Republican coalition that has ruled Texas as a one-party state since the late ‘90s.
While that coalition party won the Republicans unquestioned statewide rule under former Govs. George W. Bush (R) and Rick Perry (R), the alliance has always been uneasy, and cracks began to show with the rise of the Tea Party movement in the late 2000s, as the populist right sought ever more control and ideological purity.
The populist push for dominance gave post-Bush Texas politics a distinctive usage of a common political word.
In Texas, “to primary” has the highly specialized meaning of “to support a right-wing challenger to a moderate Republican in the hopes of unseating them.”
This threat was a principal weapon employed during the right wing’s ascendance under current Gov. Greg Abbott (R).
In that campaign, the powerful right-wing Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) led a purge of the Senate — the body now trying Paxton — which left that body largely controlled by the far right. But a similar far-right takeover of the House failed — laying the foundation for this week’s impeachment trial.
In 2017, an insurgent campaign tried to force the resignation of moderate, Prius-driving GOP speaker Rep. Joe Straus (San Antonio), a campaign defeated by Democrats and moderate Republicans. To this date, the chamber remains controlled by a moderate Republican speaker, real estate developer Rep. Dade Phelan (Beaumont.)
But while it ultimately failed, the long campaign to unseat Straus served as a knife-sharpening appetizer for the fight over Paxton — complete with the weaponized primary. Straus ultimately resigned after that term, citing exhaustion as a primary reason.
Texas fracking billionaire Farris Wilks, his brother Dan Wilks and fellow Christian nationalist ally Tim Dunn have also been Paxton’s biggest benefactors: The three have given nearly $15 million to Defend Texas Liberty, the pro-Paxton PAC, since it was founded in 2020 — $3.5 million of it since Paxton’s impeachment in June, as the Tribune reported.
That PAC has also given more than $3 million to impeachment judge Patrick since the charges were announced in late June.
But the mere fact of Paxton’s impeachment — alongside Tuesday’s failure by the far right to get those charges thrown out — suggests that the threat of the right-wing primary may no longer work to cow the business conservatives.
This was not for lack of trying.
“A vote to impeach Ken Paxton is a decision to have a primary. Can’t wait to see who sides with Democrats,” Stickland, the far-right activist at Defend Texas Liberty, warned in May, as the Paxton impeachment vote loomed.
But Speaker Phelan — another leading public enemy of the right who had spurred Stickland’s reaction with the prior unveiling of sweeping charges against the attorney general — won that round.
The attorney general was impeached by Texas House Republicans 121-23 — a factor of nearly 6-to-one.
And as Tuesday’s vote shows, Paxton may yet escape with his job — but GOP members are no longer willing to toe the Christian right line just because a primary is threatened.
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