The Ken Paxton saga is exposing the limits of Trump’s coattails

Last updated on September 15, 2023

Ken Paxton and his MAGA allies framed his stunning impeachment trial as the last gasp of the GOP’s weakened establishment.

“RINOs and far-left radicals” were coming after him, Paxton said of the trial that has engulfed Texas politics for more than a week. Former President Donald Trump issued a similar warning, while Donald Trump Jr. is threatening to organize primaries against any Republican state senator who votes for the state attorney general’s conviction, promising “RINO hunting season starts soon!!!

But as the trial nears its conclusion — a decision could come as early as this weekend — what the Paxton saga truly laid bare is something that’s far less revealing about the establishment wing of the party than about its MAGA base.

Even if he avoids conviction, Paxton has been damaged, with an ideological mix of Republicans aligned against him and his public approval rating ticking down. If the Texas trial proves anything, it’s that there may be at least some limits to the partisan tribalism of the Trump era.

Even in the reddest of states, the forces buoying Trump within the GOP do not extend equally to the former president’s allies and hangers-on.

“There are some apt comparisons to Donald Trump here because Ken Paxton is still very popular with the Republican Party base in Texas,” said Brendan Steinhauser, Austin-based Republican strategist who has led campaigns for Sen. John Cornyn and Reps. Michael McCaul and Dan Crenshaw (He has also advised Paxton’s wife, state Sen. Angela Paxton, who has recused herself from voting in the trial).

However, Steinhauser said, “The Texas Senate is actually ideologically very aligned with Paxton, so if he gets convicted, it’s not because these are the establishment people.”

Of all the hard-line Republicans who have embraced Trump in an effort to further their own careers, few have been so embattled — or so closely associated themselves with Trump — as Paxton. Texas Republicans for years stuck with him, including in his defeat of George P. Bush, a scion of the Bush dynasty, in Paxton’s reelection last year.

But while Trump’s impeachments and, later, criminal indictments only served to rally the Republican base around him, Paxton is paying a price for his controversies with the Republican electorate — a sign Trump’s partisan halo extends only so far.

Between when the Republican-led House voted 121–23 to impeach him in late May — something Trump had lobbied them against doing — and shortly before the beginning of his trial, Paxton saw his approval rating crater by 12 points, to 27 percent, according to a University of Texas/Texas Politics Project Poll. An all-time high 23 percent of Republicans now disapprove of him.

Cornyn, himself a former Texas attorney general, has called the allegations against Paxton “deeply disturbing.” Texas GOP Rep. Chip Roy, a former Paxton lieutenant, has previously called for his former boss’s resignation. Paxton primary challenger and former Rep. Louie Gohmert wrote that pursuing Paxton is not an example of “corrupt prosecution.” Konni Burton, a former Texas state senator who had the most conservative voting record, said she believes Paxton “abused the office.”

“I do think there are a lot of grassroots people who look at this, they equate it to what’s going on with Trump,” said a Texas Republican consultant granted anonymity to speak freely about intraparty dynamics. “Paxton has done a very good job of trying to play the Trump card and say these are Democrats, this is a witch hunt, whatever else. But here again, when you look at who voted to impeach him, they’re Republicans. When you look at the people that brought the charges against him, these are conservatives that worked in his office. These are not Democrats. These are not RINOs.”

Even Rick Perry, the former three-term Texas governor and former Trump Energy secretary who was himself indicted while in office — although charges were dismissed — cautioned against outside groups working to delegitimize the impeachment proceedings.

“As a sitting governor who was once wrongly indicted, I know that processes can be abused. But that isn’t what I see here,” Perry wrote in The Wall Street Journal. “We should be praising, not vilifying, them for taking their responsibilities seriously.”

Paxton, facing a historic, 16-article impeachment trial after years of allegations of corruption and bribery, has dismissed the proceedings as a “kangaroo court” in the Texas Legislature, while Paxton’s lawyer derided the case as “a lot of nothing.” And the verdict is far from clear. Paxton needs 10 Republican senators to vacate the charges, and six Republicans have consistently supported every motion favorable to his case.

Trump is still standing firmly beside him. “Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton was easily re-elected last November, but now establishment RINOS are trying to undo that Election with a shameful impeachment of him,” Trump wrote on Truth Social on Thursday, calling Paxton “one of the TOUGHEST & BEST Attorney Generals in the Country.”

He added the Democrats are “feeling very good right now as they watch, as usual, the Republicans fight & eat away at each other.”

Matt Mackowiak, an Austin-based Republican strategist and chair of the Travis County GOP, said he suspected “Trump’s been persuaded that this has been sort of a Republican establishment attack on a conservative.”

But despite some parallels between their legal problems, he said, “It’s obviously a Texas issue.”

For the Texas Senate Republicans, crossing Trump is still perilous. Siding against Paxton could potentially result in them being primaried.

This summer, one conservative group, Defend Texas Liberty PAC, sent out mailers and text messages and put up billboards around the state targeting Republicans who voted for Paxton’s impeachment trial. Another group, Texans Strong Borders, sent out text messages in support of Paxton featuring Donald Trump Jr.’s praise for the attorney general and calling for donations. “STOP THIS SHAM IMPEACHMENT!”, the text message read.

Republican activist and donor Steve Hotze set up the site “” to raise money and petition against the trial.

“You’re gonna see a lot of candidates step up and run primary challenges, and then you’re going to see these operatives get behind them with money and know-how, and a built-in system to support them,” Steinhauser said. “Now whether or not that leads to two or three incumbents getting taken out or 20 or 30, I don’t know. But I think that it’s a real effort.”

But to a far greater degree than with Trump, Paxton’s party is no longer in lockstep.

“There are already dozens of conservative Republican challengers to the liberals in the Texas House who teamed up with Democrats to pass this impeachment,” said Luke Macias, a conservative podcaster and director of Defend Texas Liberty PAC. Illustrating just how much the Paxton trial has animated some on the right, Macias also wrote a song and produced a music video about the Texas House, written from the perspective of the kind of “RINO” member his group is targeting.

“Where I come from, we overturn some elections and impeach your Ken,” Macias sings to the tune of a Montgomery Gentry country music song.