Attorney General Ken Paxton is probably not a big threat to Dade Phelan in his home district, one expert says. But Donald Trump could be.
Republican Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan, taking fire from former President Donald Trump and some high-profile Republicans in the state as he faces a tough primary race, unleashed a direct attack Tuesday on Attorney General Ken Paxton by invoking the extramarital affair that helped trigger last year’s impeachment against the state’s top lawyer.
“It pains me to say this, Ken Paxton had an affair with a Senate staffer,” said Phelan, R-Beaumont, who has represented a Southeast Texas district in the House since 2015 and has served as speaker since 2021. “When his own conservative deputies discovered Paxton had traded legal favors to cover up his adultery, they reported him to law enforcement.”
The straight-to-camera 30-second video targets the embattled Republican attorney general who survived impeachment but is still facing myriad criminal and civil court challenges. The attack on Paxton also serves to blunt last week’s endorsement by Trump for one of Phelan’s House challengers in the March 5 GOP primary.
Trump and Paxton are political allies. The former president’s endorsement helped Paxton fend off a 2022 primary challenge from George P. Bush, a former Texas land commissioner and grandson of one U.S. president and nephew of another. And Paxton has used the power of his office in unsuccessful legal challenges to the outcome of the 2020 presidential race that Trump lost to Democrat Joe Biden.
Phelan, in the video, notes that Paxton recently dropped his effort to defend himself in the yearslong whistleblower lawsuit brought by several of his former top aides, which led to the Texas House overwhelmingly voting to impeach the attorney general on 20 charges, including bribery, dereliction of duty and obstruction of justice. All but two Republican state senators voted to acquit Paxton, clearing a majority to remain in office, but Phelan suggested that Paxton, by seeking to walk away from the civil case, tacitly admitted he is guilty of the charges.
“Vengeful Paxton is the reason Trump’s involved himself in our race,” Phelan said in the video. “If Paxton will break an oath to his wife and God, why would he tell Trump or you the truth?”
The whistleblowers’ allegation that Paxton’s friend and campaign donor, Nate Paul, employed the woman with whom the attorney general reportedly was romantically involved so that she could live in Austin was a prominent subtheme of the Senate impeachment trial.
House impeachment managers, who were appointed by Phelan, had hoped to compel the woman to testify in public, but Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, acting as the impeachment court judge, ruled that she would not have to take the stand.
Immediately after the impeachment trial concluded, Patrick, from the seat where he sat as the proceeding’s judge, read from prepared remarks railing against Phelan and the House for bringing impeachment charges against Paxton.
Months earlier, Patrick received a $3 million political contribution — a $1 million donation and $2 million loan — from a political action committee fighting to keep Paxton from being impeached.
‘No endorsement is more valuable than Trump’s’
Paxton and his impeachment are likely to be only marginal factors for Republican primary voters in Phelan’s House District 21, said Rice University political science professor Mark Jones. The more worrisome variable, Jones added, is Trump’s public backing of Phelan’s challenger, David Covey, a former Orange County GOP chairman, in the three-candidate GOP race.
Jones is a co-author of a Rice University voter attitudes survey released Monday that shows 70% of Republicans said the former president’s endorsement would make them more likely to vote for that person in the GOP primary. Only 40% said Paxton’s endorsement would sway such voters, but 41% said the attorney general’s recommendations would have no effect. Nineteen percent of GOP voters said an endorsement from Paxton would make them reject his preferred candidate.
“One thing that came out of the report is that Paxton’s bark is a little worse than his bite,” said Jones, who noted that one-third of the Republican respondents had an unfavorable view of the three-term attorney general. “If you’re running for office as a Republican House member, no endorsement is more valuable than Trump’s.”
Because most political observers foresee Trump locking up the GOP presidential nomination before the Texas primary on March 5, the former president will not have to actively motivate his base in the state to gin up turnout for the primary, Jones said. That means local and state races will likely be the ones driving voters to the polls March 5.
On Monday, Phelan released a long list of influential Republicans who are backing his bid for reelection and included several established conservative or business-minded organizations often aligned with GOP causes. Among them are the National Rifle Association, the Texas Department of Public Safety Officers Association and the Texas Oil and Gas Association.
In addition to Trump, Paxton and Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller are backing Covey. Paxton last month released a video of his own endorsing Covey. A third House District 21 GOP primary candidate, Alicia Davis, who bills herself as a seventh-generation Texan, will also be on the ballot, which means the race might ultimately have to be decided by a runoff. No Democrat has filed in the district.