Ken Paxton’s impeachment trial escalates Texas Republican civil war

Streetlights illuminate the Texas Capitol through early morning fog on the ninth day of suspended Attorney General Ken Paxton’s impeachment trial in Austin on Sept. 15, 2023.
Streetlights illuminate the Texas Capitol through early morning fog on the ninth day of suspended Attorney General Ken Paxton’s impeachment trial in Austin on Sept. 15, 2023. Credit: Julius Shieh/The Texas Tribune
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Hours after his acquittal in the Texas Senate, Attorney General Ken Paxton’s far-right supporters doubled down on their promises for swift retribution against fellow Republicans who supported his removal from office.

In particular, they vowed a scorched-earth campaign against House Speaker Dade Phelan, casting him as the ringleader responsible for the impeachment process and calling for him to resign immediately.

“You and your band of RINOs are now on notice,” Defend Texas Liberty PAC leader Jonathan Stickland tweeted at Phelan on Saturday, as voting continued in the Texas Senate. “You will be held accountable for this entire sham. We will never stop. Retire now.”

Paxton’s impeachment trial was the latest — and among the most consequential — battle in an ongoing civil war between the Texas GOP’s establishment members and a well-funded right wing that has for years claimed the party is insufficiently conservative.

Though the two factions generally agree on policy issues — and the Texas Legislature routinely leads the nation in passing socially conservative bills — the party’s far right has often accused members, specifically those in the Texas House, of partnering with Democrats to undermine conservative priorities.

Paxton has played a key role in that fight, and has used his office to back the issues favored by the state’s most conservative flank. In turn, he has received millions of dollars from ultraconservative donors such as oil tycoons Tim Dunn and Farris Wilks, who have buoyed his campaigns as his legal woes mounted, approval ratings dropped and other, more establishment donors invested elsewhere.

After House Republicans took the lead to impeach Paxton in May, the state’s far right again rushed to his defense: They accused Phelan of being drunk while presiding over House business and promised high-price primary challenges to House Republicans who voted to suspend Paxton from office. They erected billboards, made documentaries and paid social media influencers to parrot pro-Paxton talking points. They compared him to twice-impeached former President Donald Trump, and argued the attorney general was the victim of a “witch hunt” orchestrated by, among others, the Bush family, Democrats and the deep state.

Paxton echoed that sentiment after the vote, saying in a statement that he was the victim of a “sham impeachment coordinated by the Biden Administration with liberal House Speaker Dade Phelan and his kangaroo court.”

And, within seconds of his acquittal, Paxton’s supporters began to attack the cast of characters that they believed were responsible.

“The Texas House owes all of Texas a big apology,” said Rep. Steve Toth, a Republican from the Woodlands and a member of the House’s Freedom Caucus, which threw its support behind Paxton. “This was a sham … This is terribly destructive to the Republican Party of Texas.”

[Dan Patrick, Dade Phelan trade potshots after impeachment trial ends]

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick — who presided over the trial but had largely avoided discussing its merits — gave a blistering speech in which he condemned the House impeachment managers and Phelan, with whom Patrick has long been at odds over school-choice legislation and other conservative bills that did not make it out of the Texas House during this year’s legislative session.

Meanwhile, prominent conservatives — including Trump — excoriated “RINOs” in the House and called for Phelan’s resignation. Paxton’s acquittal, some argued, was proof that the far right was the Texas GOP’s true standard bearer. And they promised that dramatic changes would consequently follow.

“Speaker Dade Phelan and his leadership team should be embarrassed for putting Texas through the time and expense of this political sham of an impeachment,” Matt Rinaldi, the chair of the Republican Party of Texas, said in a statement. “We invite the House Republican Caucus to choose leadership moving forward who will unify a Republican coalition behind our common goals, instead of sharing power with Democrats.”

House Republicans responded in kind, framing Paxton as corrupt and blaming his acquittal on partisan politics in the other chamber.

At a press conference following the vote, Rep. Andrew Murr, a Junction Republican and chair of the House impeachment team, excoriated Republican senators and the “millions of dollars that Mr. Paxton’s apologists have spent to influence and intimidate Texas senators and Texas constituents.”

In a statement that echoed some of Murr’s disappointment and concerns, Phelan also blasted Patrick for his post-vote “tirade.”

“I find it deeply concerning that after weeks of claiming he would preside over this trial in an impartial and honest manner, Lt. Governor Patrick would conclude by confessing his bias and placing his contempt for the people’s house on full display,” Phelan said. “The inescapable conclusion is that today’s outcome appears to have been orchestrated from the start, cheating the people of Texas of justice.”

The animosity comes ahead of a special session — likely in October — over school choice legislation that has already turned into a lightning rod for conflict between Senate and House Republicans. For the past several legislative sessions, rural House Republicans have blocked voucher legislation favored by the Senate, and Phelan and Patrick also spent much of the summer warring over the details of their chambers’ respective property tax bills.

The possibility of an even deeper rift has already prompted some in the party to call for reconciliation, fearing a Pyrrhic victory for the winner of the escalating civil war.

“The radical and divisive nature of the situation in Texas now is going to cost us terribly,” former Amarillo Sen. Kel Seliger said in an interview. “And who is going to bring the party back together once we have really torn ourselves apart, once we’re done?”

Standing outside the Senate chamber on Saturday, Toth said he expects there to be “retribution” by voters for his fellow Republicans who supported Paxton’s impeachment. And he agreed that the party’s internecine conflict has no end in sight.

“It’s a mess,” he said.

Kate McGee contributed to this report.

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