AUSTIN, Texas – As President Joe Biden’s agenda is dealt an early blow in Texas, the embattled Republican attorney general promising more fights ahead with the new administration is getting little public support from members of his party, even as they cheer the results.
Nearly all of the more than 100 GOP lawmakers in the Texas Legislature did not respond when asked by The Associated Press if they had confidence in Attorney General Ken Paxton, who for months has been beset by an FBI investigation over bribery and abuse-of-office accusations.
At the same time, Republicans are showing no intention of using their overwhelming majority and legislative powers to confront Paxton over the coming months in the state Capitol, where lawmakers are back at work for the first time since eight top deputies for the attorney general leveled accusations against him. All eight have resigned or were fired since October.
Since then, Paxton has baselessly challenged Biden’s victory, including asking the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the election. And on Tuesday, he won a court order halting Biden’s 100-day moratorium on deportations, in a lawsuit filed just two days after the president was sworn in.
Now, with America's biggest red state ready to resume the role of foil to a Democratic administration, the atmosphere surrounding Paxton in some ways resembles the peace that privately weary Republicans made with Donald Trump's bombastic presidency — applauding the work while mostly staying silent about the surrounding turmoil.
“That’s the real measurement. That’s the real litmus test,” said Republican state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, who pointed toward the deportation lawsuit and challenges last year to mail-in ballot applications around his Houston district. “Because I already know, in my case, in my county, the AG’s office made a major difference.”
The AP contacted the offices of every GOP lawmaker in the Legislature, asking if they had confidence in Paxton and whether the Legislature should act on his deputies' accusations. Only two, Bettencourt and Rep. John Smithee, responded, both saying they had no reason to question the attorney general’s job performance and that they were waiting for the results of outside investigations.
Paxton's budget requests may yet force Republican lawmakers to consider the exodus from his office. But so far, members of his party — who control of every lever of state government — haven't rushed to put one of their top elected officials under a microscope. The ranks of Texas’ GOP legislators include Paxton’s wife, state Sen. Angela Paxton, who joined her husband on stage at Trump’s Jan. 6 rally that proceeded a deadly riot in the U.S. Capitol.
Whether the attorney general who in December led a failed lawsuit supported by Trump that asked the Supreme Court to subvert the will of voters avoids a hard look from lawmakers is also a test of the insulating effect that loyalty to the former president continues to hold in the GOP.
Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick batted away a question about Paxton at an event with Houston firefighters last week, calling it a “fair question” but one for another time.
Spokespersons for Republican Gov. Greg Abbott — who has previously said the accusations raise “serious concerns” — and Paxton did not respond to questions. Meanwhile, Abbott on Thursday instructed state agencies to begin identifying “potential litigation" over the energy sector to aim at the Biden administration — lawsuits that Paxton's office would likely handle.
The extent of legislative pressure on Paxton so far came shortly after the accusations surfaced in October, when the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee urged the attorney general to resign if there was “any truth whatsoever" to the claims.
Since then, more details have emerged, including in a whistleblower lawsuit. Four Paxton accusers claimed he ousted them as retribution and laid out four ways in which Paxton used his office to help Austin real estate developer Nate Paul, who is fending off his own FBI investigation and employs a woman with whom Paxton allegedly had an extramarital affair.
“The allegations from his own staff are pretty serious," said Democratic state Rep. Chris Turner, who has called on lawmakers to investigate Paxton. “We should all want to get to the bottom of what those are."
Separately, Paxton is awaiting trial on felony securities fraud charges from 2015. He has pleaded not guilty to allegations that he defrauded investors in a tech startup before becoming attorney general.
While Paxton may avoid a hard look from his party, campaign finance records show his donor support has suffered. Last year was Paxton's worst for fundraising since 2015. Several big-money donors who were key to financing his political rise haven’t given to him since the FBI's investigation became public.
Bleiberg reported from Dallas. Associated Press writer Juan A. Lozano in Houston contributed to this report.