Soon after Ken Paxton was reinstated as attorney general—shout-out to Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and most of the Republicans of the Texas Senate—he promised payback against those who voted for his impeachment. Paxton said he was “highly motivated” to get his detractors out of office in order to bring the GOP in line with his brand of right-wing extremism. The true power of Paxton’s electoral prowess will not be apparent until next year’s primary elections, but those who bet against him might be feeling slightly more anxious after tonight’s special election in a northeast Texas House seat.
Special elections aren’t typically the most scintillating exercises of democracy, nor are they the most attention-grabbing. But the race for the House District Two seat vacated by disgraced former Republican state representative Bryan Slaton, of Royse City, was one to watch. (Slaton was expelled from the Texas House in May after it emerged he had had sex with a nineteen-year-old intern after giving her alcohol at his Austin apartment.) Slaton might’ve been a legislative troll, but he had powerful allies: namely, Defend Texas Liberty, a PAC that opposed the impeachment and is funded by a cluster of far-right donors led by Midland oil billionaire and Christian nationalist Tim Dunn. Those backers wanted to ensure Slaton’s replacement would be an ideological match politically. They, and Paxton, aligned behind Brent Money, a real estate, business, and probate lawyer who believes that the attorney general was “fraudulently suspended” by the Texas House.
Money’s victory Tuesday night—winning the most votes, at 32 percent, in a crowded field of six candidates—marks the first success in Paxton’s tour to remake the Texas House, whose members voted to impeach him. Money will now go head-to-head with the second-place finisher, Jill Dutton, former president of the Republican Women of Van Zandt [County], in a runoff election.
Notably, the presence on the ballot of a Republican who opposes a school-voucher program made the race even more competitive. Heath Hyde, an attorney, came in third, earning 21 percent of the vote, compared with Dutton’s 25 percent. While Hyde’s narrow loss means he won’t have a voice on the issue during the newly announced special legislative session, his ascendance to the top echelon suggests that a certain sect of otherwise far-right GOP voters remains skeptical of a program to offer taxpayer dollars to parents to send their children to private schools, despite lawmakers’ attempts to reach a deal on the issue.
Political scientists have long said that it’s hard to pinpoint exactly how much endorsements affect results, though Paxton certainly staked a lot to the race. As of publication, the AG had not issued a statement on the results. Money did. In it, he assailed House Speaker Dade Phelan and “his liberal friends,” who he said supported Dutton over him. “This district is hungry for true conservative values, and THOSE are the values that won out,” Money wrote. “That is true today, and it will be true again in the runoff.”
The attorney general has promised to get involved in at least ten more state House races next year—all but one against incumbents who voted for his impeachment. (One election, for House District 56, will be an open-seat race.) Though there was no such pro-impeachment incumbent in House District Two, and though the race was a low-turnout one, the results suggest Paxton might have emerged from the proceedings more powerful than before. “Surviving the impeachment attempt has left Paxton with greater strength than he already had in his conservative base,” Mark Davis, a Dallas-based conservative radio host, told me. “Ken seems determined to translate that support into campaigns against House members who came after him.”
The race in House District Two, a solidly Republican enclave located east of Dallas, ended up a proxy war between two wings of the party: Money has the backing of Paxton, Senator Ted Cruz, Defend Texas Liberty, and chairman of the Texas GOP Matt Rinaldi, who all opposed the attorney general’s impeachment. Dutton took a more measured stance on the impeachment, saying she didn’t have all the information but “respect[ed] the process in both” chambers. She has the support of former Texas governor Rick Perry, the Associated Republicans of Texas—a more moderate group that champions candidates who can combat hard-line conservatives—and Texans for Lawsuit Reform, an influential tort-reform lobbying group targeted by Paxton’s lawyers during the Senate impeachment trial. At various points during the weeks-long spectacle, Paxton’s team alleged—without evidence—that the group was conspiring to take down the AG.
Politically speaking, however, the two candidates are quite similar. Dutton even tried to attack Money in a recent campaign ad as not sufficiently loyal to other far-right extremists, such as former president Donald Trump. (Money has since affirmed his unwavering fealty to Trump’s 2024 run.)
Given the political homogeneity of House District Two—a ruby-red district where nearly every Republican running offered the same sort of right-wing politics—Paxton’s endorsement might have made a real difference. “The one-two punch of Paxton and Cruz aligns Money’s views with the two foremost conservative heroes of the moment,” Davis said.
So what do we know from this race heading into 2024? Not every new election offers some grand insight into the sweep of history or some key to understanding the future; election results are often shaped more by broad fundamentals than one individual tipping the scale, and it’s unwise to draw too much from a low-turnout affair. But the race for House District Two confirms that the rightmost wing of the Republican Party can survive at the balllot box despite increasingly noxious and hateful messaging and will stand by Paxton in the face of what it perceives to be a politically motivated vendetta.
Polling on Paxton’s favorability, meanwhile, reveals something more novel: Paxton has emerged from his trial stronger among Republicans—especially those furthest to the right. Though his favorability rating among self-described Republicans lagged behind those of Governor Greg Abbott and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick this fall, it has somewhat rebounded in recent months. According to an October University of Texas/Texas Politics Project survey, Republican voters gave the Senate higher marks (46 percent) than the House (36 percent) when asked how each body handled the impeachment and trial. Opposition to the impeachment has increased over time, too. When the pollsters asked in June whether the House was justified in impeaching Paxton, Republican voters were almost evenly split, with 31 percent saying yes and 30 percent saying no. In the October survey, that split was 26 percent to 43 percent. Those numbers could change again as Paxton finally goes to trial on eight-year-old charges of securities fraud next spring, but for now, Paxton’s favorability is relatively strong.
“When there are issues that the public does not know a lot of details about, they look to partisan opinion leaders and elected officials for cues in their attitude formation and what kinds of positions they should take,” Jim Henson, who directs the Texas Politics Project at UT-Austin, said. “Now that Paxton has been acquitted by the Republican majority in the Senate, he’s vocally defending himself, and the lieutenant governor is attacking the House’s process and defending the verdict in the Senate, there are clearer cues for a lot of conservative Republicans.” And those conservative Republicans are arguably the GOP’s most important base, considering they’re the ones voting in most primary races.
Abbott will set a runoff date for the House District Two seat. But if Money is the ultimate victor, Dutton may not be the only loser—she might be joined by the ten Republicans (so far) whose primary races Paxton is getting involved in next spring. “Paxton’s potential influence is highest right now because of the composition of the electorate,” Henson said. “But there’s a lot to be seen about how it evolves—or erodes—over time.”