Louie Gohmert says the darndest things. The long-serving Republican congressman from East Texas has suggested altering the moon’s orbit as a way to combat climate change. He once claimed that Al Qaeda was sending pregnant women to the United States to give birth to “future terrorists.” Last year, he cited his college SAT scores in an effort to refute the idea that he’s “the dumbest member of Congress.” 

So it was no surprise to hear Gohmert workshop some new material at a February 5 campaign event in the hamlet of Gilmer, 45 minutes northeast of Tyler, where he was seeking to persuade voters to support him in the GOP primary for Texas attorney general. “You violate [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi’s rules if you mention your mother, your father, your sister, your brother, your son, your daughter,” Gohmert told the crowd of about sixty at the Flyin’ Feathers Ranch, a wedding and special events venue off Texas Highway 300. As the crowd laughed, Gohmert explained that Pelosi had prohibited members of Congress from using gendered words on the House floor. 

Pelosi has issued no such rule, but that didn’t seem to matter to the audience at Flyin’ Feathers, who see Gohmert as one of their own. Stacy McMahan, the executive director of East Texans for Liberty, the right-wing group that sponsored the event, told me that a Gohmert appearance on Fox News in 2006 inspired her to become a GOP activist. In 2011, when Gohmert’s district was redrawn by the Legislature, McMahan was devastated to find herself with a new representative. “She had him and she lost him,” said her friend Mary Anne Farrow, an East Texans for Liberty board member, as McMahan nodded along. “She got ballistic—she was crying and upset.” Last year’s redistricting returned McMahan to the First Congressional District. “I was so excited,” she said. “I bragged about it to everyone.”

Now McMahan is poised to lose Gohmert again. The congressman isn’t running for reelection. He’s instead seeking the Republican nomination for Texas attorney general. The odds are against him: Ken Paxton is a well-funded incumbent with a coveted endorsement from Donald Trump. Gohmert hopes to force Paxton into a runoff by keeping him under 50 percent and by finishing second in the March 1 primary—ahead of two other challengers, land commissioner George P. Bush and former Texas Supreme Court justice Eva Guzman. A January poll of registered voters conducted by the Dallas Morning News and the University of Texas at Tyler found that 33 percent who identified as Republican supported Paxton, followed by 19 percent for Bush, 8 percent for Gohmert, and 7 percent for Guzman, with 33 percent undecided. 

Gohmert’s campaign has focused on Paxton’s well-known legal woes. The congressman’s slogan is “An Ethical, Honest Conservative.” An online ad notes that Paxton has been indicted for securities fraud and is under investigation by the FBI over allegations by several of his aides that he took bribes. At the Gilmer event, Gohmert warned that if Paxton were indicted again after winning the primary—which he said “inside sources” have assured him will happen, though he didn’t specify who—the attorney general would be even more vulnerable to a Democrat in November. (Under Texas election law, political parties cannot replace their nominee unless the candidate dies or voluntarily withdraws.) “If a Democrat wins in November, that will ensure that they can steal Texas in 2024,” Gohmert said. “No Republican can win the White House unless they win Texas.”

That argument appeared to be working to some extent, even among activists who had previously supported Paxton. “We all love Ken and support what Ken has done here in Texas,” McMahan said, “but we believe Congressman Gohmert when he says [Paxton] is going to be removed. That’s what we’re concerned about.” When I asked what she thought of Paxton’s legal issues, McMahan declined to comment. Similarly, retiree Dennis Milliron, who supports Gohmert, demurred from passing judgment on Paxton. “It’s hard for someone like me to really cut through and know what the facts are,” he said. “I know what one side says and I know what the other side says, but I can’t know the reality.” While Milliron is supporting Governor Greg Abbott and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, he thinks it’s time for “fresh ideas” at the attorney general’s office.

What’s fresh about Gohmert isn’t so much his ideas—which are virtually the same as Paxton’s—as the fact that he hasn’t been indicted. His priorities are standard fare in Trumpian politics: the congressman devoted much of his rambling, forty-minute speech in Gilmer to the topic of election security. For Gohmert and his audience, it’s an article of faith that Trump won the 2020 election. Gohmert said he wanted to protect the state from the wave of election fraud that Democrats were planning to commit. “When national Democratic leaders hear that we’re going to have a huge Republican wave election in 2022 and 2024, many of them say, well, we’re gonna have to cheat bigger than we’ve ever cheated. And that means we’ve got to be ready.” He asserted that the attorney general has been insufficiently zealous in pursuing election crimes—despite Paxton’s Ahab-like focus on prosecuting the handful of fraud cases he’s discovered. (There is no evidence of widespread voter fraud in Texas or anywhere else in the country. Texas has seen just 46 convictions for voter fraud in the past fifteen years, out of 17 million registered voters.) 

Gohmert told the audience that he had seen “proof of cheating” in the 2018 general election in Dallas County—and that Paxton “did nothing about it.” Touting his expertise as a former state district judge in Tyler, Gohmert said there had been “probable cause to seize the election machines, seize the software, seize the laptops that were used to accumulate votes, seize all the flash drives.” 

Of course, Paxton has also repeatedly called the election rigged, and filed a federal lawsuit seeking to overturn the election. After his address, I asked Gohmert what he thought of that suit, which was tossed out by the Supreme Court in December 2020. The congressman said he agreed with its premise, but that Paxton shouldn’t have been the one to file it, since some of the pandemic-related election changes it cited (in Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, which all went for Joe Biden) had also been made in Texas, including expanding the early voting period and access to mail-in ballots. “Under the informal ‘clean hands’ doctrine, you can’t sue somebody for doing what you did,” Gohmert told me. “But Paxton needed to change the narrative about his indiscretions [an apparent reference to Paxton’s alleged marital infidelity] and potential wrongdoing.”

That Gohmert and Paxton occupy the same far-right America First lane might be a problem for the congressman’s campaign. While Bush and Guzman have courted Trump voters, they appeal more to moderate Republicans seeking an alternative to Paxton; for Gohmert, distinguishing himself positively from the attorney general is proving challenging. “In the Republican primary electorate, I think the Trump wing is going to stick with Paxton, because he’s shown he’s willing to fight,” said Southern Methodist University political scientist Cal Jillson. “And if you’re worried about his ethical or legal problems, do you look to Louie? I don’t think so. I think you look at either Bush or Guzman.”

Rice University political scientist Mark P. Jones predicted that Gohmert would face an uphill battle. “I’d say Paxton has a fifty-fifty chance of avoiding a runoff,” Jones told me. “If the election were held today, Bush and Gohmert would be neck and neck for second place,” he said, predicting that many of the undecided voters would break toward Gohmert. Jones noted that Gohmert was the last of the major candidates to enter the race, has raised the least money, and had—most crucially of all—failed to secure Trump’s endorsement: “I think if Trump were endorsing Gohmert, the dynamics would be completely different. Trump is far and away the most popular Republican among Texas Republican primary voters, so a Trump endorsement is worth its weight in gold.”

Gohmert portrayed the scenario where he doesn’t win as cataclysmic—he believes the GOP’s chances at the presidency in 2024 depend on it. And if the party loses that election? “You won’t see me running again,” he ominously told the Gilmer crowd. “I think we will have lost our country, and it will be time to shore things up back here at home.” 

If Gohmert does lose to Paxton, he will also, according to Jones, have “effectively given up lifetime tenure in the U.S. House of Representatives for an ill-fated, ill-advised run in the Texas attorney general race.” So why did Gohmert jump in? “Louie Gohmert makes a lot of decisions that most people would not make,” Jones deadpanned. “This is one of them.”