Sep 17, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Scoop: How GOP pressured Texas senators over Paxton's impeachment trial

Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick speaks with three advisors huddling with him.

Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick speaks with his advisors during Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton's impeachment trial. (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

Following a secret campaign coordinated by top Trump allies, Texas state senators yesterday acquitted Attorney General Ken Paxton of all impeachment charges, allowing him to return to his post.

  • Why it matters: The allegations against Paxton, a close ally of former President Trump, bitterly divided the Texas GOP, Jay R. Jordan of Axios Houston and Nicole Cobler of Axios Austin report.

Behind the scenes: National Republicans organized an under-the-radar campaign of outside conservative pressure on the Texas senators designed to neutralize mainstream media coverage, top strategists tell me.

  • This outside unofficial team operated independently of the Paxton legal operation — like "a super PAC without the money," a top GOP strategist said.
  • Pro-Paxton forces also paid social media influencers to defend the attorney general.

The team had a "very well-defined target audience … no different than a confirmation battle," the strategist said.

  • After winning, Paxton tweeted his thanks to the conservative news outlet National Pulse, a valued player in the under-the-radar drive.

Catch me up: Senators weighed whether Paxton illegally used his office to benefit an Austin real estate developer, and improperly fired some of his top deputies who reported him to the FBI and other agencies.

  • Despite an overwhelming majority of House Republicans voting to impeach Paxton in May, only two of 18 Republican senators voted to convict Paxton.

So ... how did that happen?

"We didn't care what the MSM (mainstream media) said," the top GOP strategist said.

  • "We basically ignored them from start to finish. Goal was to fire up the grassroots. A story in National Pulse, Post Millennial and similar publications was more valuable than any harm an A1 NYT story could do."
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton stands a podium with a group of people behind him.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton defended his record on May 26, 2023, a day before the state House took up articles of impeachment against him. (Eleanor Dearman/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

What we're hearing: It was made clear to Texas GOP senators that they'd face a very well-funded primary opponent in their next election if they voted to impeach.

  • The two senators who voted to convict, Kelly Hancock and Robert Nichols, don't face re-election until 2026.

How it worked: Steve Bannon was a big Paxton backer on his WarRoom podcast.

  • Turning Point USA's Charlie Kirk was vital, the strategist said: "He had his people posting senators' office numbers and was giving them out on his show. Driving the senators absolutely crazy."
  • A few days before the vote, Trump called Paxton "one of the TOUGHEST & BEST Attorney Generals in the Country" and after the vote, Trump congratulated Paxton on his "Texas sized VICTORY."
  • A day earlier, Paxton posted: "I'm heading to Maine next week to sit down with @TuckerCarlson."
  • Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, also a Trump ally who presided over the trial, received $3 million this summer from a pro-Paxton group called Defend Texas Liberty PAC.

Worth noting: Minutes after the trial was over, Patrick lambasted the impeachment, calling it a waste of time and money, and said he would order a state audit into the costs.

  • Dade Phelan, the Republican House speaker, fired back, saying he found it "deeply concerning" that Patrick "would conclude by confessing his bias. ... The inescapable conclusion is that today's outcome appears to have been orchestrated from the start, cheating the people of Texas of justice."

Axios Texas Bureau Chief Bob Gee contributed to this report.

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