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Did Ken Paxton's endorsement make a difference in the Texas primaries? It's complicated

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, center, leaves after addressing anti-abortion activists at a rally outside the Supreme Court, Monday, Nov. 1, 2021, in Washington.
Jacquelyn Martin
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, center, leaves after addressing anti-abortion activists at a rally outside the Supreme Court, Monday, Nov. 1, 2021, in Washington.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton started on an endorsement spree for this year’s Republican Primary after his historic impeachment.

Many of the endorsements had a common denominator: the candidates he endorsed were running against Texas House incumbents who voted to impeach him or had opposed him on other issues.

How did that turn out?

Election results, as of late Tuesday, indicated mixed results.

Brandon Rottinghaus, a political scientist at University of Houston, said an endorsement from Paxton may not resonate with some voters because they're more concerned about big picture items like taxation and social issues.

"So Ken Paxton, endorsing strictly on the basis of people who impeached him, feels personal," he said. "And obviously that revenge kind of can be effective in some districts, but it's not going to be effective in every district."

Paxton's endorsements contributed to the internal divisions in the Texas GOP. In addition to disagreements over his impeachment, Republicans also have grappled with divisive issues such as women's reproductive rights and school vouchers. That lead to some Republicans calling long-time conservatives who opposed them “Republicans in name only”, or RINOs.

But some political analysts say for Paxton, his overriding issue was his impeachment trial last year.

“He's trying to exact retribution on those Republicans in the Texas House that voted to impeach him,” Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University, previously told KERA News. “Particularly if they're from his own area, Collin County, and nearby, because he thought he deserved more loyalty from those local Republicans.”

While endorsements can influence the outcome of an election, typically there are many factors involved. Even when a Paxton-endorsed candidate won, his endorsement may have played a significant role — or not.

Running against incumbents is typically difficult in Texas because of their name recognition, Rottinghaus said. Successful challengers would have to have strong personalities and issues to campaign behind.

“So although Ken Paxton spent a lot of money and was able to generate a lot of interest in this, the fact is that unseating incumbents is a challenge because you have to really go all in,” Rottinghaus said, “And that's hard to do when you magnify that by all the races he wanted to try to have a hand in.”

A political stronghold?

Collin County has long been seen as Paxton's political stronghold. But there's cracks in that resolve.

All five Collin County incumbents voted to impeach him. Paxton endorsed several of their opponents.

As of unofficial results Tuesday night, two of the five house district challengers Paxton endorsed had close races.

With 50 of 59 voting centers reporting in Collin County, of the five incumbents two appeared to have close races with Paxton-backed challengers. The other three were leading with margins from seven points to 27 points.

Beyond Collin County

Elsewhere in the state, Paxton-endorsed candidates also faced some battles.

With 92 of 200 voting centers reporting in Tarrant County late Tuesday, the race for retiring Kay Granger's seat was too close to call. Paxton endorsed John O'Shea to run against House Rep. Craig Goldman, who voted to impeach him last year. O’Shea was in the lead in that race, though not with enough votes to definitively avoid the runoff.

Another Paxton-backed challenger David Lowe faced a close race against incumbent state House Rep. Stephanie Klick for her District 91 seat.

Lowe has run against Klick for a longer period than challengers in other races, which could play in his favor, Rottinghaus said.

“Longevity matters here,” he said. “The more you can spend time on the ground campaigning, the more money you can spend, the more mailers you put out — these are all critical factors in terms of trying to move the electorate.”

Paxton appears to have had more success endorsing candidates seeking to serve on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

Three of the judges up for reelection were among the eight who ruled that it was unconstitutional to let the attorney general single-handedly prosecute election law violation cases

Since then, Paxton has repeatedly called for voters to replace Judge Sharon Keller, Judge Michelle Slaughter and Judge Barbara Hervey.

With 63% of polling locations reporting Tuesday night, all three of their challengers had significant leads.

Rottinghaus said Court of Appeals judges don't have a big political profile, which makes it easier to run a challenger against them.

"The people who sit on these benches are unable to say and do certain things politically because there's a code of ethics that prohibits them from doing that," he said. "So in effect, they can't be as strong in their own defense as a candidate who's running for a state House seat."

Got a tip? Email Megan Cardona at mcardona@kera.org.

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Megan Cardona