Assessing Ken Paxton’s political standing after his impeachment escape

As Ken Paxton returned to a real courtroom in Houston this week after surviving his impeachment trial in the quasi-court of the Texas Senate, questions about his political influence hover over the final days of the third special session of the 88th legislature and, especially, the early stages of the 2024 GOP primary season. Paxton, not on the ballot, is (as he promised after his acquittal) already inserting himself into GOP primary races with threats and campaign appearances widely understood to be a vengeance tour aimed at his persecutors in the House GOP caucus.

(In a hint of primary attacks to come, Paxton has also taken the opportunity to use the veneer of his official office to weigh in with criticism of legislators who didn’t support him during his impeachment and trial, as with his October 19 letter to the legislature on the Colony Ridge development saying he was “beyond disappointed in Senator Nichols and Representative Bailes for apparently working to enrich specific developers at enormous expense to the rest of the public and reducing the quality of life for their own constituents.” Rep. Bailes was one of 60 House Republicans who voted to impeach Paxton; Senator Nichols was one of two Senate Republicans who voted in favor of convicting Paxton in the Senate. The hysteria about Colony Ridge being a nest of drug cartel criminality have fizzled into nothingness, with no action after hearings by committees in both houses — at the behest of the governor).

The Attorney General’s current and promised public efforts to strike back at enemies from within his own party make questions about Paxton’s standing with the public – especially Republican voters’ views of the now concluded impeachment and trial, and of Paxton himself – a practical matter for incumbent legislators preparing to face primary challengers who, in some cases, will be looking to rely on Paxton’s support. To a lesser extent, but maybe more consequentially, these public perceptions also bear on the question of how much deep funders of those challengers will attempt to use Paxton as an asset in their recurring efforts to dislodge Republicans not to their liking.

The most recently added data in the UT/TxPP poll archive related to Paxton, collected in October, suggest a few aspects of public opinion that provide political context for his latest moves — and provide some benchmarks for assessing the claims of allies and critics attempting to frame Paxton’s current level of political influence (as well as those merely calculating where to position themselves).

Paxton’s most recent job approval ratings suggest that views among Republicans have rebounded, but only to their immediate post-impeachment, pre-trial levels. At the end of last year, in the wake of his most recent reelection as Attorney General, Paxton enjoyed job approval from 73% of Republican voters, with only 7% registering any disapproval. In the aftermath of his impeachment by the House, in June 2023 polling, his approval rating among Republicans had dropped to 51% with 19% registering disapproval and 30% unwilling to register an opinion either way about their now legally compromised AG. Those numbers deteriorated slightly in August polling, with 46% approving, 23% disapproving, and 31% failing to register an opinion. Once acquitted by the Texas Senate, those evaluations returned to their pre-trial, but post-impeachment levels: 50% of Republicans now say they approve of the job Paxton is doing, 20% disapprove, while 30% held no opinion.

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Q8DApproveDisapproveDon't know
Apr. 202159%11%30%
June 202158%10%32%
Aug. 202161%11%28%
Oct. 202165%12%23%
Feb. 202255%13%31%
Apr. 202262%8%30%
June 202260%15%25%
Aug. 202266%13%22%
Oct. 202265%12%24%
Dec. 202273%7%19%
Feb. 202365%9%27%
Apr. 202365%13%23%
June 202351%19%30%
Aug. 202346%23%31%
Oct. 202350%20%30%
Dec. 202358%15%28%
Feb. 202461%16%23%
Apr. 202461%14%25%

At this point in time, Paxton’s “rebound” remains minimal, and somewhat tentative. While Democrats continue to harbor overwhelmingly negative performance evaluations for Paxton, the share of Republicans saying that they disapproved of Paxton’s job performance in October (20%) is almost double that of Gov. Greg Abbott (10%), Lt. Governor Patrick (11%), or U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (12%).

But maybe critically for those looking beyond the upcoming primary season, and even beyond this election cycle, independent voters’ views of Paxton continued to erode in October, with 53% disapproving (up 13 points since June polling and 9 points higher than Paxton’s previous disapproval rating high), and only 20% approving.

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Q8DApproveDisapproveDon't know
Apr. 202123%26%52%
June 202124%33%43%
Aug. 202132%37%31%
Oct. 202126%36%38%
Feb. 202222%38%41%
Apr. 202221%36%44%
June 202223%37%40%
Aug. 202231%36%34%
Oct. 202231%35%33%
Dec. 202234%43%23%
Feb. 202325%31%43%
Apr. 202319%44%38%
June 202321%40%38%
Aug. 202321%51%27%
Oct. 202320%53%26%
Dec. 202328%45%27%
Feb. 202426%43%31%
Apr. 202428%35%37%

Views of Paxton’s culpability and fitness for office also show signs of some recovery in public perceptions, but only among partisans — and the recovery falls short of indicating vindication or rehabilitation. In October polling, 46% of voters said that based on what they knew, Paxton had committed acts while AG that justified removing him from elected office, indistinguishable from the 47% who said the same in August polling conducted just before the trial. At the same time, the share saying that his conduct did not justify removal increased from a paltry 18% in August to 27% in October, a “recovery” largely attributable to GOP voters. Among Republicans, a plurality (44%) said that Paxton’s conduct did not justify his removal from office, up 12 points from August polling when 32% said he shouldn’t be removed. Problematically for Paxton and those seeking to mobilize his grievances into electoral power, 27% of Republicans still believe that Paxton committed acts justifying removal, up 3 points over August polling.

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Don't know/No opinion23%31%29%

Gov. Abbott and, to a lesser extent, Lt. Governor Patrick and his Senate appear to have emerged from the impeachment and trial in a more positive light than their colleagues in the Texas House, though with some important qualifications. Asked to review their respective handling of Paxton’s impeachment and trial, Speaker of the House Dade Phelan and the Texas House as a whole emerged in a worse position among GOP voters than Patrick and the Senate. Phelan, like all House Speakers, enters the comparison from a lower baseline of preexisting name recognition and approval than Patrick, a four-term statewide incumbent who runs near the top of the general election ballot. That said, it’s fair to look at the most recent polling data and conclude, at least at this point, that history is being written by the winners — and that Paxton and those who acquitted him are now benefiting from elite messaging that creates less dissonance in the attitudes of Republican voters.

Asked how each handled the impeachment and trial of Paxton, the Texas Senate received approval from 46% of GOP voters and disapproval from 12%. Patrick received similar reviews (44% approve, 12% disapprove), while the House saw 36% of Republicans approving of their work and 22% disapproving. Phelan seems to have received the short end of the stick, likely a result of many GOP voters learning who the Beaumont Republican was for the first time as part of a coordinated campaign to support Paxton while smearing his antagonizers (especially Phelan): 25% of Republican voters said they approved of Phelan’s handling of the Paxton affair, 26% disapproved.

As already noted, GOP attitudes didn’t turn decisively against Paxton during the impeachment and run up to the trial, with a plurality of Republicans reserving judgment — or, very likely, not paying close attention. With many leading Republicans now accepting the frame that Paxton’s acquittal is, at least, the result of a more or less legitimate judgment issued by Republicans in the Senate and at most, a sign of redemption, GOP voters (especially those paying little attention) can now comfortably adopt the position that creates the least cognitive dissonance: Paxton isn’t guilty, we can move on.

Speaking of moving on, Gov. Abbott appears to have made it out of this intra-party conflict best of all while, or by virtue of, keeping his distance from the whole process: 52% of Republicans approved of his handling of the Paxton impeachment with only 10% disapproving.

Paxton’s support remains strongest where he was always most secure: among the most conservative voters. The most conservative voters in the electorate appear to have largely forgiven and forgotten that there might have been reason to doubt Paxton’s fitness for office. Among Texas voters who identify as “extremely conservative,” a group we consider to predominate in GOP primaries, 65% said they approved of Paxton’s job performance in August (only 5 points less than Patrick, who Paxton has regularly tracked in approval numbers prior to his impeachment). Also among these voters, a majority (55%) say the House was unjustified in impeaching Paxton (up 11 points since August), while 56% say that he did not commit actions that justify his removal.

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CategoryLean conservativeSomewhat conservativeExtremely conservative
Approve strongly10%27%36%
Approve somewhat23%29%29%
Neither approve nor disapprove29%17%13%
Disapprove somewhat8%7%6%
Disapprove strongly20%12%10%
Don't know10%8%6%

And maybe most importantly for those forces attempting to extract blood and reshape Republican coalition politics, 36% disapprove of Phelan’s handling of the impeachment with 20% approving, while splitting their evaluation of the House as a whole (31% approve, 32% disapprove) — bad, but not overwhelmingly bad, results for the House and its leadership. 

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CategoryLean conservativeSomewhat conservativeExtremely conservative
Approve strongly5%5%8%
Approve somewhat32%15%12%
Neither approve nor disapprove21%26%24%
Disapprove somewhat9%7%8%
Disapprove strongly14%16%28%
Don't know18%30%20%

Continued support among the most conservative voters suggests that Paxton loudest and most active at the optimal time for him, primary season.

Once the primary is over, it remains an open question whether his overall support will continue to recover among Republicans, or stop eroding among independents. While Paxton has proven adept at avoiding paying a dire price for legal and ethical problems – he hasn’t been voted out of office or removed by the Senate – his troubles have affected his political position. While winning reelection in 2022 in an election environment that favored his party, he won only narrowly in 2018 in a campaign in which his Democratic opponent, Justin Nelson, made a concerted effort to make Paxton’s ethical issues the central theme of his campaign. He had one of the lowest statewide margins of victory that year (3.56 points; compared to 4.81 points for Patrick and 13.3 points for Abbott).

While Paxton enjoyed a more comfortable 9.7 point margin over Democrat Rochelle Garza in 2022 – a uniformly much better year for Republicans overall than 2018’s Trump midterm – he received the lowest vote total among statewide Republican candidates, including lesser-known down ballot candidates for virtually unknown offices like Land Commissioner and Railroad commissioner. Paxton received a little more than 217,000 fewer votes than the statewide Republican with the most votes, Comptroller Glenn Hegar (4,496,319 v 4,278,986).

It’s hard to look at the totality of the latest poll results in the context of Paxton’s election performance and conclude that Paxton is somehow at the apex of his power. While he remains popular with a key portion of the GOP coalition — the political drivers of the party’s candidate selection process and legislative agenda — he’s also steadily accumulated baggage that weighs more and more heavily on him with the broader electorate. Saddled with these ever-increasing burdens, his public position and political power lags behind the most influential power centers in state Republican politics such as Gov. Abbott, Senator Cruz, and Lt. Gov. Patrick. At this time, speculation that Paxton is well-positioned to run for one of their offices looks more like boosterism or catastrophizing than careful consideration of his actual position among voters and GOP elites. 

The current moment does play to Paxton’s strength as the legislature considers issues aimed at GOP voters with an eye toward the looming primaries. The conflict over vouchers within the GOP caucus provides an axis of conflict that complements his position among the state’s most conservative (and likely primary) voters, and provides ample opportunity for pursuing his grievances with Republican legislators who judged him worthy of removal from office. The degree to which his endorsements and campaigning impacts legislative primary races remains an open question. But there’s little evidence to suggest that the currency of his quest for vengeance among primary voters will prove to be a particularly valuable asset for Republicans by the time the general election happens a year from now. While Paxton and his allies portray his impeachment as an ideological betrayal perpetrated by RINOS and cucks, the impeachment took root in the judgment of Republican incumbents of all stripes that Paxton’s legal and ethical troubles made him a liability for a party facing increased competition statewide. Neither his exoneration by the Senate nor his Trump-like promises of vengeance are likely to change those calculations in his favor. 

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