Two high-profile allies of former President TrumpDonald TrumpSenate rejects attempt to block Biden's Saudi arms sale Crenshaw slams House Freedom Caucus members as 'grifters,' 'performance artists' Senate confirms Biden's nominee to lead Customs and Border Protection MORE are barreling toward confrontation in the race for Texas attorney general in what could become one of the Lone Star State's closest-watched primaries next year.
The Republican primary race began in earnest last week when Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, the son of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R), announced a challenge to sitting Attorney General Ken Paxton, who is expected to run for a third term in 2022.
Both men are ardent allies of Trump and are aggressively seeking his endorsement in the primary, believing that the former president’s backing would offer the easiest path to the GOP nomination. Trump has teased making an endorsement soon but has offered no hints as to which candidate he’s leaning toward.
“I like them both very much,” Trump said in a statement late last month. “I’ll be making my endorsement and recommendation to the great people of Texas in the not-so-distant future.”
Whichever way Trump breaks has the potential to swing the course of the primary given his outsized influence among the state’s Republican electorate. He carried the state twice, first in 2016 and then again in 2020.
And despite losing reelection last year, a poll released in February by the University of Houston Hobby School of Public Affairs found that Trump remains deeply popular with Texas Republicans, scoring a net favorability rating of 71 percent.
Bush, a Florida native and the scion of a political dynasty that includes two former presidents, is the only prominent member of his family to support Trump — something that he is eager to remind Texas GOP voters of, especially given his father’s fraught relationship with the former president.
Beer cozies passed out to supporters at a campaign event last week featured an image of Trump shaking Bush’s hand, as well as a 2019 quote from the former president: “This is the only Bush that likes me! This is the Bush that got it right. I like him.”
But Paxton has shown off his Trump bona fides as well, leading a lawsuit in December challenging the election results in four states that the former president lost in his unsuccessful reelection bid. That lawsuit was quickly tossed out by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Paxton also spoke at the “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington ahead of the deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol by a mob of Trump’s supporters, who sought to block Congress from certifying President BidenJoe BidenHouse passes 8B defense policy bill House approves bill to ease passage of debt limit hike Senate rejects attempt to block Biden's Saudi arms sale MORE’s Electoral College victory. In February, Paxton joined Trump at his Mar-a-Lago estate in South Florida for a round of golf.
Bush has said that there’s “no separation” between Paxton and himself when it comes to their support for the former president. But that hasn’t stopped the contest from devolving into a bitter war of words.
From the beginning, Bush has targeted Paxton over a years-old indictment on securities fraud charges that has dogged the Texas attorney general for virtually his entire tenure in office. Bush is instead selling himself to voters as “a conservative advocate for the state of Texas but without the baggage.”
“I think this is about the fitness, the competence of running the state’s most important law firm requires somebody to be above reproach,” Bush said in an interview with “Fox & Friends” last week, a day after his campaign announcement.
“It’s really hard to claim the moral high ground on issues like human trafficking and illegal immigration and backing the thin blue line in our state if you yourself are facing significant criminal investigations and allegations.”
Paxton has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and has said that the case against him is politically motivated. He’s also fired back at Bush for seizing on the indictment, casting his opponent as a political opportunist with little experience as a practicing attorney.
“They don’t have a case,” Paxton said in an interview with the conservative radio host Mark Davis last month. “If they had a case it wouldn’t take six years. This is all political. George P. is political and that’s all this is about. He’s not going to run against me on the issue, because he’s not competent to do the job.”
In that same interview, Paxton said that Bush had only decided to run for attorney general because he lacked the financial backing to challenge Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) or Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R), both of whom are facing reelection next year.
“I got picked I think largely because I don’t have as much money, and he thought he could raise sufficient money to at least, you know, be competitive on the funding stuff,” Paxton said.
So far, only one Democrat has jumped into the race for Texas attorney general, former Galveston Mayor Joe Jaworski. Civil rights attorney Lee Merritt has also said he will challenge Paxton, though it’s unclear whether he plans to seek the nomination of a party.
Top Texas Republicans are staying on the sidelines in the race for now. Sen. John CornynJohn CornynHouse approves bill to ease passage of debt limit hike McConnell faces GOP pushback on debt deal Senate leaders face pushback on tying debt fight to defense bill MORE has said that he will not get involved in the primary between Paxton and Bush, while Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzMcConnell faces GOP pushback on debt deal Democrats seek to avoid internal disputes over Russia and China GOP senators introduce bill targeting Palestinian 'martyr payments' MORE has not weighed in. And while Abbott has said that he has a good working relationship with Paxton, he hasn’t yet come out in support of the attorney general’s reelection bid.
In a sign that he will have the backing of the Republican Attorneys General Association, Johnny Koremenos, a spokesman for the group, noted it “has a long history of supporting incumbent Republican AGs.”