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Analysis: Familiar Story in Attorney General Race

A candidate's record as a lawyer has become an issue in the Republican runoff for attorney general. Something very much like this happened in the GOP runoff for the office in 1998.

State Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, and state Sen. Ken Paxton, R-McKinney, are in a runoff for attorney general.

If you have been watching Texas politics for a couple of decades, this will seem familiar. The Republican primary for Texas attorney general has gone to a runoff. The leader has daunting advantages over his challenger, who has the burden of appearing to be the less conservative of the two.

But what began as a contest over ideology is shifting to a contest about qualifications.

It happened in 1998, when Barry Williamson and John Cornyn went to a runoff that ended with a come-from-behind victory for Cornyn, who is now a U.S. senator. It appears to be happening again in this month’s runoff between state Sen. Ken Paxton of McKinney and state Rep. Dan Branch of Dallas.

Paxton finished first in March with 44.5 percent to Branch’s 33.5 percent. In the first round of the 1998 race, Williamson, a railroad commissioner, finished 6 percentage points ahead of Cornyn, who resigned from the Texas Supreme Court to run. Cornyn won the runoff with 57.9 percent of the vote.

Things changed when Cornyn, who was regarded as the less conservative of the two candidates, went to work on Williamson’s qualifications as a lawyer. Williamson had allowed his law license to lapse while working in the oil and gas business, and he had improperly gone looking for votes among the citizens gathered to choose a jury for a capital murder trial in Llano.

In the current race, Paxton has revised his public filings to correct and add businesses and incomes that had been left out until The Texas Tribune reported on the missing details. He was reprimanded and fined by the Texas State Securities Board, which said he violated state law by soliciting investment clients without registering, as required, and which ordered him to disclose his relationships with investment advisers to any clients he sends their way.

Qualifications have become part of the conversation. Again.

“To me, it looks just like it,” said Mark Lehman, who ran the 1998 campaign for Cornyn and now oversees lobbying and political operations for the Texas Association of Realtors, which has not taken sides in the current race. He said that the Williamson campaign had outspent Cornyn’s and that the challenges to Williamson’s lack of legal experience turned the state’s lawyers against the front-runner.

A Texas attorney general does not have to be a lawyer. But there is an argument that voters care more about the actual abilities of judges and lawyers than they care about the abilities of, say, members of Congress. They actually want their top lawyer to know something about the law.

Paxton clearly had the momentum after his first-round win. He has assembled an impressive grassroots network, conservative endorsements and funding.

“He has a stronger grassroots organization, probably, than Barry did,” said Eric Bearse, a political consultant who is not involved in this year’s race but worked as the spokesman for Williamson’s effort. “That will make the Branch task harder than that facing Cornyn.”

Late last week, the Branch campaign rendered all of the recent revelations about Paxton into television ads in advance of early voting that begins May 19.

Paxton is not without weapons. He surged ahead of his rivals in the first round, running a TV ad that featured U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz talking to a group extolling Paxton’s political virtues without actually saying he would vote for him. “He has a superstar non-endorsement endorsement,” Bearse said. “We never had that.”

Ideology is strong in the Republican primaries this year, with several campaigns attributing their success so far to their ability to position their candidates to the right of their opponents. Standing on Cruz’s shoulders, Paxton has done just that in this race. He also built his conservative bona fides by running for House speaker in 2011 against fellow Republican Joe Straus, who is regarded as insufficiently conservative by some Republican factions.

Branch, an old friend and early supporter of Straus, was on the other side. He hopes, like Cornyn before him, to persuade voters to look at something else.

Disclosure: The Texas Association of Realtors has been a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Texas Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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