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A renegade heir to political royalty, a soon-to-be-former state Supreme Court justice and an indicted incumbent could make the race for Texas attorney general the contest to watch in next year’s Republican primary.
Attorney General Ken Paxton is still alive and kicking, but his legal vulnerabilities are attracting political buzzards from both parties. The state’s top lawyer was indicted on felony securities fraud charges almost six years ago, and still hasn’t gone to trial. A squadron of his top attorneys at the AG’s office accused him of using that public office for the benefit of a favored political donor — a whistleblower accusation that has sparked a federal investigation and a flurry of civil litigation.
Buzzard No. 1 is Land Commissioner George P. Bush. He’s the latest to test a family theory that running for office with a famous name means you get half your predecessors’ friends and all of their enemies. His father, Jeb, was a governor of Florida and a 2020 presidential candidate. His uncle, George W., was the 43rd president, and his grandfather, George H.W., was the 41st. His great-grandfather, Prescott, was a U.S. senator from Connecticut. George P. Bush is bucking the family’s politics with an appeal to former President Donald Trump, who’s also a Paxton ally.
Buzzard No. 2, Texas Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman, began circling this week, telling Gov. Greg Abbott that she’ll retire, effective Friday, and leaving her intentions unannounced — except for a broad scattering of hints from political allies that she wants to be the first female attorney general in state history. The justices on the state’s highest civil court aren’t high-profile political celebrities, but Guzman is following the same path that moved U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and Abbott from the court into higher office. Each won the AG post from the court and flew on to their current perches from there.
Statewide offices don’t turn over as fast as climbing politicians might like. Republicans haven’t lost a statewide election in Texas since 1994, and long tenures — like Rick Perry’s 14 years as governor and Abbott’s 12 years as attorney general — create a lot of pent-up ambition.
Folks can strike quickly when they perceive an opening, though they're not always right. One of Perry’s challengers in 2006 was then-Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, an elected Republican who ran as an independent. Four years later, he overcame a GOP primary challenge from U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.
After Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst lost a U.S. Senate race to Ted Cruz in 2012, he drew three opponents from his own party in his next bid for reelection. As with the coming AG race, that primary included three statewide officeholders — Dewhurst, Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson and Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples. All of them lost to then-state Sen. Dan Patrick.
You have to go back a ways, but this kind of pent-up demand used to plague the Democrats, too, as when former Gov. Mark White, then-AG Jim Mattox and then-state Treasurer Ann Richards competed in a bruising Democratic primary for governor in 1990. It’s an occupational hazard for politicians in both parties.
Republicans aren’t the only birds with an eye on the current attorney general. Democrats started lining up for the race early, and for some of the same reasons. Paxton looks like the weakest political link among the GOP incumbents; after all, it’s hard for an ambitious politician to ignore a potential opponent who’s burdened with a felony indictment. Former Galveston Mayor Joe Jaworski is all in, and Dallas attorney Lee Merritt has said he’s considering a run.
That might not be a complete list. It’s early in the political season. This is the busiest, buzziest race on the ballot right now, but more candidates could surface, and some of these might think of other things to do.