Sign up for The Brief, The Texas Tribune’s daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.
Political pressure is intensifying around Republican state senators who will serve as the jurors in the impeachment trial of suspended Attorney General Ken Paxton.
Paxton’s allies are singling out a half dozen senators for lobbying. A mysterious entity is airing TV ads and sending out mailers targeting certain senators. And an influential establishment group, as well as former Gov. Rick Perry, are urging senators to oppose efforts to effectively stop the trial before it starts.
“Anyone that votes against Ken Paxton in this impeachment is risking their entire political career and we will make sure that is the case,” Jonathan Stickland, who runs the pro-Paxton Defend Texas Liberty PAC, said Thursday in a media appearance.
The high-stakes trial of Texas’ top legal official is scheduled to start Sept. 5. It comes after the House impeached Paxton in May, accusing him of a yearslong pattern of misconduct and lawbreaking centered on his relationship with Nate Paul, an Austin real-estate investor and Paxton campaign donor. Paxton, a Republican in his third term, was immediately suspended from office, and the trial will determine whether he will be permanently removed.
His fate lies in the hands of the 30 senators who can vote in the trial. (His wife, Sen. Angela Paxton, is recused.) Removal requires a two-thirds vote, meaning that if all 12 Democrats vote to convict Paxton, nine of the 18 remaining Republicans would have to cross over to force him out. Furthermore, only a majority vote is required for senators to grant a pretrial motion to dismiss, which would come before any opening statements. While that would require 16 of the 18 voting Republicans – assuming all Democrats oppose it — it may be a tempting option for GOP senators who do not want to go through with a weeks-long trial where the spotlight on them will burn even brighter.
Paxton’s supporters have touted him as the tip of the spear in Texas’ battles against President Joe Biden’s administration. The impeachment, they argue, is a plot by the Republican establishment to take Paxton out after failing to defeat him in his reelection campaign last year.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who is presiding over the trial, imposed a strict gag order on senators that largely prohibits them from commenting on the case publicly. Shortly after Paxton’s impeachment in May, several GOP senators issued identical or similar statements telling constituents they could not discuss the case but welcomed their feedback.
Paxton’s allies have gotten more aggressive in recent days. On Tuesday, Dallas County GOP activist Lauren Davis went on the show of Steve Bannon, the former Donald Trump strategist, and urged viewers to apply pressure to six GOP senators: Kelly Hancock of North Richland Hills, Bryan Hughes of Mineola, Charles Schwertner of Georgetown, Charles Perry of Lubbock, Drew Springer of Muenster and Mayes Middleton of Galveston. She said Middleton was especially important to lobby given that he was a top donor to Paxton’s primary challengers in 2022.
“We're gonna make all these six famous in the days ahead,” Bannon said.
Earlier in the week, Davis used her group, Moms Love Freedom, to launch a petition asking the Senate to dismiss the articles of impeachment “with prejudice.”
Davis was the 2022 Republican nominee for Dallas County judge and is currently running for Dallas County GOP chair, challenging an incumbent. She shares a political consultant, Axiom Strategies, with Paxton.
The pressure ramped up more Wednesday, when a new group began airing TV ads targeting certain senators before the Republican presidential primary debate on Fox News. One commercial targets Schwertner and asks viewers to call him and “tell him to stand up to the left and stop the impeachment of our attorney general.”
The group, San Jacinto 2023, ran $31,000 in ads Wednesday and was set to air another $6,000 in ads on Thursday, all on Fox News, according to the ad-tracking firm AdImpact. While it was not immediately clear which senators were all targeted, the ad buy was in the Abilene, Austin, Dallas, Houston, Waco and San Antonio markets.
On Friday, it also surfaced that the group was also sending out mailers that encourage people to call their senator and "tell [them] to end the sham impeachment."
San Jacinto 2023 is a Virginia-based corporation that was formed June 28, according to records in the state. Other records show the group uses a media buyer, Ax Media, that is part of Axiom Strategies, Paxton’s political consulting firm. Those records list the group’s treasurer as Nancy Rennaker, who is listed online as a "non-attorney professional" at The Gober Group, an Austin-based law firm led by Chris Gober that Paxton has used.
Rennaker did not respond to a request for comment before deadline. But after the publication of this story, she clarified that she is an independent contractor for multiple companies and that she is doing bookkeeping for San Jacinto 2023 for RightSide Compliance, not The Gober Group. The CEO and director of RightSide Compliance is Chris Gober, according to records with the Texas secretary of state.
Then on Thursday, the deep-pocketed GOP group Texans for Lawsuit Reform issued a rare public statement on the impeachment process. The group, which heavily funded one of Paxton’s primary challengers in 2022, reiterated it “had nothing to do with” his impeachment, a day after the Dallas Morning News reported that Paxton’s lawyers planned to call TLR founder Richard Weekley as a witness.
But what came next was more notable. The group, which was sitting on a $33 million warchest as of June 30, made clear it expected senators to oppose the pretrial motions to dismiss — or anything else that could derail a full-blown trial.
“There is an ongoing effort underway to intimidate the Senators into abandoning their constitutional obligations and acquitting Paxton before the trial even begins and the evidence has been presented,” the statement said. “These efforts are disrespectful of the constitutional impeachment process and insulting to the integrity of the Texas Senate.”
“TLR expects the Senate will conduct a fair, open and thorough trial and that each Senator will make her or his decision solely on the evidence presented,” the statement added, putting an emphasis on “solely.”
The statement was only attributed to Texans for Lawsuit Reform and not any specific representative of the group.
By the end of Thursday, Perry was also weighing in with a similar message to that of TLR. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Perry condemned fellow Republicans who he said were trying to "delegitimize" the process and called for a "full and fair trial" in the Senate.
"We’ve come this far in the process, and it’s critical that the Senate sees it through to the end," wrote Perry, who is close with Patrick. "That means a fair trial that allows both sides to lay out all the facts and gives senators the opportunity to vote based on the evidence."
Such interventions are likely to further inflame tension with Paxton and his allies, who have long theorized the Republican establishment, especially TLR, is willing to do whatever it takes to get him out of office.
That became clearer when Davis returned to Bannon’s show Thursday and elaborated on why she named those six. She said four of them — Hughes, Middleton, Perry and Springer — may be listening to political consultants who have “vendettas” against Paxton and noted all four share a consultant who previously worked for Paxton.
Davis’ appeared to be a reference to Jordan Berry, an Austin-based consultant who resigned from Paxton’s campaign in 2020 after senior officials in his office asked federal law enforcement to probe Paxton’s relationship with Paul. Berry declined to comment.
Davis appeared on the show jointly with Stickland, a former state representative whose PAC has been a top defender of Paxton. It has already put up billboards and sent out text messages attacking House Republicans who supported Paxton’s impeachment.
“We’re spending millions of dollars,” Stickland said. “We think this is a huge fight.”
The full program is now LIVE for the 2023 Texas Tribune Festival, happening Sept. 21-23 in Austin. Explore the program featuring more than 100 unforgettable conversations coming to TribFest. Panel topics include the biggest 2024 races and what’s ahead, how big cities in Texas and around the country are changing, the integrity of upcoming elections and so much more. See the full program.