Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, long at the forefront of Republican efforts to undo Obama-era policies through the courts, is emerging as a key warrior in President Donald Trump’s growing fight against expanding mail-in voting amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Paxton this week won a temporary victory in his battle with the Texas Democratic Party over whether fear of catching the disease should count as a reason to request absentee mail-in ballots under existing state law, after a federal appeals court halted a lower court judge’s ruling saying ballot requests should be honored.
He’s simultaneously engaged in a parallel fight with Democratic-run counties, and last week asked the state’s Supreme Court to step in and stop county election officials from expanding voting by mail — a move that critics say would disenfranchise millions of voters.
That all comes as Paxton is leading the legal charge against the Affordable Care Act before the Supreme Court. He has also backed several of Trump’s most controversial policies, including the administration’s travel ban and its attempt to end the program protecting some undocumented immigrants brought to the US as children from deportation.
Brendan Steinhauser, a Republican strategist based in Austin, said “without a doubt” Paxton has been an effective legal defender of Trump’s policies, and added that Paxton has been one of the attorneys general most closely aligned with Trump.
In response to a request for comment, Paxton’s office referred CNN to previously issued press releases.
Democrats have supported wider use of mail-in ballots during the coronavirus pandemic, believing that it offers a practical way to encourage voter participation without the possible health risks associated with crowded polling places. Paxton has argued that the expanded application of a “disability” requirement could lead to voter fraud, echoing Trump’s false claims that voting-by-mail is “corrupt” and “dangerous.”
“He’s an extreme conservative who plays political hardball,” said Jeffrey Abramson, a professor of law and government at the University of Texas at Austin. “He subscribes to a libertarian philosophy which puts an emphasis on individual rights and very, very little emphasis on there being any common good or public good at all.”
Government overreach everywhere
Under President Barack Obama, the fiercely conservative Paxton saw government overreach everywhere: the Affordable Care Act, environmental regulations, transgender access requirements for bathrooms, overtime rules. Paxton sued the Obama administration 27 times, according to Paul Nolette, a political science professor at Marquette University who tracks state attorney general activity.
Since Trump took office, Paxton has filed 20 multi-state briefs in the US Supreme Court supporting the administration’s position in a case since the start of the administration, according to Nolette, and another 20 multi-state briefs in lower federal courts.
Paxton is a leader among a high-profile group of Republican state officials who have been fighting for Trump policies far from the legislative gridlock of Washington, DC. Along with Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody, and Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron, Paxton has become a leading defender of Trump’s conservative policies across the country.
“The state attorney general office is and has become a really important and powerful statewide office, because they represent the legal position of their state,” said Nolette. “Having Ken Paxton as a defender of Trump administration policies … allows Ken Paxton to become really one of the leaders in the conservative movement, defending conservative policies.”
From legislator to Texas’ top cop
After serving in the Texas statehouse for a decade and then state senate for less than two years, Paxton launched his bid for Texas Attorney General in 2014 when now-Gov. Greg Abbott decided to run to succeed Rick Perry, who was retiring.
“In the legislature, (Paxton) didn’t have much of an impact,” said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University. “When he was in the House, he was sufficiently on the far right that he wasn’t a major player, in that he was both relatively new and then on the ideological extreme.”
Paxton beat two other Republicans, and later that year would go on to win 58.82% of the vote against Democrat Sam Houston, who won 38.02%.
As he was running for attorney general, Paxton admitted to violating state securities law by soliciting investment clients for the firm of his friend and campaign donor. Though Paxton was referring clients to his associate, he did not register with the state of Texas and later paid a $1,000 fine.
In July 2015, when he had been the state’s top legal officer for almost seven months, Paxton was indicted by a grand jury on three counts — two charges of securities fraud in excess of $100,0000 and a third felony charge for allegedly advising or representing investors without properly registering, according to booking records. He pleaded not guilty to the charges, and his case has been delayed nearly five years following disputes between Paxton’s lawyers and prosecutors.
Paxton’s office referred questions about the case to his campaign, which did not respond.
Paxton narrowly won reelection in 2018, defeating Democrat Justin Nelson with 50.57% of the vote compared to Nelson’s 47.01%. Nelson proved to be a formidable opponent, and made Paxton’s indictments central to his campaign.
“He has been under indictment for practically the entire period that he’s been in office, and voters don’t seem to be bothered by it,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a professor of political science at the University of Houston.
Paxton’s wife, Angela Paxton, is currently a Texas state senator representing the state’s 8th district. She is Paxton’s closest political adviser, according to the Houston Chronicle, and she opens his political events by playing her guitar and singing, “I’m a pistol packin’ momma and my husband sues Obama.”
Shifting focus from DC to Texas Democrats
Since Trump took office, Paxton has focused his opposition on Democratic moves in his own state to oppose the administration’s policy moves.
Paxton sued the city of San Antonio in 2018 for allegedly violating Texas’ controversial anti-“sanctuary cities” law. The law says police departments cannot prohibit officers from questioning the immigration status of people they detain or arrest.
The following year, Paxton sued San Antonio as part of an investigation he launched into the city’s decision to reject Chick-fil-A as an airport vendor. Paxton argued that officials in San Antonio had engaged in religious discrimination against the franchise and its leaders, who are known to oppose same-sex marriage.
As attorney general, Paxton has been a defender of free exercise of religion. In June 2015, two days after the Supreme Court declared gay marriage legal in all 50 states, Paxton issued a non-binding legal opinion that said Texas county clerks who object to same-sex marriage because of religious beliefs don’t have to issue those marriage licenses, but should be prepared for fines or legal challenges.
In 2017, Paxton led a group of 20 states defending a Colorado baker who declined to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple and filed an amicus brief with the US Supreme Court.
“For eight years, the opposition was located in DC, in the figure of Barack Obama,” said Jones. “Now it’s more located in Democratic-held cities and counties within Lone Star State.”