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Paxton, Huffines Spend Millions In GOP Bid For Texas’ Only Open State Senate Seat

Christopher Connelly
Angela Paxton and Phillip Huffines are locked in an expensive battle to win the Republican nomination for Texas Senate District 8 in Collin County.

The race for Texas’ only open state Senate seat up for election this year is heating up. Two well-connected candidates with well-known names are spending millions to win the District 8 seat in Collin County, which was left empty when state Sen. Van Taylor announced he’d be stepping down to run for Congress.

Phillip Huffines, the Dallas County Republican Party chairman, and Angela Paxton, the wife of the Texas Attorney General, are duking it out in the GOP primary that’s become the most expensive state Senate race in Texas.

Huffines benefits from a name easily recognizable from the family’s chain of auto dealerships spread across North Texas. He’s got a stake in the company, but his brother Ray runs the auto dealership’s operations.

Credit Christopher Connelly / KERA News
Phillip Huffines's twin brother Don is already a state senator.

Politically, the Huffines name is better associated Dallas state Sen. Don Huffines, who is Phillip’s twin. The pair run Huffines Communities, a real estate company. Phillip says their politics are pretty much identical.

“I’m going to be just like him. I’m never going to be for sale. I am strictly there for the voters,” Huffines said. “There’s a little sibling rivalry there: We’re going to compete to be the most conservative senator in the state of Texas.”

His latest ad takes a hard line on immigration. In an interview, he says Texas should support President Donald Trump’s border wall. He says the costs of undocumented immigrants are too high for the state to bear, and the federal government should pay the costs of educating the children of undocumented residents.

“We need to invoice and send a bill to the federal government,” Huffines said.

On the other side, Angela Paxton is also touting sterling conservative credentials. She has the benefit of a conservative brand built around her husband’s political career. Before becoming attorney general, Ken Paxton held the state Senate seat his wife now wants.

University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus says the Paxton brand is incredibly durable in Collin County because of his role shifting the suburban enclave from a moderate Republican stronghold to the Tea Party bastion it is today. Throughout that process, Angela was right there with him, building the Paxton name into a potent political brand.

Credit Angela Paxton campaign
Angela Paxton is a teacher who's running to win the senate seat her husband vacated when he became the Texas Attorney General.

“[Ken Paxton] was the first to really articulate a clear, conservative message, especially one that was religious in origin, to voters in Collin County,” Rottinghaus said. “He was really the vanguard of how Republican conservatives were able to solidify their support and their power in suburban Texas.”

But the Paxton name is not without baggage. Ken Paxton is under indictment on criminal charges for securities fraud.  He’s maintained those charges are a political witch hunt, and used them to raise funds for his own campaign. So far, Huffines has held fire on using the charges to attack Angela Paxton.

Rottinghaus, the political scientist, says the slow-moving legal drama has also included setbacks for prosecutors, which has likely undermined the salience of the charges to many Collin County Republican voters.

“I don’t think at this point that the indictments of Ken Paxton have an impact on Angela Paxton,” Rottinghaus said. “If anything, I think they have turned that liability into a strength.”

Angela Paxton declined an interview for this story.

Both sides are spending millions to win this race, though they’re both relying heavily on loans. Phillip Huffines loaned his campaign $2 million early on. Last month, Angela Paxton took out a loan for the same amount, which was guaranteed by her husband’s campaign funds, an unusual arrangement.

“Part of the reason it’s so costly is because they’re fighting for the same voters,” Rottinghaus said.

The ads each are launching are focused on branding themselves as the most conservative.

In the end, Rottinghaus says voters may make the decision based on personal preferences, taking into consideration how much they enjoyed watching Ken Paxton sue the Obama administration, or whether buying a truck at a Huffines dealership was a good experience.

Christopher Connelly is a reporter covering issues related to financial instability and poverty for KERA’s One Crisis Away series. In 2015, he joined KERA to report on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. From Fort Worth, he also focused on politics and criminal justice stories.