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Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton will head to a primary runoff against George P. Bush

Ken Paxton, left, will head to a primary runoff against Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush to become the Republican attorney general candidate in November.
Ken Paxton, left, will head to a primary runoff against Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush to become the Republican attorney general candidate in November.

The primary campaign for Texas attorney general will go to a runoff, second round for both the Republican and Democratic contests. Incumbent Attorney General Ken Paxton led the Republican field, but with well short of half the vote needed to advance, he’ll now face Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush in the second round.

Under state law, a candidate needs 50% of the vote plus one in order to advance. By late Tuesday, Paxton was far ahead of his opponents in the primary, but with around 43% of the vote by the end of the night. Bush and former Texas Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman remained close throughout the contest fighting for second place, but Bush pulled away in the late hours Tuesday with more than 22% of the vote.

At his watch party in McKinney, Paxton boasted his lead over his challengers while acknowledging the race wasn’t over.

“What I would say is, clearly to the establishment, they got what they wanted,” Paxton said. “They got me into a runoff.”

Bush will have a tough time unifying the Republican opposition in the runoff. He and Guzman went after each other at least as fiercely as they did Paxton. Voters for fourth-place finisher Congressman Louie Gohmert, who challenged Paxton from the right, are more likely to gravitate to the incumbent rather than the relatively moderate Bush, according to University of Texas-San Antonio political scientist Jon Taylor.

Taylor added that Bush and Guzman may have damaged either of their chances of uniting the opposition to Paxton in the runoff.

"You had these two candidates, who I think recognized it was going to be between them for second place, getting into essentially a scorched earth campaign against each other," he said.

At Bush’s Austin watch party, he defended his conservative bona fides, and attacked Paxton for his legal troubles, according to the Texas Tribune.

Those legal troubles have dogged Paxton’s bid for a third term from the beginning. He's been under indictment for felony securities fraud since 2015. The charge hung over him during his first reelection campaign in 2018 and visibly ate into his support – in that race, he eked out a narrow 3.6% victory over a relatively unknown Democratic opponent, Justin Nelson.

In 2020, seven of Paxton's top deputies sent a letter to law enforcement officials accusing their boss of bribery and abuse of office in order to benefit a wealthy donor, Austin real estate developer Nate Paul.

All of Paxton's accusers subsequently resigned or were fired, and four of the attorneys sued Paxton under the Texas Whistleblower Act, designed to protect public officials who report violations of the law.

More worryingly for Paxton, the episode triggered an FBI investigation, which remains in progress. At various points during the primary, Bush and Gohmert each raised the prospect that the FBI investigation might lead to a federal indictment of Paxton and force him to leave office after Paxton won his party's nomination. Texas law would then make it difficult, potentially impossible, for Republicans to replace Paxton on the ballot before the general election.

Paxton retains advantages as the incumbent and as the favored candidate of former President Donald Trump, who has endorsed him. In 2020, Paxton filed a lawsuit to overturn the results of that year's presidential election in four battleground states. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the suit.

Little separates the Republican candidates on ideological or platform grounds. All have committed themselves to challenging the Biden administration at every turn and to finishing President Trump's wall along the Texas-Mexico border.

Meanwhile, the frontrunner in the Democratic contest was immigration attorney Rochelle Garza, with former Galveston Mayor Joe Jaworski polling second and civil rights attorney Lee Merritt close on his heels in third place.

There too, little separates the candidates in terms of their pledges of how they would perform in office. Both have pledged to challenge the administration of Republican Governor Greg Abbott – himself running for reelection – on everything ranging from protecting civil rights to challenging the state's recently passed strict new election laws.

Early voting in Texas' primary runoff begins May 16. The final day of voting is May 24.

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Andrew Schneider