George P. Bush’s family name proves to be key obstacle in his race against Ken Paxton for attorney general

As George P. Bush was ramping up his runoff campaign in the Republican attorney general’s race in March, he jumped on a Fox Business Network interview to advocate for stricter border security, pledging to build “miles and miles” of border wall to combat the federal government’s “inactivity.”

Stuart Varney, the host conducting the interview, was skeptical.

“Sir, I always think of the Bush family as kind of the moderate wing of the Republican Party,” he said. “And now you want to finish Trump’s wall. Is that accurate?”

The interaction is emblematic of a key obstacle for Bush in his race against two-term incumbent Ken Paxton: his family name.

To win the Republican runoff — an election decided by the party faithful — Bush has to convince GOP voters that his conservative bona fides are unimpeachable. In recent years, he’s embraced the rhetoric of the more Trumpian faction of the party. He wants to build the border wall. He supports the state’s latest efforts to investigate the parents of transgender children for child abuse. He has said he wants his generation to be the one that ends abortion. He opposes same-sex marriage.

But despite his rightward shift, Bush has not broken through against Paxton — the most vulnerable Republican incumbent in statewide office who faces multiple scandals, including a seven-year-old indictment for securities fraud, an FBI investigation into allegations of malfeasance, accusations of cheating on his wife and a lawsuit by the state bar challenging his ethics as a practicing attorney. Paxton has denied any criminal wrongdoing.

[George P. Bush, Ken Paxton prepare for a bitter primary runoff battle for Texas attorney general]

Bush’s struggles highlight how politics in Texas have changed. For decades, the Bush family was GOP royalty. Bush’s grandfather, George H.W. Bush, first won office here in the ’60s. His uncle, George W. Bush, was an immensely popular governor. Both presidential Bushes have their libraries in the state.

But now, his ubiquitous name recognition is emerging as a liability in the Republican party. George P. Bush, who currently serves as the state’s land commissioner, is trailing Paxton in polls. Some of the top reasons Republican voters are reluctant about him are his ties to his family’s center-right political leanings and his own past policy positions.

George P. Bush during his election watch party at Central Machine Works in Austin on Tuesday, March 1, 2022.

George P. Bush speaks at his primary election day watch party at Central Machine Works in Austin on March 1, 2022. Credit: Lauren Witte/The Texas Tribune

Bush said those attacks are led by Paxton and don’t reflect the support he has seen on the campaign trail. The sitting attorney general’s ads against Bush focus on labeling him a RINO — Republican in name only — and linking him to his famous family.

Bush responded briefly to the attacks in a new ad released Thursday.

“I’m proud of my family’s contributions to Texas and America. But this race isn’t about my last name,” he said in the ad. “It’s about Ken Paxton’s crimes.”

In an interview, he told The Texas Tribune that he’s confident that he’s resonating with conservative voters.

“[Paxton’s] argument falls into fears because he’s not out there talking to Republicans,” Bush said. “[Voters] know that my record at the land office has been nothing but conservative.”

Family dynasty

An April poll by the Texas Hispanic Policy Foundation found that 40% of Republican primary voters said they would never vote for Bush. Two-thirds of those voters said that’s because he is a member of the Bush family. Forty-one percent said they wouldn’t vote for him because he’s not conservative enough.

“There’s the question about believability,” said Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University. “People might hear those words coming out of George P.’s mouth but they don’t believe it.”

Bush, a fourth-generation politician, is related to two presidents and is the son of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

His family name is synonymous with the center-right, pro-business faction of the GOP that dominated the party for the last four decades. They prioritized increased spending on national security, decreasing the size of government and deregulating business. They tried to work across the political aisle and expand the GOP’s appeal to people of color. During their stints in the White House, Bush’s grandfather raised taxes on the American public, and his uncle advocated for a legal path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants working in the country.

George P. Bush is sworn in Jan. 2, 2015 as Texas land commissioner as dad Jeb Bush and wife Amanda look on.

George P. Bush is sworn in as Texas land commissioner on Jan. 2, 2015 as his father Jeb and wife Amanda look on. Credit: Bob Daemmrich

CAMPAIGN-BUSH:WASHINGTON,22JUL00-FILE PHOTO 19AUG92-Bush family portrait in Houston, Texas. Back row: Walker Bush (Marvin's son), Marvin Bush, Margaret Bush ( Marvin's wife), George W. Bush, Sharon Bush (Neil's wife), Neil Bush, Doro Bush Koch, Bobby Koch (Doro's Husband), Jeb Bsh, George P. Bush (Jeb's son), and Noelle Bush (Jeb's daughter). Second Row: Laura Bush (George W.'s wife), Jenna Bush (George W.'s daughter), Pierce Bush (Neil's son), Barbara Bush, Goerge Bush, sma Le BLond (Donro's son), and Columba Bush (Jeb's wife). Floor: Barbara Bush (George W.'s daughter), Marshall Bush (Marvin's daughter), Ashley and Lauren Bush (Neil's daughters), Ellie LeBlond (Doro's daughter), and Jebby Bush( Jeb's son).

Bush family portrait in Houston, Texas. Back row: Walker Bush (Marvin's son), Marvin Bush, Margaret Bush ( Marvin's wife), George W. Bush, Sharon Bush (Neil's wife), Neil Bush, Doro Bush Koch, Bobby Koch (Doro's Husband), Jeb Bsh, George P. Bush (Jeb's son), and Noelle Bush (Jeb's daughter). Second Row: Laura Bush (George W.'s wife), Jenna Bush (George W.'s daughter), Pierce Bush (Neil's son), Barbara Bush, Goerge Bush, sma Le BLond (Donro's son), and Columba Bush (Jeb's wife). Floor: Barbara Bush (George W.'s daughter), Marshall Bush (Marvin's daughter), Ashley and Lauren Bush (Neil's daughters), Ellie LeBlond (Doro's daughter), and Jebby Bush( Jeb's son). Credit: REUTERS

First: George P. Bush is sworn in as Texas land commissioner on Jan. 2, 2015 as his father Jeb and wife Amanda look on. Last: Bush family portrait in Houston in 1992. Credit: Bob Daemmrich for The Texas Tribune; REUTERS.

In recent years, however, grassroots Republican voters have turned their back on the political dynasty and derided them for being disconnected with the wishes of social conservatives, who want to push harder to ban abortion, limit the expansion of transgender rights and crack down on illegal immigration. Those voters found their candidate in former President Donald Trump, who ran against Bush’s father, Jeb, and constantly attacked him during the 2016 presidential campaign.

In 2020, Bush’s cousin, Pierce Bush, finished third in the GOP primary for a Houston congressional seat.

Most members of the Bush family refused to support Trump in either of his presidential campaigns. But George P. Bush, the only member of the family still in office, backed him both times.

He also courted Trump’s endorsement in the attorney general race, even handing out campaign koozies with a cartoon picture of Trump and a quote from the former president: “This is the only Bush that likes me. This is the Bush that got it right. I like him.”

But Trump endorsed Paxton early on, taking away any possible upswing for Bush with Trump supporters.

Bush has presented himself as steadfastly socially conservative. But his demeanor is more in line with his family’s genteel approach to politics — more likely to work in collaboration with others than get in their face.

When he first took over as the state’s land commissioner in 2015, he avoided negative press and did not harp on controversial social issues — appealing throughout his campaigns to disaffected Democrats and independents. He focused on wonky topics like water rights, making sure endangered species protections didn’t interfere with business interests and creating his sprawling agency’s first online oil and gas auctions. One of his first major moves was to cut down the size of the agency’s staff.

As his profile grew, Bush, whose mother is from Mexico, gained a reputation for courting diversity in the GOP and calling out members of the party who made racist comments.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton walks to a news interview at the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. on April 26, 2022. Earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments for Texas v. Texas, the enforcement of the Trump-era “remain in Mexico” policy that required asylum seekers to stay in Mexico as they waited for hearings in U.S. immigration court.

Incumbent Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton in Washington on April 26, 2022. Credit: Eric Lee for The Texas Tribune

By contrast, his opponent Paxton is the consummate social conservative. Upon being elected attorney general the same year Bush took over the land office, Paxton quickly made a name for himself by suing the federal government over immigration and going on the attack against gay marriage and abortion providers in the state.

He became a regular on Fox News and led the lawsuits that ended Obama-era policies like the expanded deferred action programs that would have protected the undocumented immigrant parents of some children born in the United States.

Bush has tried to shift to the right in recent years, appearing more often on Fox News to attack the Biden administration’s immigration policies.

But Republican voters like Christin Bentley, founder and president of the conservative Texas Freedom Coalition, are not convinced.

“His actions speak louder than words to me and he didn’t take bold action on the border when he could have, so I wouldn’t expect him to take bold action on the border as attorney general,” said Bentley, whose conservative group fights against mask and vaccine requirements and gender-affirming health care for transgender children.

Bentley, who has endorsed Paxton, said she wants a “fighter” who will push back against the “cultural marxism” she says liberals have infused into today’s politics.

“What drives me crazy about people like George P. Bush and the establishment is that they just want to focus on slogans like ‘Keep Texas red’ and they don’t seem to understand that in order to do that we have to really fight hard,” she said. “Right now, we need people who are not afraid of controversy and be very aggressive in protecting the rights of Texans and not politically correct kind of people.”

Bush acknowledged he may not be as combative as Paxton, but said he would fight for the same issues and would do so without a cloud of legal troubles hanging over his head and the attorney general’s office. He said voters have told him they are worried Republicans could lose the attorney general’s seat if Paxton’s legal troubles escalate and he is forced out of office.

“It’s kind of ‘what you see is what you get,’” Bush said. “I’m a steady hand. Maybe not the most exciting candidate, but I’m gonna get the job done.”

But Bentley’s not convinced. She also opposes Bush because of his office’s management of the redevelopment of the Alamo.

To her, Bush’s push to relocate the Alamo’s cenotaph, a monument meant as an empty tomb for Texas revolutionaries who died in the battle, was “unforgivable” because it would be less prominent. Bush has said that the monument needed to be moved in order to preserve it because it was falling apart from within.

Paxton is fueling that flame. On Tuesday, his first TV ad of the runoff campaign blasted “liberal land commissioner” Bush for his Alamo redevelopment plans, saying he had proposed a “woke plan” to move the cenotaph.

He’s also reminding voters of Bush’s past policy positions that are out of step with the runoff electorate through a website called There, he decries Bush as a “RINO establishment darling who has sold out Texas.”

At the 2014 Texas Tribune Festival, Bush expressed support for the Texas Dream Act, a 2001 law that granted in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children, calling the costs to the state “nominal.”

“Until there’s a sensible alternative that is being presented by anybody else, have at it,” Bush said at the time.

Then-candidate for Texas land commissioner George P. Bush with Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith at TribFest on Sept. 19, 2014

Then-candidate for Texas land commissioner George P. Bush with Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith at TribFest on Sept. 19, 2014. Credit: Bob Daemmrich for The Texas Tribune

Now, Bush says he supports the Republican Party of Texas’ platform to repeal the law and has made border security a priority for his campaign. But Paxton’s camp is attacking him for his change of tune.

“Land Commissioner George P. may talk tough on the border and illegal immigration now, but he said he supported the DREAM Act to give residency to illegal immigrants and even said that in-state college tuition for illegal immigrants was, ‘really a nominal cost,’” the attack website read.

Paxton is also twisting the knife by touting his Trump endorsement in billboards that depict Trump and Paxton on one side and Bush and his father on the other, with the caption: “Choose a side.”

Jason Villalba, chair of the Texas Hispanic Policy Foundation, said the juxtaposition of Trump versus the Bush dynasty encapsulates the battle Bush is fighting in the race.

“The compassionate conservatism that George W. Bush embodied when he was governor is no longer that something that people that vote in Republican primaries are looking for,” he said. “That’s not popular today. What’s popular is the far-right, strident wing of Trump in the Republican party. And that’s not him.”

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Texas Republicans say if Roe falls, they’ll focus on adoptions and preventing women from seeking abortions elsewhere

By Zach Despart and James Barragán, The Texas Tribune

During their 20 years in control of the Texas Legislature, Republican lawmakers have steadfastly worked to chip away at abortion access.

Bound by the limits of Roe v. Wade, which stopped them from enacting an outright ban on the procedure, lawmakers got creative. They required abortion clinics to have wide hallways and deputized private citizens to sue providers in an effort to shut down facilities that offer the procedure.

Future lawmaking on the topic will likely not require such ingenuity. A leaked draft of a U.S. Supreme Court opinion, published last week by Politico, suggests the court will reverse the landmark abortion ruling in the coming weeks, allowing states to regulate abortion as they see fit. Texas has a “trigger law” that would make performing an abortion a felony, which would go into effect 30 days after the Supreme Court overturns Roe.

Their decadeslong goal achieved, Republican lawmakers said there’s still work to be done. Texas GOP leaders and members of the Legislature said it is now time to turn their attention to strengthening the social safety net for women and children and investing in foster care and adoption services.

“It only makes sense,” said Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands. “The dog’s caught the car now.”

At least some of the more conservative members of the House said they also want to ensure strict enforcement of the abortion ban and to prevent pregnant Texans from seeking legal abortions in other states.

“I think I can speak for myself and other colleagues that align with my policy beliefs — we’ll continue to do our best to make abortion not just outlawed, but unthinkable,” said Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park, a member of the far-right Freedom Caucus.

Texas already has an arsenal of statutes to punish virtually anyone involved in the procurement of an abortion, said University of Texas at Austin law professor Liz Sepper. These include last year’s Senate Bill 8, which empowers private citizens to sue anyone who “abets” an abortion after six weeks of gestational age, as well as unenforced pre-Roe abortion statutes criminalizing a person who gets the procedure, which the Legislature never repealed — some dating to the 1850s.

“If Roe is overturned, there’s already a criminal ban, there’s already an aiding and abetting ban, there’s already a ban on mailing medication abortion,” Sepper said. “In terms of law’s ability to change behavior, they’ve almost filled all the gaps — with the exception of criminalizing the pregnant person involved in an abortion.”

Cain said he has a particular interest in going after abortion funds, which seek contributions from donors to help defray the cost of out-of-state trips for pregnant Texans to receive the procedure, citing a state law that prohibits “furnishing the means for procuring an abortion.”

In a March letter to one such group, the Lilith Fund, Cain threatened to file a bill in the coming legislative session that would empower district attorneys to prosecute abortion-related crimes across the state even when local authorities refuse to do so.

Attempts to prohibit individuals from contributing to abortion funds would likely violate the First Amendment’s protections on free speech, said South Texas College of Law Professor Charles “Rocky” Rhodes.

“Helping people go get abortions is going to be one of these difficult questions that’s going to arise in a post-Roe world if a legislature tries to criminalize the ability of a pregnant person to get an abortion someplace where it’s legal,” Rhodes said.

Cain said he is in discussions with fellow Republicans about other abortion-related legislative priorities but that it is premature to discuss them. The next legislative session is scheduled to begin in January.

Texas Democrats, who are vastly outnumbered at the Legislature, characterized the leaked opinion as “bleak” but said they would not stop fighting for access to abortion.

“This will only power our fight to codify the right to abortion at the federal level,” Hannah Roe Beck, the Texas Democratic Party’s co-executive director, said in a news release. “It’s more important than ever that we elect leaders who are ready to put everything on the line to get this through Congress. We cannot tolerate anything less.”

An effort in Congress to do this, however, failed to pass the Senate in February. Another vote scheduled for this week is also expected to fail.

Austin state Rep. Donna Howard spoke of expanding the safety net in terms of pregnant Texans who still will be seeking abortions.

“How do we provide enough health care to those who we are going to be forcing to have pregnancies and carry them to term?” Howard said. “It’s more going to be a focus, I think, on that now, if there’s a way to look at how people can access medication abortion that is a way to get around the law.”

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a staunchly conservative Republican, said in a statement Tuesday that the Legislature would continue to strengthen adoption programs in the state.

"Texas has led the way to protect innocent life in the womb, and we will continue to do so moving forward in the Texas Senate,” Patrick said.

Gov. Greg Abbott did not respond to questions from The Texas Tribune about abortion-related legislative priorities for the coming session in January. House Speaker Dade Phelan said in a statement that he was confident the Legislature would “rise to the occasion and redouble our commitment to maternal health care in our state.”

State Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, the author of SB 8, did not respond. He posted on Twitter on Thursday that Texas would “lead the way in a post-Roe world.”

Republicans have good reason to avoid discussing enforcing Texas’ pre-Roe laws, said Renée Cross of the Hobby School of Public Affairs at the University of Houston: A full abortion ban is broadly unpopular with voters.

Just 15% of respondents in a University of Texas at Austin poll released this week said they support prohibiting all abortions. More troubling for Abbott’s reelection bid this year, Cross said, is the fact that a majority of independents said they believe abortion should be available in most circumstances.

“The Republican Party has been able to rely often on independent voters, but not on this issue,” Cross said. “We saw some Republican voters, particularly suburban women, not vote for President Trump in 2020. A lot of those women will probably think twice about voting for Gov. Abbott.”

Other Republican lawmakers spoke about pitching nonpunitive measures in the upcoming legislative session. Toth said if abortion is outlawed in the state, Republicans in the statehouse will focus on expanding social programs to help pregnant women and their children.

“Now more than ever, the pro-life community and legislators need to step up and make sure we help out women in a crisis pregnancy,” he said. “It means prenatal care, helping them stay in school. It means making sure that we help women once the baby is born, it means adoption services.”

Toth said the expansion of safety net programs would be a “moral response” to the outlawing of abortion in the state. Such an expansion would require an increase in state funding for adoption services, foster care and welfare programs, which Republicans have been hesitant to support in the past. But Toth, a member of the staunchly conservative House Freedom Caucus, said he believes GOP lawmakers would now support the increased funding.

Joe Pojman, executive director of the anti-abortion group Texas Alliance for Life, said he would also support an increase in funding for the Alternative to Abortions program, which the Legislature funded with $100 million this two-year budget cycle. The program pays a far-flung network of nonprofits — many of them ardently anti-abortion — for counseling, classes on prenatal nutrition and newborn care, and the provision of baby items.

But Pojman says lawmakers need to better promote the program so more pregnant people have access to it.

“For a lot of women who find themselves pregnant, they don’t even know that those exist,” he said.

State Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, who is a member of the budget-writing House Appropriations Committee, said he would support an increase in funding for social safety net programs for pregnant women and young children.

He said he’d push for an increase in Medicaid coverage for low-income new mothers. That coverage was increased last year from 60 days to six months, but experts had recommended extending it by a whole year.

House lawmakers agreed to extend it by a year, but the Senate brought the coverage back down to six months during final negotiations in the 2021 legislative session.

“We have to now work really hard to help these new moms and these new babies,” Capriglione said. “I’m going to be pushing for it.”

But Republicans are also preparing for a protracted fight with Democrats in Congress who will be reenergized to push for access to abortion at the federal level.

“This is not going to go away,” Toth said. “Nothing really changes.”

Rhodes, the South Texas law professor, said the potential overturning of Roe could also weaken federal protections ensuring access to contraceptives. He said states could consider reclassifying emergency contraception such as Plan B, the pill that prevents pregnancy by the delaying the release of an egg from the ovary, as forms of abortion.

“It’s pretty wide open, with how creative our Legislature has been lately, for creating additional restrictions on our reproductive freedoms,” Rhodes said.

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Ken Paxton says he’s being sued by the state bar for misconduct over his lawsuit challenging the 2020 election

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, the state's top lawyer, said Friday the state bar was suing him for professional misconduct related to his lawsuit challenging the 2020 presidential election.

"I have recently learned that the Texas State Bar — which has been waging a months-long witch-hunt against me — now plans to sue me and my top deputy for filing Texas v. Penn: the historic challenge to the unconstitutional 2020 presidential election joined by nearly half of all the states and over a hundred members of Congress," Paxton said in a statement released on social media. "I stand by this lawsuit completely."

A few hours after saying he was being sued by the bar, Paxton’s office announced an investigation into the Texas Bar Foundation for "facilitating mass influx of illegal aliens" by donating money to groups that "encourage, participate in, and fund illegal immigration at the Texas-Mexico border." The foundation is made up of attorneys and raises money to provide legal education and services. It is separate from the State Bar of Texas, which is an administrative arm of the Texas Supreme Court.

Representatives for the Texas Bar Foundation could not immediately be reached for comment.

Paxton, an embattled Republican seeking a third term, said state bar investigators who now appear to be moving on a lawsuit against him are biased and said the decision to sue him, which comes a week before early voting in his GOP runoff for attorney general, was politically motivated. He is facing Land Commissioner George P. Bush in the May 24 election.

"Texas Bar: I’ll see you and the leftists that control you in court," he said. "I’ll never let you bully me, my staff or the Texans I represent into backing down or going soft on defending the Rule of Law — something for which you have little knowledge."

In fact, the investigation into Paxton has been pending for months. Last July, a group of 16 lawyers that included four former state bar presidents filed an ethics complaint against Paxton arguing that he demonstrated a pattern of professional misconduct, including his decision to file a federal lawsuit seeking to overturn the 2020 presidential elections in battleground states where former President Donald Trump, a Paxton ally, had lost. The attorneys said the lawsuit was "frivolous" and had been filed without evidence. The U.S. Supreme Court dismissed it, saying Texas had no standing to sue.

In March, the investigation moved ahead and Paxton was given 20 days to decide whether he wanted a trial by jury or an administrative hearing to resolve the complaint.

On Friday, a spokesperson for the state bar said the group had not been notified of a decision. Jim Harrington, a civil rights attorney and one of the lawyers who filed the ethics complaint, said he also had not been notified of a trial but that Paxton would have received notification.

"I was as surprised as you were to see that tweet this morning," Harrington said.

Because Paxton appears to have chosen a trial over an administrative hearing, the case would be tried in Travis County, Harrington said. The case would not be overseen by a judge from the heavily Democratic county, however. Instead, it will be overseen by a judge from outside the county but within the Texas Judicial Branch’s administrative region, which stretches north to Hill County, west to San Saba County, east to Austin County and south to Lavaca County.

Sylvia Borunda Firth, the State Bar of Texas’ president, said in a statement that the group is "dedicated to fostering ethical conduct in the legal profession and protecting the public through the attorney discipline system" which provides procedural rules to process, investigate and prosecute complaints.

“The system is designed to ensure fairness to all parties," she said. "Partisan political considerations play no role in determining whether to pursue a grievance or how that grievance proceeds through the system. Any claims to the contrary are untrue."

Borunda Firth said the bar’s 12-person volunteer committee called the Commission for Lawyer Discipline provides oversight to the group’s disciplinary counsel, which administers the discipline system with help from volunteer grievance panels across the state. The committee members determine whether an attorney violated the state’s rules of professional conduct and what sanction is appropriate.

“These unpaid volunteers devote countless hours to hearing and considering cases to ensure attorneys are fulfilling their obligations to the public," she said. "Without them, the attorney discipline system could not function. We are grateful for their service.”

Separately, Paxton faces multiple other scandals. He continues to fight a seven-year-old securities fraud case and last year came under FBI investigation for abuse of office after eight of his former deputies accused him of bribery. He’s also asking the Texas Supreme Court to throw out a whistleblower case against him by four of those former employees, who allege they were fired after they reported Paxton to authorities. Paxton has denied all wrongdoing.

Disclosure: State Bar of Texas has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Texas National Guard guidance discouraging soldiers from saving drowning migrants draws scrutiny

The recent death of a National Guard soldier who drowned trying to save migrants in the Rio Grande has led to increased scrutiny of the Texas Military Department’s policy discouraging service members assigned to Operation Lone Star, Gov. Greg Abbott’s border mission, from engaging in water rescues.

Hours after The Texas Tribune and Military Times reported that troops along the river — including Spc. Bishop Evans, who died last month trying to rescue a migrant — lacked flotation devices and rescue training, the agency’s leader Maj. Gen. Thomas M. Suelzer told lawmakers that troops are advised not to jump in the water to avoid risks.

On Monday, a Fox News reporter captured graphic video of a migrant drowning in the river in Eagle Pass as he attempted to cross into the United States. The reporter said Mexican authorities and National Guard service members witnessed the drowning but did not jump into the water even as other migrants yelled frantically for help.

The Fox News reporter said service members told him they were ordered not to do water rescues after Evans’ body was found April 25. He died while trying to save migrants in the same stretch of river.

Critics have said that a lack of guidance and equipment to perform life-saving rescues leaves soldiers dangerously unprepared to deal with a common scenario on the border while dehumanizing the migrants attempting to cross the river.

Laura Peña, director of the Beyond Borders program at the Texas Civil Rights Project, said asking troops not to jump in the water to rescue drowning migrants “sends the message that migrants’ lives are not worth saving.”

“It’s really very, very sad to think that the state of Texas has such little regard for people’s lives who are at risk,” Peña said. “They’re risking everything to seek protection, safety, the American dream.”

The uneven guidance comes as there have been nearly two dozen reported migrant drownings in the past month, according to The Washington Post. Despite the protocol, TMD troops have engaged in at least 15 water rescues a month since last fall, according to a source familiar with incident reporting who asked not to be identified because service members were warned by military leaders against speaking to the press.

State Rep. Ray Lopez, D-San Antonio, said asking troops not to help someone in a life-threatening situation was an unnatural request for service members who sign up to help others in need.

“You don’t want to ask anybody that’s a first responder to do something above and beyond what it is that you have trained them and equipped them for,” said Lopez, who served 14 years in the U.S. Army Reserve. “To me that’s the fallacy, that’s the problem. That’s the big sin.”

He added that military officials should be training and equipping the soldiers stationed near the river for water rescues.

“We haven’t trained them to do what’s instinctive,” he said. “Shame on us for not training them to do it.”

More than a year into Abbott’s border mission, the Texas Military Department is now distributing a limited number of flotation devices to troops on observation points near the river. It previously had reserved water equipment for troops stationed on the water, according to sources familiar with logistics operations. Military Times and the Tribune earlier reported that logistical challenges delayed the deployment of water equipment that could have spared Evans’ life.

After Evans’ death, Suelzer said military officials reiterated to troops who have water equipment that they should throw flotation devices to migrants instead of getting in the water themselves. Service members are still instructed not to go in the water unless they are trained in water survival.

“That’s meant to stop that from happening,” Suelzer told lawmakers of TMD’s instruction to deploy rescue equipment. “You throw the bag to somebody who’s drowning so you don’t get in the water.”

Experts cautioned that providing troops rescue equipment without the training could lead to more fatalities.

“If you give somebody something and they think, ‘OK, this is going to be a tool that I can do this rescue with,’ all that happens is we have two victims now,” said Mike Turnbull, board chairperson of Rescue 3 International, a water and flood rescue training group.

The Texas Military Department did not respond to multiple requests for comment. At a legislative hearing after publication of this story, Suelzer told lawmakers that by the end of Tuesday, the department will have distributed the 235 rescue throw bags it has on hand. That equipment has been distributed to 64 locations along the river where TMD believes service members could encounter drowning migrants.

He also said the department would provide training on how to use the throw bags during the first two weeks of May.

"When we field new equipment, we also want to train people," Suelzer said. "That's step number two, don't give them a piece of equipment they've never trained on."

Evans, who was promoted to sergeant posthumously, was not given a flotation device or training that could have aided a rescue, TMD said previously.

That’s as 23 migrants had drowned in April in the same stretch of water Evans was patrolling and service members had entered the water to help migrants 15 to 20 times a month since last fall, according to a source familiar with incident reporting.

By contrast, the U.S. Border Patrol equips agents with flotation devices and rescue ropes, and Turnbull said his group provides water rescue training to the agency. A week before Evans’ death, Border Patrol agents from a marine unit in Eagle Pass rescued a dozen migrants who were swept off their feet by a swift current by deploying flotation devices and rescue ropes.

Jenn Budd, a former Border Patrol agent, said agents assess a situation before deciding whether to jump into the river to help a drowning migrant, but they are also provided tools and training to aid the rescue.

“When you can rescue somebody, you really feel proud,” she said. “That’s why people join the National Guard. That’s why people join the military.”

The Texas Department of Public Safety, which has 1,600 troopers deployed to the border mission, provides all of its troopers with rescue throw bags and water training, the department's director Steve McCraw told lawmakers on Tuesday.

Budd said the lack of training from the Texas Military Department was negligent and compared it to sending service members into the desert without water.

“There’s no excuse for the military to not have a policy,” said Budd, now a Border Patrol critic. “You’re putting the lives of the soldiers at risk when you don’t properly train them and make them understand that this is a flowing river.”

Even tools like throw ropes and rescue bags typically require a few days’ training for someone to safely and effectively deploy them in a rescue situation, Turnbull said.

“You don’t know what’s under the water,” he said. “[Are] there foot entrapments? Is there barbed wire? What is underneath there? And if you don’t have the training and the right equipment, death is sure something that can happen.”

Turnbull’s organization recommends a three-day course that entails swimming, learning how rivers and floods work, and lessons on water dynamics, like how much water it takes to wash away a car.

“That’s the thing that has been so valuable to all these folks that we’ve trained over the years,” he said. “It’s understanding something that is not familiar [for] everybody.”

Budd said military leaders are also not taking into account the trauma that can develop from deciding not to jump into a river and watching a person die. That can affect the troops’ morale, which has taken a hit following deplorable living and working conditions during the mission and a number of suicides tied to Operation Lone Star.

One soldier assigned to the mission told the Tribune and Military Times that two of his colleagues had witnessed a migrant drowning in February, describing the experience as “extremely emotionally distressing.”

“They didn’t even have time to jump in the river to save anyone,” the soldier said, adding that the event inspired a now-fulfilled request to equip each observation point in the sector with emergency throw ropes that give troops more options to help.

The military department has said it has offered mental health professionals to airmen and soldiers on the mission.

Lawmakers said the newly delivered water equipment will help protect troops who want to help drowning migrants.

“You’re not going to tell some young man to not go save a woman or kid drowning in the river. That’s not in our DNA as soldiers,” said state Rep. James White, R-Hillister, a former infantry officer in the Army. “I’m confident that as these devices are distributed, they’ll come with appropriate training and protocols.”

But without the right training and clear policies, rescue expert Turnbull explained, the equipment won’t be enough.

“Just a few throw bags and [a few] ring buoys?” he asked. “They’re setting themselves up for more heartbreak.”

For 24/7 mental health support in English or Spanish, call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s free help line at 800-662-4357. You can also reach a trained crisis counselor through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by calling 800-273-8255 or texting 741741.

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Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick urge Texas Supreme Court to take up Ken Paxton’s appeal to whistleblower lawsuit

"Greg Abbott, Dan Patrick urge Texas Supreme Court to take up Ken Paxton’s appeal to whistleblower lawsuit" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick on Monday urged the Supreme Court of Texas to take up Attorney General Ken Paxton's appeal to throw out a whistleblower lawsuit against him.

The appeal is Paxton's latest attempt to avoid a trial after eight of his former top deputies accused him of bribery and abuse of office in late 2020. Within seven weeks of their complaint to authorities, all eight had either been fired or driven to leave the agency. Four of the fired employees later filed a whistleblower lawsuit against Paxton saying they were fired in retaliation for their complaint and have asked to be reinstated to their jobs. Paxton denies wrongdoing.

Paxton, a Republican, has fought that lawsuit, claiming that the state's whistleblower law — which covers public employees, appointed officials and governmental entities — does not apply to him because he is an elected official. A district court and an appeals court have ruled against Paxton's lawyers and said the lawsuit could move forward. But in January, Paxton's lawyers asked the Texas Supreme Court to reconsider the matter and throw out the case.

Paxton's lawyers argue that allowing whistleblowers to sue the attorney general for firing them could hamper the executive power that the state constitution gives him. It is the same argument two lower courts have already rejected after hearing from the whistleblowers' lawyers, who argue that siding with Paxton would take away whistleblower protections for employees trying to report the misconduct of an elected official.

Lawyers for the governor's and lieutenant governor's offices did not indicate whether they agree with Paxton's argument. The two Republican state officials filed friend of the court briefs asking that the high court take up the case because it is relevant to statewide governance and to the powers of an executive office under the Texas Constitution. Because of that, lawyers for the offices argued the case should be considered by a statewide court and not by the local courts that have already rejected Paxton's argument.

The two lower courts were filled by Democrats. The Texas Supreme Court is made up of nine Republicans.

Abbott's and Patrick's offices did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The court also received a friend of the court brief from Kent Hance, a lawyer and former lawmaker, from a law firm that represented Nate Paul, an Austin real estate investor, in a lawsuit tied to the whistleblowers' complaints. The whistleblowers allege that Paxton was improperly getting the office of the attorney general involved in legal matters tied to Paul, who was a Paxton political donor.

The political action committee for Hance's law firm, Hance Scarborough, also donated $25,000 to Paxton's campaign in 2020, just weeks after Paxton's office became involved in a lawsuit involving two entities controlled by Paul's World Class Holdings and the Roy F. and Joann Cole Mitte Foundation, an Austin-based nonprofit. Representatives from the law firm have previously said they regularly give to the attorney general's office, even before Paxton's tenure.

The attorney general's office is required by law to be notified of cases involving nonprofits in case it wants to help them, but it rarely does so. Against advise from lawyers in the attorney general's office, Paxton became involved in the lawsuit and pushed the parties to settle, according to the whistleblowers and a lawyer for the charity. Paxton even considered appearing personally in the Travis County District Court for the case, an action rarely taken by an attorney general. Whistleblowers said they convinced him not to do it.

In October 2020, after the whistleblowers' complaints became public, the attorney general's office withdrew from the case.

Hance did not mention his firm's ties to the whistleblower case in his brief. He said he was filing his brief as a former elected official concerned about the case's impact on the functionality of government.

Hance said members of the executive branch choose "inferior employees" to help them with policymaking goals as determined by the elected official.

"But what happens [when] they are at odds?" he wrote. "Are you to require the Governor take advice from an inferior officer when their advice is adverse to his or her stated goals? Would the justices themselves be required to be subject to the counsel of clerks who disagree with their rulings?"

"If this Court were to leave in place the decision of the Third Court of Appeals, it would place in jeopardy the very foundations of our governmental system and require elected officials to rely on advice that is adverse and hostile to their own duly established policy goals as a statewide elected official," he said.

Hance did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Lawyers for the whistleblowers declined to comment.

Separately, Paxton is also fighting six-year-old allegations of securities fraud. He is accused of persuading investors to buy stock in a technology firm without disclosing he would be compensated for it. He was a member of the Texas House at the time. Paxton denies any wrongdoing in that case and says those accusations are politically motivated.

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National Guard soldier missing after trying to save two migrants in Rio Grande

By James Barragán, The Texas Tribune, and Davis Winkie, Military Times

A Texas Army National Guard soldier assigned to Operation Lone Star, Gov. Greg Abbott’s highly touted border initiative, went missing after trying to save two drowning migrants in the Rio Grande near Eagle Pass on Friday.

The soldier jumped into the river just after 9:45 a.m., according to documents obtained by Military Times and The Texas Tribune. Despite removing his body armor before entering the Rio Grande, the soldier did not resurface.

Shortly after the incident, rescue efforts began with search parties in boats and helicopters, the documents said. Dive teams arrived on site later in the morning, but the Guard member has not been found.

On Saturday, the Texas Military Department reported the search was still ongoing.

"The search for the missing TMD soldier will continue until we have exhausted all available resources," TMD said in a statement. "Our thoughts and prayers remain with the family of the soldier."

Military Times and the Tribune are withholding the missing soldier’s name until Texas officials publicly identify the service member.

The agency also said the two migrants were trying to illegally cross the river from Mexico into the United states. Texas Rangers reported the migrants were involved in "illicit transnational narcotics trafficking," and are in the custody of U.S. Customs and Border Patrol.

Two soldiers, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media, told Military Times and the Tribune that, in the wake of the incident, some commanders in the sector have issued orders banning troops from entering the water without a flotation device. Other units have banned entering the water entirely.

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Beto O’Rourke threads careful needle on border policy as Democrats grapple with the issue

By James Barragán and Patrick Svitek, The Texas Tribune

Beto O’Rourke had called for an end to Title 42 for months.

He said the emergency health order from the federal government, which allows officials to turn away migrants at the border to control spread of COVID-19, was ineffective and has led to mass repeat crossings which overwhelm an already overworked Border Patrol staff.

But earlier this week, O’Rourke raised some eyebrows. He called on the White House not to end the health order until it had laid out a plan to help border communities deal with the increase of migrants expected after its end in May.

O’Rourke’s comment confused and confounded some immigrant advocates who are typically on his side.

“[Beto O’Rourke], buddy, Border Patrol processed 10,000 Ukrainians in a week!” tweeted RAICES, the Texas nonprofit that provides immigration legal services. “Should they have waited in Mexico while you try and figure out a plan for them?”

Mario Carrillo, the campaigns manager for the progressive pro-immigration group America’s Voice, said it sounded like O’Rourke wanted to keep Title 42 in place.

“If his position is that we should eliminate Title 42 — and he has expressed that before … we certainly support him in that,” Carrillo said. “I think it’s important that Democrats are clear on the fact that Title 42 has not worked and it, in fact, has led to more chaos.”

O’Rourke has since clarified that he firmly supports ending the pandemic-era health order, even as his opponents have cast him as a flip-flopper. But the responses to his position illustrate the challenge O’Rourke faces as he tries to take on the issues of border security and immigration, which have taken center stage throughout his run for Texas governor.

For Gov. Greg Abbott, the border is an easy issue to campaign around, as it regularly ranks as the top priority for Texas voters, especially Republicans. Abbott has for months focused his political capital on the border, initiating construction of a state-funded border wall, deploying thousands of members of the Texas National Guard and most recently, requiring state inspections of commercial vehicles passing into Texas, which has snarled trade with Mexico.

But for Democrats, especially in Texas, tackling these issues is more difficult. O’Rourke has had to distance himself from President Joe Biden’s border policies, while going after Abbott’s.

“I’m from the border. I understand this,” said O’Rourke, who is from El Paso and represented the area in Congress for six years. “The people from Texas understand this and I know that we're all looking for a real solution. We’re not getting it from Greg Abbott. We’re not getting it from the Biden administration either. What we need is leadership.”

Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University, said Republicans have an advantage in talking about border security because the majority of their party agrees that there should be stricter enforcement. But among Democrats, there is a wider variety of thought. Some Democrats on the border want to be tougher on the issue, but there are many in the party’s coalition who advocate for more humane treatment of migrants and against any stricter enforcement of immigration laws.

In his recent comments, O’Rourke is trying to advocate for both, which is a difficult message to pull off, Jillson said.

“His message is about as good as it can be for a Democrat but it's complex and has to be explained in a couple of paragraphs, and by that time people get confused and they're not sure exactly what you said,” Jillson said. “The ideal policy position for a political race is bumper sticker in length where people can understand you by the third word and are nodding with you.”

Biden is doing O’Rourke no favors. Polls show the president remains unpopular in Texas, and often his approval rating among voters on the border is worse than his overall approval rating.

Only 31% of Texas voters approved of Biden’s handling of the border in a mid-February poll from the Dallas Morning News and the University of Texas at Tyler. Fifty-six percent disapproved. Meanwhile, 50% of voters approved of Abbott’s performance on the border and 40% disapproved.

On the first day of his campaign, O’Rourke gave a TV interview criticizing Biden on the border, saying it is “not enough of a priority for his administration.” But the border was otherwise not a large part of his first weeks as a gubernatorial candidate. He did not mention the topic in his launch video, and his stump speeches often centered on other, less polarizing issues, like expanding Medicaid and legalizing marijuana.

But in late December, O’Rourke took an interest in the failures of Abbott’s highly touted border mission, Operation Lone Star, where military news outlets were reporting pay problems and suicides that appeared tied to the mission.

“Gov. Abbott is the commander-in-chief of the Texas National Guard. If he chooses to deploy those under his command, it is his duty to pay them, deliver the benefits he promised them, and ensure they receive proper mental health support in order to prevent the kind of tragedy we’ve seen in recent months,” he wrote in an op-ed to El Paso Matters. “And if he can’t justify their deployment, he owes it to them and their families to send them home.”

O’Rourke has continued to hammer Abbott over Operation Lone Star and has also criticized as political stunts his decision to bus migrants to Washington, D.C., and bring international trade to a halt through commercial vehicle inspections. On Friday, Abbott announced he’d made agreements with the last of the four Mexican governors whose land borders Texas to bring the inspections to an end.

But Abbott’s team has hit right back. This week, the governor’s campaign blasted O’Rourke for his change of tune on Title 42.

“Beto continues to take different positions on issues depending on which part of the state he happens to be in,” Abbott campaign spokesperson Mark Miner said in a statement. “‘Both Ways Beto’ strikes again!”

O’Rourke has said he wants to support Border Patrol agents who are seeing large numbers of migrants at the border by working together with law enforcement agencies in border communities. But he also wants them to work with nonprofits that aid migrants and to make it easier for asylum-seekers to go through the process.

He’s also suggested pushing for a guest worker program at the national and federal level and said border issues shouldn’t be limited to immigration. He wants to provide economic development to border regions by investing in infrastructure to facilitate the kind of international trade that has been stalled by Abbott’s order to inspect every commercial vehicle that crosses the ports of entry.

Republicans scoff at the idea that O’Rourke can gain anything politically from the border in the current environment. Those Republicans include former U.S. Rep. Will Hurd of Helotes, a moderate who went on a famous road trip with O’Rourke in 2017. When he was in Congress, Hurd represented a district that covered hundreds of miles of Texas-Mexico border.

Hurd flatly said no Tuesday when asked after an appearance in San Antonio whether Abbott was giving O’Rourke an opening to compete on border issues due to some of Abbott’s policies.

“The Republicans are going to have near — if not record — turnout in Latino communities because Democrats have been absolutely idiotic when it comes to border security,” Hurd said.

Hurd said that after the midterms, Republicans could control as many as four out of the five congressional seats on the Texas-Mexico border. One of them is already held by a Republican, Rep. Tony Gonzales of San Antonio, while national Republicans are targeting three more in November.

“It’s unprecedented,” Hurd said, “and so no Democratic official at any level in this next cycle is going to be able to use the issue of border security in their favor.”

In taking on border issues so prominently, O’Rourke is trying to change the narrative around his party and set out his vision for how Texas Democrats should tackle the issue with himself as the leading voice, said Sharon Navarro, a political scientist at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

But that is a difficult task in a Democratic Party that is stubbornly divided over border security.

“The Democrat border stance can't be ‘You all come,’” said Jillson. “There has to be more nuance to it, but that nuance then draws criticism from the part of the Democratic coalition most concerned about immigrant rights.”

Some South Texas Democrats, like U.S. Reps. Henry Cuellar of Laredo and Vicente Gonzalez of McAllen, had urged Biden to keep Title 42 in place. State Rep. Eddie Morales of Eagle Pass — a Democrat who represents the largest stretch of the border in the House — also opposes the end of Title 42.

In the top Democratic primary runoff this May in South Texas — for the 15th Congressional District — the candidates disagree on Title 42. Michelle Vallejo has advocated against it, while Ruben Ramirez has said it is “premature” to end it.

O’Rourke has emphasized he is listening to local leaders when it comes to border issues. But what about the South Texas Democrats who disagree with him on Title 42?

“I’m reaching out to them,” O’Rourke said in a recent interview, naming Morales as one of the people he was talking to. “Even though he and I are both from border communities, there’s a lot I can learn from him about Eagle Pass and about Del Rio … and we may not agree on every given policy proposal, but we both agree that we want to see border rule of law, people who come to this country following our laws and then we would love to see the country take the lead in rewriting our laws” on immigration.

Texas Democrats, though, cannot even agree there is a problem on the border — and if there is, the extent of it.

“There was no ‘border crisis’ until Governor Abbott went and created one himself,” state Rep. Erin Zwiener of Dripping Springs said in a tweet Thursday that was later deleted.

Ramirez, the congressional candidate, told a local media outlet that “we have an immigration crisis and we need to be honest with ourselves and call it what it is.”

O’Rourke himself has avoided labeling the situation a “crisis” and has said National Guard troops are being sent to address “a solution in search of a problem.” Abbott’s campaign has highlighted that comment in near-daily news releases this month under the headline, “Beto’s Big Border Denial.”

And in an interview, he said he disagrees with the notion that Democrats are divided over the issue and said voters appreciate a nuanced policy.

“That’s part of the problem we have with American politics,” he said. “So many people assume that voters are dumb. I don’t. They’re very smart [and are] looking for real answers. They want real answers and real solutions.”

Disclosure: Southern Methodist University and University of Texas at San Antonio have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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George P. Bush, Ken Paxton prepare for a bitter primary runoff battle for Texas attorney general

"George P. Bush, Ken Paxton prepare for a bitter primary runoff battle for Texas attorney general" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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Ken Paxton wasted no time Wednesday morning, jumping on a conservative talk radio show in the early hours to start building his case against his opponent in the Republican primary runoff for attorney general.

“If conservatives unite … we can end the Bush dynasty,” he said of George P. Bush, the last remaining member of the state’s most well-known political family to hold office in Texas.

“I think a lot of Republicans have had enough of it,” Paxton told Lubbock radio host Chad Hasty later Wednesday. “The Bushes have had their chances. It’s time for the dynasty to end. It’s time for somebody to get in there and fight and not capitulate to the establishment.”

Late Tuesday night, Paxton and Bush, the land commissioner, bested two other Republicans — former state Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman and U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert of Tyler — in what was the most competitive and contentious primary race of the season.

But it’s only about to get uglier and more personal.

The runoff election is May 24. Until then, Bush is poised to continue his monthslong assault on Paxton’s integrity, centered around his six-year-old securities fraud indictment and a more recent investigation by the FBI into allegations that he abused his office. (He denies wrongdoing in both.)

While Paxton seems to believe Bush’s famous family is a liability for the candidate, Bush’s campaign says he brings broader appeal than his last name suggests.

“He’s always been this uniter in the party, and that’s what you’re gonna see in this runoff,” said Karina Erickson, a Bush campaign spokesperson.

But Bush is the underdog in the race. He had fewer votes than Paxton in the primary, and Paxton carries the coveted endorsement from former President Donald Trump. Bush said Wednesday morning in a radio interview that he will ask Trump to reconsider his Paxton endorsement, which Paxton later dismissed as a “made-up fantasy.”

Paxton’s opponents say that his legal troubles risk handing over the attorney general’s office to a Democrat in the November general election if he is chosen as their party’s nominee. But Paxton still had strong support in the primary despite not reaching the threshold to avoid a runoff.

With almost all of the votes counted on Wednesday, Paxton led the primary with 43%, followed by Bush with 23%. Guzman had 18%, and Gohmert 17%. With more than 800,000 votes, Paxton had nearly double the 430,000 votes Bush had garnered.

While it looked like Guzman was competitive for the No. 2 spot early Tuesday night, her vote share sank as more election day votes came in. Both Bush and Paxton saw her rising toward the end of the primary and bombarded her with attack ads on TV. Paxton spent close to $1 million alone on an anti-Guzman blitz in the final five days, calling her “too woke” for Texas.

The effect was evident in the results: After earning 21% of the early vote, Guzman got only 14% on election day.

“I respect the decision made by Texas voters for this Republican primary,” Guzman said in a statement Wednesday. “I will continue to work for the conservative values of the Texas Republican Party and will do all in my power to stand for the rule of law, and integrity and honesty in all aspects of our society.”

Guzman was the top fundraiser among Paxton’s challengers, thanks in no small part to her backing from Texans for Lawsuit Reform, the deep-pocketed tort reform group. A TLR spokesperson, Lucy Nashed, said in a statement Wednesday that the group “will make a determination about any continued role in this race in the coming weeks.”

Bush is going to need all the support he can get. Former Texas Secretary of State Rolando Pablos, who supports Bush, said he would have to convince the nearly 60% of voters who did not vote for Paxton in Tuesday night’s election to come over to his camp.

“I hope that they all coalesce around George and they come and support him,” Pablos said. “That’s going to be very important for him.”

But early Wednesday there were signs that Republican voters would not immediately join Bush in his bid to oust Paxton. Gohmert, in a radio interview, declined to endorse him on Wednesday and told his supporters to “follow your conscience.” He said that if Guzman had made the runoff, he would have endorsed her.

Asked what is keeping him from endorsing Bush, Gohmert said, “Eva was right,” bringing up her concerns about Bush’s legal background, including the fact he classified his law license as inactive from 2010-2020.

“He hasn’t spent a lot of time in a courtroom,” Gohmert said.

Bunni Pounds, a former GOP consultant, said Bush has high negatives from different sectors of the Republican primary electorate. Those who are fans of members of his family like his uncle, former President George W. Bush, and his father, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, see him as abandoning the establishment Republican principles that led to their success and leaning in too far to Trump to woo his endorsement. But socially conservative Republicans see him as insufficiently strong on their issues because of his family’s more moderate political leanings.

To gain ground on Paxton, Pounds said, Bush will have to harp on conservative talking points like securing the border and fighting the Biden administration. But the voters who opted for Gohmert or Guzman may be hard to convince.

“It's really going to come down to people picking between not their favorite people in this race,” she said. “It's going to be ‘I’m going to have to make a choice’ — if they even come out for it.”

The runoff also could put more pressure on top Texas Republicans to take sides after they largely stayed out of the primary. That includes Gov. Greg Abbott, who declined to say Tuesday whether he voted for Paxton in the primary.

“We haven’t taken a position on the AG’s race, and I don’t know that we will,” Abbott’s top political adviser, Dave Carney, said during a post-primary call with reporters Wednesday morning.

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz declined to get involved in the primary, despite his past support for Paxton, while U.S. Sen. John Cornyn also remained neutral. Speaking with Dallas radio host Mark Davis on Wednesday morning, Cornyn said he would let voters decide the runoff but called it an “important” runoff and the claims against Paxton in the FBI probe “very concerning.”

“I do think it’s important that we have an attorney general that we can be proud of,” Cornyn said.

More personal

Few doubt the runoff will get nastier — and more personal.

In the primary, Paxton weathered persistent attacks that he does not have the integrity for the job given his 2015 securities fraud indictment and more recent FBI investigation into claims he abused his office to help a wealthy donor. He has denied wrongdoing in both instances.

Bush campaigned against Paxton as an “indicted felon” — only half-true because he has only been charged and has not gone to trial yet — and even brought up allegations that Paxton had an extramarital affair that came out as a result of the FBI investigation.

Pounds said Bush would have to spend serious money to hit Paxton on those issues because many Republican voters are unaware of the extent of his legal troubles and “personal improprieties.”

“The only way that Bush is successful is if he goes all-out negative against [Attorney] General Paxton and makes the case he's unworthy for the office,” she said. “I don't see any other path to victory and even, if that, I don't think the Republican base will go for that considering Paxton is one of their fighters.”

On Wednesday morning, Paxton warned Bush against getting too personal in the runoff, claiming Bush “knows it’s gonna change the dynamic of the race.”

"There are things that I haven't talked about that will be talked about,” Paxton said ominously, without elaborating.

Bush’s supporters agree he needs to educate more voters about Paxton’s legal problems. One of the final polls before the primary found that a third of GOP voters remained unsure if Paxton has the integrity to be attorney general.

“I don’t expect this to be a dirty-tactics [campaign], I expect this to be an information campaign,” said Jay Zeidman, a Bush friend who helps raise money for the campaign. “I think that’s how George wins. He just has to get that message out.”

Paxton has embraced his role as a conservative warrior who goes against the “establishment.” On Tuesday, he said the establishment had “got what they wanted” by forcing him into a runoff.

Pounds said Paxton should lean into his role as a “fighter” for conservative issues.

“The base right now is angry. They want action and they see Ken as pursuing action, trying to get the administration to shut down the border, bring freedom against vaccine mandates and all the things they feel [are] anti-liberty,” she said. “Paxton’s strategy should just be to emphasize all of the lawsuits against the Biden administration.”

The Bush legacy

Bush’s family will undoubtedly come up more in the runoff. Paxton already laid the groundwork in the primary, saying in one fundraising letter that Bush’s relatives’ opposition to Trump “speaks for itself” and that Bush “believes it’s his birthright to ascend to higher office.”

The refrain will be familiar to political observers. At an attorney general debate in February, Guzman called Bush “entitled” and said he was angry because he assumed he would be Paxton’s only challenger.

Bush kept his family at arm’s length in the primary but did not avoid them completely. He got a late $100,000 donation from his uncle, while his dad attended his primary night party in Austin.

His family’s legacy — which also includes his grandfather, former President George H.W. Bush, and U.S. Senator Prescott Bush — has been a subject of dismay from conservatives in recent years who criticize the Bushes as too soft on social issues.

Bush and his supporters regularly emphasize that he is his own man, noting he broke with his prominent relatives to support Trump in the 2016 general election.

“He has embraced it and charted his own path, and I think you have to judge him on more than his name,” Zeidman said.

Two Texas politicians bid farewell

Whatever happens in the runoff, one thing was clear Wednesday: The primary ended the careers of two figures who have become staples in Texas politics. Guzman had been known for crossing milestones, becoming the first Hispanic woman to serve on the Texas Supreme Court and earning the distinction of the highest vote-getter in state history in 2016.

Nashed, the spokesperson for Texans for Lawsuit Reform, said the group expects that Guzman “still has a bright future as a Texas leader.”

As for Gohmert, he gave up a safe seat in Congress — one he has held for 17 years — to run for attorney general. He has become known as a bombastic figure in Washington but beloved among Republicans back home, as shown by the fact he carried over a dozen counties in East Texas on Tuesday.

The Smith County judge, Nathaniel Moran, easily won the GOP primary to replace Gohmert in Congress. Moran cuts a more mild-mannered profile than Gohmert, who stayed out of the primary to succeed him.

Asked if he would ever consider making a comeback run for Congress, Gohmert, 68, told Davis he had “no plans whatsoever” to do so.

Disclosure: Texans for Lawsuit Reform and Texas Secretary of State have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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Texas AG Ken Paxton is headed to a runoff against George P. Bush -- despite Trump endorsement

Despite an endorsement from former President Donald Trump, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton failed to garner enough Republican support in Tuesday's GOP primary to avoid a runoff. The embattled incumbent, under indictment since 2015 and facing an FBI probe into how he runs his office, will face Land Commissioner George P. Bush, scion of a political dynasty, in a May 24 runoff, according to Decision Desk HQ.

Paxton, the two-term incumbent, boasted the largest campaign war chest. But in a field of four candidates, he was unable to secure more than 50% of the vote, setting him up on the defensive in the biggest fight of his political life.

Former Texas Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman and Bush were neck and neck throughout Tuesday evening, but Bush was able to pull ahead as election day results were tallied. U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert of Tyler trailed them for much of the night. Neither Guzman nor Gohmert had conceded late Tuesday night.

With legal clouds hanging over his candidacy, Paxton is a prime target for Democrats in the general election. His intraparty challengers have said if Paxton wins, the Republicans would essentially hand the general election to Democrats. Bush hammered that point after news outlets determined he would be Paxton's challenger in a runoff.

"That's what's at stake in this race," he said. "That's what this campaign is about. It's not about one individual. It's about preserving conservative values in our state."

At an election night watch party in McKinney on Tuesday night, Paxton acknowledged he was heading toward a runoff race, which is scheduled for May 24, and pitched himself as the candidate against the "establishment." Late in the campaign, Paxton had also labeled Guzman as the "establishment" candidate.

"May 24 is not that far away. Tomorrow we start 0-0," Paxton told the crowd. "If you want to keep winning for Texas, if you want to be part of saving Texas and saving this country, we're going to have to fight the fight for the next two and a half months, get our vote back out, unite the conservatives."

For months, Paxton’s opponents have blasted him for his legal troubles, which they have flagged as a knock on his integrity and a distraction in his ability to effectively carry out his duties. Eight of Paxton’s former top deputies accused him of bribery and abuse of office, which the FBI is now investigating. Paxton also has been under indictment since 2015 on securities fraud charges. He has repeatedly denied wrongdoing.

Bush said he would continue to educate voters about Paxton's legal troubles and the FBI investigation into him for bribery and abuse of office, citing that only one in three Republican voters knew about those troubles during the campaign.

"He is going to divert attention away from his legal problems and personal challenges,” Bush said of Paxton. “I’m going to be the most effective to secure the border, back law enforcement and take on issues that we’ve been talking about on this campaign. So he can talk all he wants, but we’re going to have three months to have this debate if he dares leave his basement.”

At the Bush campaign's watch party in Austin, supporters were cautiously celebratory once the state had counted more than 70% of the votes and Bush's lead over Guzman continued to expand. After speaking with reporters without declaring victory around 10:30 p.m., Bush walked into a room full of supporters who loudly cheered for him.

"We knew it was going to be a long night," said Jay Zeidman, one of Bush's supporters, who said election night was a roller coaster of emotions. "As a friend, just watching him go through the emotions over the last few months being away from his family a lot, putting in the time and the miles. I just couldn't be prouder of the race he's run ... Tonight is a culmination of what we've experienced.

Bush challenged Paxton to five televised debates across Texas, but said "I suspect that he won't show up to anything."

Bush said he would hit the ground running Wednesday "as if we're starting a new campaign." He also said he'd reach out to Guzman and Gohmert, as well as their supporters, to ask them to join his effort to "restore honesty and integrity" to the attorney general's office.

"This is a cause greater than self," Bush said. "This isn't about me. It's about making sure that we lock arms and make this change."

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Bush pitched himself as the best candidate because of his track record in the private sector, serving in the U.S. military and running a large state agency with 800 employees. Guzman touted her 22 years of legal experience in state courts and questioned Bush’s legal chops, criticizing him for suspending his law license over the last decade.

Gohmert offered voters a candidate whose conservative politics were similar to Paxton’s but without the legal baggage. Both candidates are dedicated acolytes of former President Donald Trump, though Paxton was the one to win his endorsement.

As election day neared, Paxton started taking his opponents more seriously as polls revealed uncertainty that Paxton could win outright.

He recognized Gohmert’s threat and began running negative TV ads against him in Gohmert’s home region of East Texas. A week before the election, Paxton ran TV ads that blasted Gohmert for missing hundreds of votes in Congress during his 17 years in office. Gohmert said that criticism showed Paxton’s desperation and aired his own ad accusing Paxton of dishonesty.

Paxton also took out ads against Guzman, painting her as the “most liberal justice on the Texas Supreme Court” and a supporter of critical race theory.

While all four candidates were well-funded, Paxton had the biggest war chest, with $7.5 million on hand at the end of January. Bush, the runner-up in the money race at that time, had $2.6 million. Gohmert had less than $1 million in the bank during the same period.

Guzman also raked in a lot of cash, raising $1 million in 10 days to kick off her campaign. She attracted the support of major political groups like Texans for Lawsuit Reform, which endorsed her in a rare move against an incumbent.

On the Democratic side, Rochelle Garza, a former ACLU lawyer from Brownsville was the top vote-getter and is headed into a May runoff. But it is still unclear who she will face as Joe Jaworski, an attorney and former Galveston mayor, and Lee Merritt, a high-profile civil rights lawyer, were in a tight battle for second place early Wednesday.

"I am incredibly honored for every vote our campaign received in this election and the broad movement we were able to build in only four short months," Garza said. "This campaign expanded overnight with people from all across the state and country who saw themselves in this campaign and who believed in the future of Texas enough to invest in it."

“I got in this race to fight for Texas families, protect voting and reproductive rights and hold corporations and bad actors to account when they take advantage of Texans," she added. "Indicted Ken Paxton is the most corrupt Attorney General in the country and our campaign is ready to defeat him this November.”

Jaworski said in a tweet that his team was reviewing the results as they came in and expected a "late night." Merritt said he was confident he would make it into the runoff but would not have final vote results Tuesday night because of technical issues in Harris County's reporting of the vote counts.

Garza ran on protecting the right to vote and to have an abortion in the state. Jaworski ran on taking on corruption in state government. Merritt ran on changing the criminal justice system, protecting the right to vote and defending abortion rights. Mike Fields, a former Republican Harris County judge, ran on providing a centrist candidate who contrasted with the polarization presented by candidates from both parties.

Disclosure: Texans for Lawsuit Reform has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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Debate between Texas GOP attorney general candidates got heated -- even though Trump endorsed candidate wasn't there

A debate between Republican Texas attorney general candidates turned into an all-out brawl Thursday as Land Commissioner George P. Bush and former Texas Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman attacked each other, and U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert targeted incumbent Ken Paxton, who declined to participate.

Bush and Guzman went after each other’s records and legal qualifications, with both candidates dropping their ceremonial titles and addressing each other by first name throughout the debate. Bush called Guzman a “gutter politician,” while Guzman said Bush was “entitled” and angry that she had jumped into the race

Gohmert took advantage of Paxton’s absence to hammer the incumbent on an FBI investigation into allegations of bribery and abuse of office and present himself as a conservative alternative without the baggage.

Paxton has held a consistent lead in the polls throughout the campaign but does not appear to have garnered enough support to avoid a runoff. That has set his three challengers, who are all within striking distance of one another, into a frenzy to increase their support.

READ: 'Dumbest person' Louie Gohmert mocked after asking if Forest Service can change 'Earth's orbit'

On Thursday, Paxton was at the Conservative Political Action Committee conference in Orlando.

The debate, held in Austin five days before election day on Tuesday, was organized by The Texas Tribune, Spectrum News and The Dallas Morning News.

The attacks began less than a minute into the debate when Bush took the final part of his allotted time to say Guzman had engaged in negative campaigning.

“She’s run a multimillion-dollar attack maligning my character, impeaching my track record and, of course, going after my wife,” Bush said. “Eva Guzman, you’ve crossed the line. You can go after me but you can’t go after my family. I look forward to this discussion to show you that you are a gutter politician.”

Bush’s campaign said Guzman’s camp had referenced the company of Bush’s wife in a negative mailer implying conflicts of interest.

READ: Louie Gohmert accuses Texas AG Ken Paxton of lying to Trump in clash of MAGA candidates

Guzman came right back, saying Bush had lied about her in his ads by saying she did not support former President Donald Trump’s border wall.

“He knows that’s been part of my plan. It was on my website,” she said. “There is no room in Texas for another lying attorney general.”

Bush, who was the first GOP candidate to file to run against Paxton, comes from a political dynasty that includes his uncle, former President George W. Bush, and his father, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

“I’m sorry you’re so mad that I’m running, George” Guzman said. “I know you thought this was your job. But guess what? Texans get to choose, not you.”

Gohmert stayed out of the fight between his two opponents on stage and set his sights on Paxton. From his first answer, he needled the incumbent for not showing up to debates and public events with the other candidates.

READ: REVEALED: Louie Gohmert's violent rhetoric was flagged by Capitol police 3 days before insurrection

“It’s because he is under indictment for fraud,” Gohmert said, referring to a seven-year-old securities fraud case that is ongoing and adding that Paxton is also under FBI investigation. “He’s likely going to be indicted after the primary when we can’t replace him.”

Bush also chided Paxton for his absence, saying he was evading conservative voters.

“Ken, I know you’re watching, you’re sitting there on your couch,” he said. “When are you going to come out of the shadows?”

For months, Paxton’s opponents have blasted him for his legal troubles, which they see as signs that he is too distracted to effectively carry out his duties. Eight of Paxton’s former top deputies accused him of bribery and abuse of office, which the FBI is now investigating. Paxton has also been under indictment since 2015 on securities fraud charges.

With legal clouds hanging over his candidacy, Paxton is a prime target for Democrats in the general election. Bush and Gohmert said if Paxton wins, the Republicans would essentially hand the general election to Democrats.

On the issues, all three challengers were mostly in agreement. They said they would defend Texas’ new abortion restrictions approved by the Legislature last year, agreed with Gov. Greg Abbott’s floated idea of clemency for Austin police officers charged with using excessive force during a social justice protest last summer and agreed with Paxton’s recently issued legal opinion that called gender-affirming care for transgender children child abuse.

Bush and Gohmert criticized Paxton’s lawsuit to try to overturn the 2020 presidential election in four battleground states.

Bush said it was “frivolous” and said he was “clearly trying to save his own you-know-what” by trying to get a pardon from former President Donald Trump. Gohmert said the state had no standing to file the suit but Paxton filed it to distract people from the abuse of office accusations from his former top deputies.

When asked if they believed President Joe Biden had won the election, Bush and Guzman raised their hands, with Guzman saying it was “undetermined, but yes, he’s our president.”

Gohmert said: “I don’t know whether he did or not.”

Bush said he was the best candidate for the job because of his track record in the private sector, serving in the U.S. military and running a large state agency with 800 employees.

Guzman, a former Texas Supreme Court justice, touted her 22 years of legal experience in state courts and questioned Bush’s legal chops, criticizing him for suspending his law license over the last decade. Bush said he made the license inactive while he deployed to Afghanistan with the Navy.

“You know nothing about managing dockets,” Guzman said. “You never actually handled a lawsuit from beginning to end as a lawyer.”

Guzman said she was following in the footsteps of Abbott and U.S. Sen. John Cornyn by attempting to go from the Texas Supreme Court to the attorney general’s office.

Bush shot back with a throwback to former Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen’s retort in the 1988 vice presidential debate when Dan Quayle evoked a comparison to John F. Kennedy.

“She keeps on comparing herself to Greg Abbott and to John Cornyn,” Bush said. “But I know them both and, Eva, you’re not either one of those.”

Gohmert compared his record to Paxton’s.

“I’ve been a prosecutor, I’ve been a litigator at all levels,” he said. “I have much more experience.”

In the final months of the campaign, Paxton appears to have recognized Gohmert’s threat among conservative voters and began running negative TV ads against him in Gohmert’s home region of East Texas. A week before the election, Paxton ran TV ads that blasted Gohmert for missing hundreds of votes in Congress during his 17 years in office.

Gohmert brushed off those criticisms at the debate.

“That’s coming from an attorney general that’s under indictment and has lied repeatedly,” he said.

Gohmert said those were mostly procedural votes and he still gets an “A+” with voters for the votes he has taken.

Guzman also criticized Bush for his handling of federal recovery funds for Hurricane Harvey, which a Republican Harris County commissioner has called incompetent.

“Millions of Houstonians are in harm’s way because George mishandled the distribution of Harvey funds,” she said. “George gave millions of Harris County residents zero.”

Bush dismissed the criticisms as “gutter politics” and said Democratic leaders in Harris County squandered the funds provided to them by the federal government while he has built thousands of homes for people affected by the 2017 hurricane.

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Whistleblowers say Ken Paxton is misleading Texans about his bribery and abuse of office allegations

The whistleblowers who sued Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton after he fired them for accusing him of bribery and abuse of office are speaking out against him publicly for the first time since filing their lawsuit, in response to what they say are Paxton’s “numerous false and misleading public statements” on the campaign trail.

The four whistleblowers – former deputy attorneys general James Blake Brickman, Mark Penley, and Ryan Vassar, as well as the office’s former director of law enforcement David Maxwell – said they previously intended to stay silent about their case while it played out in the judicial system.

“Our preference was to remain silent while the wheels of justice turned, and our civil case progressed in the courts,” they said in a joint statement Monday. “However, in recent weeks, Paxton has made numerous false and misleading public statements that we feel obligated to correct.”

The whistleblowers also said they had remained quiet to respect the “ongoing FBI investigation,” indicating that a federal criminal probe into Paxton continues. The FBI has declined to comment on the matter in the past.

“The most basic qualifications of an attorney general are respect for truth and respect for the law. Ken Paxton has neither,” the whistleblowers said in their statement. “The day will come when Ken Paxton must testify under oath about his and his agency’s actions. Until then, we call on Ken Paxton to start telling the truth to the people of Texas.”

Paxton, a two-term incumbent, is in a heated four-way primary for reelection and is campaigning throughout the state ahead of Election Day on March 1. The criminal allegations by his former top deputies have weighed down the attorney general this election cycle.

His office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The whistleblowers’ allegations were first made public in late 2020, when eight former top deputies accused Paxton of abusing his office, accepting bribes and tampering with government documents to tip the scales at the attorney general’s office in favor of one of his political donors, Austin real estate developer Nate Paul.

The whistleblowers told authorities Paxton had tried to intervene in legal matters related to Paul, who had donated money to the attorney general’s campaign, helped him remodel his home and gave a job to a woman with whom Paxton allegedly had an extramarital affair. Paxton has denied wrongdoing.

All of the employees who reported Paxton were either fired or left the office under pressure after the complaint. The four who filed the whistleblower complaint contend they were fired for reporting Paxton’s alleged criminal behavior to local and federal authorities and are seeking to be reinstated.

Many of what the whistleblowers call Paxton’s “misleading public statements” came during a Jan. 31 interview with conservative radio host Mark Davis about the attorney general’s race. In the interview, Paxton claimed the whistleblowers “didn’t come to him” and “didn’t explain” the issues they had with the behavior that led to their complaints. In a separate interview with conservative outlet Texas Scorecard this month, Paxton claimed the FBI had “infiltrated” his office to investigate him before the whistleblowers made their complaint.

But the whistleblowers said in their statement they approached Paxton multiple times about their concerns with his push to get involved in Paul’s affairs before reporting him to the FBI. Their whistleblower lawsuit details specific dates when the whistleblowers individually and as a group warned Paxton that his actions in legal matters related to Paul were unlawful.

They said they first reported their concerns to the FBI on Sept. 30, 2020 after they could not convince Paxton to follow the law.

“We had no previous contact with the FBI before that date and believe this was the first time the FBI became involved with the investigation of Paxton and his office,” they wrote in their statement released Monday.

The whistleblowers also took issue with Paxton’s comment on Davis’ show that “no one has ever disputed” an unsigned 374-page report generated by his office in August that exonerated him of the whistleblower’s allegations.

“This is false. Paxton’s self-exonerating report is directly disputed by the detailed allegations in the whistleblower lawsuit,” the statement read. “Unsurprisingly, Paxton’s report selectively ignored some of the most troubling allegations we reported to the FBI, like Paxton providing blatant political favors to a campaign donor – the same campaign donor who has admitted in sworn testimony to hiring a woman at Paxton’s behest, a woman with whom media reports reveal Paxton had an extramarital affair.”

The whistleblowers also blasted Paxton for accusing them of committing crimes in the Davis interview, calling his accusations “ridiculous.”

“We confronted Ken Paxton about his and his agency’s corrupt and criminal conduct, and, when he would not abide by the law, we reported him to the FBI,” they said in their statement. “Paxton is under criminal investigation, not the whistleblowers.”

Paxton also told Texas Scorecard that he still does not know the specific allegations against him. The whistleblowers said the allegations against him are clearly spelled out in their lawsuit and include: bribery, tampering with government records, obstruction of justice, harassment and abuse of office.

Paxton has tried to convince judges in the whistleblower lawsuit to throw out the case, arguing that he is not subject to the whistleblower law as an elected official. A district judge and a three-judge appellate court have rejected that argument and allowed the case to move forward.

Paxton has now appealed to the Texas Supreme Court, which will likely delay the case’s progress for several months, well beyond Election Day for the Republican primary.

“Ken Paxton’s cynical, baseless argument has won for him what he most wanted, a delay in the truth coming out so that he can travel the state misleading Texans,” the whistleblowers said.

But Paxton is still in the toughest fight of his political career in perhaps the most-watched primary race of the cycle. His challengers include Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, former Texas Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman and congressman Louie Gohmert. Polling has consistently shown Paxton leading the race, but does not show him garnering the simple majority of votes needed to avoid a runoff in May, though Paxton remains confident he can win outright.

Paxton is still facing charges of securities fraud in a separate legal case stemming back to 2015. He has denied wrongdoing.

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Deplorable conditions, unclear mission: Texas National Guard troops call Abbott’s rushed border operation a disaster

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In October, amid a historic surge of Texas National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border, one soldier’s leader told him “not to worry” about getting sent there. He could sit this one out.

The part-time senior noncommissioned officer said he still feared an unanticipated call-up — he owns a small business and he has a son with a disability.

Usually, long-term Guard deployments come from the federal government, with nearly a year’s notice — the NCO had several months to settle his affairs before two previous deployments. But Operation Lone Star is different.

Faced with a humanitarian crisis along the Rio Grande, pressured by conservative rivals and chided by right-wing cable pundits, Gov. Greg Abbott decided last fall to move thousands of troops to the border as quickly as possible. And the Texas Military Department, which oversees the state’s National and State Guard branches, did all it could to comply — with haste.

Never before has Texas — or any other state — involuntarily activated so many troops under state active duty authority for such a long-term mission. Nor has it been done so quickly.

A few days after being told he’d likely sit the deployment out, the NCO was ordered to report within 72 hours, he said. If he didn’t, his commanders told him, the state would issue an arrest warrant.

“I had to cancel $60,000 worth of business contracts,” the NCO, who requested anonymity because he feared retaliation from Guard leaders, said in a text to Army Times and The Texas Tribune. His employees all quit.

After “three weeks of sitting on my ass with zero task or purpose,” he was sent home. But it may be too late to save his business. He says he still hasn’t found a new project and had to sell his company’s van to pay his mortgage, car payments and business loans.

“I didn’t want to get out of bed for a week,” the soldier said. “I was unemployed … and [I] felt exactly as if [the Texas Military Department] put me there because of their … lack of planning and leadership.”

His story is just one of many hardships service members say have resulted from Abbott’s unprecedented border security push, called Operation Lone Star.

During a two-month period beginning in September, Operation Lone Star ballooned from a lean 1,000-volunteer outfit to a mandatory mobilization of up to 10,000 members of the Texas Military Department. According to a senior Guard leader’s leaked comments during a virtual town hall for unit leaders, they’re expecting the current wave of troops to be there for a year, and they’re preparing for yet another wave of deployments.

The troops there say they faced a deluge of problems when they were mobilized — some of which have been slowly improving in recent weeks:

  • As many as 1 in 5 troops in the 6,500-strong “operational force” who have been sent to the border have reported problems with their pay, including being paid late, too little or not at all for months.
  • Service members say they have struggled with shortages of critical equipment, including cold weather gear, medical equipment and plates for their ballistic vests.
  • Many are living in cramped trailers with dozens of troops.
  • Some say they feel underutilized and rarely see migrants while working isolated observation posts that in some cases lacked portable toilets for months.

Interviews with 33 verified current and five former Texas National Guard troops and documents obtained by Army Times and The Texas Tribune show that these problems were predictable — some of them also happened during the Guard’s 2017 response to Hurricane Harvey.

But Abbott’s haste in rolling out the deployment made similar problems inevitable. The active and former soldiers say that Abbott’s order left Guard officials scrambling to execute a mobilization that would have normally taken several months to adequately plan.

“If we had known from day one that the goal was [10,000 troops], we could’ve planned,” said one soldier directly familiar with the operation’s mobilization process. “We pride ourselves on … the number of [federal] deployments Texas supports. But this? This is not something to be proud of.”

A National Guard general from another state added, “There’s no conceivable way that could have gone smoothly. There’s no way.”

The general, like the other currently serving troops who spoke with Army Times and the Tribune, requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak with the media about Operation Lone Star. Most said they feared retaliation.

The former top enlisted soldier in the Texas Army National Guard, retired Command Sgt. Maj. Jason Featherston, blamed the state’s top general for the failures and accused the state of “hoping they would go away.” Featherston went on retirement leave in mid-August, before the border mission’s rapid expansion, and officially retired on Nov. 30.

“Based on the lessons learned from Hurricane Harvey, [Maj. Gen. Tracy] Norris should have known better than to think that standing up thousands of troops on this timeline would go smoothly,” said Featherston, who was the noncommissioned officer-in-charge of operations during the Harvey mobilization.

Texas National Guard leadership, meanwhile, rejects that assertion. Army Times and the Tribune sent a summary of this investigation and an exhaustive list of questions to the Texas Military Department on Jan. 20. Col. Rita Holton provided answers and declined to respond to detailed follow-up questions. Holton instead posted a release to the Texas Military Department website on Jan. 21 that gave the department’s rebuttal to media reports detailing problems with Operation Lone Star.

“It is clear that reporters have gleaned information from anonymous sources and unverified documents, which have then been skewed to push an agenda,” Holton said in the release.

Featherston, the former sergeant major, said Holton’s statement reflects the department’s misplaced priorities.

“Instead of solving [pay, lack of equipment, and family or employer hardships], more energy was spent on hiding or covering up problems rather than fixing them,” Featherston argued. “Families [have been] impacted forever.”

Hurried deployment plagued by pay problems

The National Guard is primarily staffed by part-time troops who have civilian jobs, lives and families. Sometimes they’re called to full-time duty by the federal government. Those deployments are often yearlong missions, but Guard members are alerted months ahead of time so they can get their affairs in order — and troops alerted less than 120 days prior to deployment usually can’t be forced to go.

The Guard can also be deployed by governors for what’s known as state active duty. Typically those are short stints to respond to natural disasters or civil disturbances.

Operation Lone Star is a distortion of what state active duty is designed to do, according to the Guard general from another state, who is in charge of nearly 10,000 people.

“A lot of [Operation Lone Star’s problem] is just the nature of the fact that you’re doing [it] on state active duty,” the general said.

Like a federal call-up, the mission is expected to last at least a year, but many troops received only days' notice, and they face a high bar to get a hardship exemption to avoid deploying. For example, service members said, Border Patrol agents, police and other first responders who serve in the Guard are typically exempt from state missions, but only Border Patrol agents are automatically exempt from Lone Star.

Before Operation Lone Star, the most significant state active-duty mission in Texas history was during Hurricane Harvey in 2017, when Abbott mobilized more than 17,400 Guard troops for less than a month before some went home and others transitioned to a federally funded mission.

The state call-up was plagued with payroll problems that retired 1st Sgt. Lachelle Robinson saw firsthand when she was the top personnel NCO for Joint Task Force Harvey.

In a phone interview, Robinson estimated that around 15% of Texas troops who were activated for Hurricane Harvey — roughly 2,500 — didn’t receive their state active duty paychecks on time.

She attributed the pay problems to the “immediate emergency” that didn’t leave enough time to make sure that troops’ addresses and other administrative information were correct.

At the mission’s end, Robinson said, she and other officials submitted feedback warning that state missions should incorporate a longer planning process to ensure service members’ records are correct to avoid similar pay problems. Army Times and the Tribune obtained a copy of the Harvey review, which included a slide saying the state should “improve” state pay system reports.

Five years after the Harvey experience, at least 1,330 Operation Lone Star troops have received incorrect pay at some point, Holton, the TMD spokesperson, told the San Antonio Express-News. That’s a similar rate to the Hurricane Harvey response.

An NCO deployed near Del Rio said some of his soldiers had to take out personal loans due to the missing pay. One soldier missed debt payments, “screwing his credit score,” the NCO said. Some troops haven’t received supplemental pay they were promised, added another soldier.

“Can we not learn from this?” said a source familiar with the Texas Military Department’s state active-duty procedures. “Do we have to keep making the same mistakes over and over again?”

Holton said that 75% of reported pay issues have been resolved. She attributed the problems to a new payroll system implemented after Hurricane Harvey and said adding such a large number of soldiers under Operation Lone Star has revealed “gaps” in the system. All personnel on the mission have received at least some pay, she added.

Abbott downplayed the scope of the pay issues in a Jan. 11 press conference, claiming that “all paycheck issues have been addressed.” But service members say that’s not true.

One soldier’s wife told Army Times and the Tribune last week that her husband has received only three paychecks since October. Soldiers are paid every two weeks.

Multiple sources who spoke to Army Times and the Tribune said the new pay system is prone to error because unit-level operators must manually input pay information for each soldier every day.

Holton said the state deployed “pay strike teams” to the border on Jan. 16 to resolve outstanding pay complaints, but she did not respond to a follow-up question from Army Times and the Tribune asking why the teams didn’t deploy months ago. Since then, she sent a tweet asking troops with pay issues to email her.

Abbott's expansion under a political microscope

Border security is mainly a federal responsibility, but the Texas National Guard has long had a state-controlled presence there, especially when Democrats have held the White House.

In 2014, two years before former Gov. Rick Perry ran for president, he sent 1,000 troops there and blasted President Barack Obama for failing to secure the border. When Abbott took office in 2015, hundreds were serving there alongside Border Patrol. He kept them on after an increasing number of unaccompanied children arrived at the border.

''After Donald Trump became president, the federal government began funding the Texas state border mission, expanded it and added active-duty troops. That effort continues to this day with less than 3,000 federally funded and controlled Guard troops along the border.

As President Joe Biden took office in January 2021, he ended federal reimbursement for state-controlled troops on the border, and the number of migrants illegally crossing the southwest border began to soar. In March, the federal government reported that it apprehended 173,000 migrants at the border — some 70,000 more than in March 2019.

That month, Abbott announced he would begin a new state-run border mission and again send troops to the border to assist the Texas Department of Public Safety and other agencies with stemming human and drug trafficking.

The effort began with 500 Guard members who volunteered for the deployment. Nan Tolson, an Abbott spokesperson reached via email for this story, said the mission’s size was initially dictated by available funding.

The deployment came at a politically fraught moment for a governor whose popularity was sagging as he took fire over his handling of two crises — the COVID-19 pandemic and a February 2021 winter storm that caused the state’s power grid to collapse, leaving millions without electricity or heat for days.

In May, Abbott faced his first major challenge from his right flank after former state Sen. Don Huffines of Dallas, a millionaire with money to spend, announced his entry in the 2022 gubernatorial primary. Two months later, Huffines was joined by Allen West, the former U.S. representative from Florida and chair of the Republican Party of Texas. Both blasted Abbott for failing to secure the border.

As the weather and the political rhetoric heated up, Abbott accelerated his border security push and increased his criticism of Biden. “The Biden administration has abandoned its responsibility to apply federal law to secure the border and to enforce the immigration laws, and Texans are suffering as a consequence of that neglect,” he said in a June press conference announcing a $250 million “down payment” to build a state-funded border wall.

In August, Abbott activated more troops — many of them tasked with helping build border barriers — bringing the total to 1,000 volunteers.

Then, in September, the Texas Military Department began quietly preparing to put even more troops on the border, according to a source familiar with the mobilization and documents obtained by Army Times and the Tribune. On Sept. 7, the headquarters issued a “2021 South Texas Border Surge” warning order — a formal heads up that an expansion of the border mission was imminent. A Sept. 9 order confirmed that the mission would expand to brigade-sized later that month.

Beginning the week of Sept. 12, a humanitarian crisis in Del Rio caught the world’s attention when an estimated 12,000 mostly Haitian asylum-seekers crossed the Rio Grande and encamped under the city’s international bridge, where they awaited processing by Customs and Border Protection officials. Prominent Fox News hosts like Tucker Carlson covered the issue, initially focusing on what he characterized as the federal government’s lackluster response.

Around Sept. 20, Abbott formally ordered 1,500 more soldiers to the border in a major expansion of Operation Lone Star. Tolson, Abbott’s spokesperson, pointed to the Del Rio incident as a motivating factor for the surge, as well as its haste.

“Multiple reports suggested that additional caravans were headed to the U.S., with the Texas border as the primary target,” she said. “As those caravans made their way toward Mexico City, where they typically make the decision to head to Texas or some other state, Texas needed to surge all possible resources. … Additional Guard was needed at the border before caravans decided which direction to go.”

A few days before formally beginning the surge, Abbott had signed another border security bill that provided an additional $1.88 billion to the effort — including $750 million for the state-funded border wall and $311 million to scale up the Texas Military Department’s response.

But those actions didn’t halt the political pressure on Abbott.

Carlson, whose widely watched Fox News opinion show influences conservative policy, attacked Abbott on Sept. 22, saying he needed “to come on this show to explain to us why he hasn’t called the National Guard to seal the Texas border and protect us from this invasion.” It’s not clear if Carlson was aware of Abbott’s Sept. 20 order.

In early October, Abbott ordered the Texas Military Department to activate 2,500 more Guard members and send them to the border. By the end of November, the number sent to the border would reach at least 6,500, with thousands more supporting the mission from elsewhere.

Holton, the state public affairs officer, said this deployment timeline was “inaccurate,” but she declined to elaborate. Army Times and the Tribune reconstructed the activation’s timeline through more than 40 pages of official documents and spreadsheets obtained from verified sources.

The activation’s speed became a preoccupation of Texas Guard officials, the soldier directly familiar with the mobilization process explained.

“The ‘whys’ were never addressed,” the soldier said. “It was just a constantly increasing weekly [mobilization quota] requirement.”

West called out the hurried mobilization in a campaign event earlier this month, calling it a “rush to failure.” He’s called for Norris, the state’s top general, to resign.

As the state scrambled to source troops for the surge, it began to involuntarily activate thousands of service members for a mission with no clear end date. The state has also threatened to issue arrest warrants for troops who do not show up. Army Times and the Tribune obtained filled-out warrants and charge sheets for four soldiers, but Holton said no troops had been arrested.

Of the more than 20 involuntarily activated troops who spoke with Army Times and the Tribune, none reported having more than two weeks’ notice of their deployment. Some reported having as little as two days to drop their civilian lives as police officers, college students, small-business owners and cyber security professionals; make arrangements for child care; notify their employers; and say goodbye to friends and family.

One junior paratrooper shared his frustration over being set back in college again after having to withdraw from his fall semester classes.

“I’m like a fifth-year junior [now],” he said. “My school took away my financial aid for not making satisfactory academic progress.”

Another soldier, who works in civilian law enforcement, said the mobilization is diminishing his small town’s police department, which includes four Guard members. Other departments are facing similar issues after the Guard refused to grant blanket hardship waivers to police officers.

“It … makes it very difficult for the remaining officers to compensate,” he said. “Supervisors have to pick up the slack, and the [department] pays more in overtime.”

Inadequate planning time led to logistics problems

Once the Guard members arrived at the border, many reported encountering substandard living conditions and shortages of equipment to protect them while they patrol the Rio Grande, sit at observation posts or work on sections of border barrier.

Many of the troops are housed in hastily constructed base camps in remote parts of the border. Several soldiers describe communal trailers crammed with built-in bunk beds stacked three high.

In a town hall that Maj. Gen. Charles Aris, the commander of the 36th Infantry Division, held for his subordinate commanders early this month, one small-unit commander complained that there was no gear storage for his troops in the trailers. Instead, they had to store thousands of dollars’ worth of military-issued equipment like helmets and ballistic vests in their personal vehicles.

“You have to go out to your vehicle a lot to change your clothes because you don’t have enough room to keep your stuff in there,” said one 19-year veteran in an interview. “There’s just no room. … The conditions [here] are crazy.”

Some service members said they were moved into unfinished camps. A senior engineer NCO said his unit moved in before the camp had any kitchen facilities, leaving the troops to fend for themselves at local restaurants and stores.

Three Guard troops told Army Times and the Tribune that they purchased food or groceries for subordinates who were unpaid or underpaid, including one who said he purchased peanut butter, jelly and bread to feed a handful of troops in an unfinished base camp that had no kitchen yet.

Members of the Texas National Guard, seen here on Dec. 8, work 12- to 13-hour shifts guarding the Texas border wall, constru…Texas National Guard members watched over construction crews building fencing along the border near Del Rio in December. Credit: Kaylee Greenlee Beal for The Texas Tribune

Brig. Gen. Monie Ulis, commander of Joint Task Force-Lone Star, acknowledged in a letter to the force this month that the scale and speed of the deployment resulted in “austere conditions.”

Holton, the Texas Military Department spokesperson, said commanders in the field “have identified areas of improvement [for housing] and are actively working with vendors to execute those solutions.” She did not respond to a question about when the improvements will be complete.

Ulis shared floor plans for planned housing improvements with troops last week, noting that one base camp would receive the improvements beginning in February. The new “dorm-style lodging” will have a 116-person capacity and include wall lockers.

Some Guard members said that when they’re on duty along the border, they face a lack of toilet facilities at their work sites and lookout posts.

One Guard member responsible for logistics said female Guard members at those lookout posts “either [have] to go in the bush, which is degrading, or get [a superior] to come pick them up [to drive to a gas station], and then that leaves only one person in the checkpoint until they get back.”

Holton said the issue “is not widespread,” but she declined to specify how many positions lacked toilet facilities. She attributed the problem to “a miscommunication with the portable toilet vendor and we have rectified this issue.” A junior officer confirmed that more toilets were delivered to observation posts between Roma and McAllen in the Rio Grande Valley late last month.

Other troops said they lacked critical equipment, including cold-weather and wet-weather gear for the winter months.

Army Times previously reported that troops in some areas have to swap bulletproof plates for their ballistic vests between shifts because they didn’t have enough. One medical NCO who said he had to withdraw from college to go to the border told Army Times and the Tribune that his unit had trouble securing enough medical kits, which include gauze and tourniquets, for soldiers as well.

Holton said the state has shipped more protective equipment to service members on the border.

"All we're doing is staring into nothing"

Texas officials stated during the mobilization that Guard troops would arrest migrants for trespassing as part of the mission's partnership with private landowners and local law enforcement. Holton said Operation Lone Star troops have apprehended 100,000 migrants or referred them to Border Patrol, DPS or other law enforcement agencies.

Many of the apprehensions are migrants surrendering to the first person in uniform they see in order to begin the asylum request process.

One Guard member, a civilian law enforcement officer by trade, told Army Times and the Tribune that there is a special unit of around 25 troops — all of them police officers in their civilian lives — who are arresting migrants for trespassing in Kinney County, the only border county actively coordinating with Operation Lone Star.

Due to equipment shortages, those troops are also using their “own gear or [home] department-issued gear like handcuffs, duty belts and holsters,” the service member said.

But several other Guard members said not all units are seeing large numbers of migrants, and fewer are conducting arrests. They said many Guard observation posts simply watch the border through binoculars and call Border Patrol on the radio when they see people crossing the Rio Grande.

In the Brownsville area, some of the state’s most elite troops — its Air National Guard cyber operations forces — are “sitting at a watch point for hours on end with their thumbs up their ass doing nothing,” a member of the cyber unit said.

A junior soldier assigned to a post along Falcon Lake near Zapata said he and his peers spend their days “staring” at the lake.

Does he ever see migrants? “Nope, not even once,” he said. “Just people fishing.”

“Send [us] to critical areas where there is a major need for assistance,” he said. “I will do my job as a soldier and Guardsman, but I just want to be used effectively.”

Another soldier said he supports the “intent of the mission,” but not “its poor execution and the rush to failure.”

“A lot of these issues could have been mitigated had leadership taken a step back and thought of the soldiers for a minute,” he said. “They made this huge deal and rushed everybody out here, and all we're doing is staring into nothing.”

The operation’s leaders insist that there are signs of success. Aris, the division commander, said in his town hall with subordinates that an increase of migrant apprehensions in Arizona’s Yuma border sector proves Operation Lone Star’s success in Texas. Border Patrol data shows that apprehensions from October through December rose by nearly 2,400% in the Yuma Sector compared with the same period in 2020. But apprehensions still more than doubled along the Texas border compared with 2020.

Experts question that conclusion, too. César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández, an immigration attorney and law professor at Ohio State University, said more activity in another part of the border doesn’t necessarily mean the operation is working.

“I don’t think it’s that simple to point to what’s happening two states away,” he said. “But if it is displacing a situation from one place to another, then it does absolutely nothing for the nation as a whole.”

Victor M. Manjarrez Jr., who worked for the U.S. Border Patrol for 22 years and retired as the Tucson Sector chief in 2011, said claims that Operation Lone Star is deterring migrants and drug smugglers ignore the reality of how smuggling organizations react to pressure from law enforcement.

“It's not that easy for drug organizations to call up the neighboring cartel and say, ‘Hey, you know, we're having a hard time here, can we run our drugs through there?’” said Manjarrez, who is now the associate director of the Center for Law and Human Behavior at the University of Texas at El Paso.

Efforts like Operation Lone Star provide temporary deterrence, he said, but smuggling organizations typically go back to trafficking drugs or people through their usual routes once enforcement begins to dwindle.

Will Operation Lone Star gut the Texas Guard?

Many Guard members told Army Times and the Tribune that doubts about their mission’s effectiveness have compounded their dissatisfaction with its hardships, and some of them are beginning to plan their departure from the service.

Retention is typically a lagging indicator of service member frustrations. Many troops are bound by service obligations that keep them from simply quitting. But that hasn’t stopped some from heading to the exit.

For example, many of the cyber airmen deployed near Brownsville — whose civilian paychecks can more than quadruple their base military pay — are either quitting after their contracts’ end or requesting other assignments away from the Texas Guard, the unit member said.

“[They] signed up for cyber warfare,” the unit member said. “If [they] wanted to do border patrol, [they] would’ve applied with Border Patrol.”

They make up one of the Air Guard’s cyber protection teams, a recent U.S. Cyber Command and National Guard Bureau initiative meant to protect against cyber threats in their home regions. In Texas, their missions include a 2019 response to a ransomware attack that incapacitated 22 Texas counties.

The departures harm the region’s ability to respond to cyber threats, the unit member said.

“If asked to mobilize our unit as a [Cyber Protection Team] today, we couldn’t do it,” he said. “Too many have left already.”

The hard-to-replace cyber troops aren’t the only ones leaving.

Another Texas Air National Guard unit on the border, the 432nd Air Expeditionary Group, reported looming retention problems after a recent survey. Out of 73 respondents who reported their contracts would expire before the end of their Operation Lone Star deployment, 45 said they were “not likely” to reenlist or extend their contracts. That’s a sharp contrast with the Air National Guard’s national rates: The service retained 92% of airmen with expiring contracts during the year ending on Sept. 31, 2021.

Army Times and the Tribune also obtained retention data for the Texas Army National Guard, TMD’s largest branch — and a branch that usually has higher attrition rates than the Air National Guard.

The Army National Guard received a goal of 505 reenlistments between Oct. 1 and Dec. 31. It secured only 327 reenlistments, or roughly 65% of the target set by the National Guard Bureau, a national headquarters that coordinates resources among states but doesn’t run operations.

During the same period in 2020, the state convinced 368 soldiers to re-up against a target of 484 — a 76% rate. During the first three months of 2021 it did even better, exceeding its target with a 105% rate.

Soldiers’ decisions to leave or stay in the Guard are personal and complex, but falling retention numbers amid Operation Lone Star’s massive, involuntary troop surge could signal a troubling trend, members said.

A senior full-time NCO assigned to the border said none of his company’s troops plan to reenlist — and nothing short of a fundamental shift in leadership will convince them to stay.

“They’re soldiers, and they have to soldier right now,” he said. “But if they extend, they don’t want life to be this way. None of them joined active duty — they join the Guard [part time], and they understand they can deploy, but goddamn, man, we’re deployed all the time.

“They’re not staying, because what’s gonna happen next?” the NCO added. “They want their life back.”

Texas Tribune reporter Uriel J. García contributed to this story.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at El Paso has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Texas Democrats see focusing on power grid failure as a winning campaign strategy heading into 2022

Texas Democrats want to talk about the power grid.

Specifically, they want to talk about how it failed in February, how they don’t think enough has been done to fix it and why they believe Republicans in statewide leadership positions are the ones to blame.

Democratic candidates and strategists see the power grid as the Republican party’s biggest vulnerability — and they see highlighting it as their best shot at winning crossover voters in the state’s 2022 election cycle, which is expected to be an uphill battle for the minority party.

In stump speeches and messages to supporters, Democrats say that GOP leaders failed at fixing the shortcomings of the state’s energy infrastructure that led to millions of Texans losing power for multiple days during a winter storm in February, which resulted in a death toll that has been calculated as ranging from 210 to more than 700 people.

Beto O’Rourke, the frontrunner to challenge Republican Greg Abbott for governor, has said the two-term incumbent did “absolutely nothing” to heed warnings despite a previous electricity blackout in 2011. Mike Collier, who is running for lieutenant governor, coined the slogan “fix the damn grid” as one of his campaign’s top priorities. And Luke Warford, who is running for a seat on the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the state’s oil and natural gas industry, has made “Let’s keep the lights on!” his campaign slogan.

“It makes sense for Democrats to want to channel those doubts and put them front and center,” said Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. “About the only good thing for Democrats about the extended Republican monopoly [in state politics] and their demonstrated inability to break that monopoly is that there’s only one political party that can be blamed.”

But Republican leaders defend their record, pointing to more than a dozen laws passed during this year’s legislative session to address the grid’s reliability.

Abbott has been adamant that the grid “is better today than it’s ever been” and will not fail again.

“Everything that needed to be done was done to fix the power grid in Texas,” Abbott said in June.

But just two weeks ago, the group that manages the power grid released its own analysis showing that the grid is still vulnerable to blackouts during severe winter weather, despite actions taken by the state since February.

After the storm, lawmakers revamped the governance of the Public Utility Commission, which regulates utilities, and the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the nonprofit quasi-governmental body that manages the grid. They also passed laws aimed at improving the grid’s preparation for extreme cold weather but didn’t set a hard deadline for when the upgrades need to be complete and allowed natural gas producers to delay the start of their own weatherization efforts.

Democrats say that’s not good enough — and many voters agree.

Sixty percent of Texas voters said they disapproved of how state leaders handled the power grid’s reliability, according to an October poll by the University of Texas/Texas Tribune. Only 18% approved.

For Democrats, who face unfavorable odds following redistricting and a traditionally difficult midterm election while their party’s president is in office, the grid issue offers an inroad to voters who traditionally don’t support their party.

Among independent voters, 61% disapprove of the state’s work on the grid. Even 45% of Republicans disapprove. Forty-three percent of rural voters, whom Democrats have struggled to attract for decades, are also dissatisfied with the state’s work on the issue.

Matthew Dowd, who is running for lieutenant governor, called it a “populist message” that can appeal to a broad array of voters.

“That goes to rural voters, Hispanic voters, that goes to urban voters,” he said. “The average Texan has been left behind while wealthy companies make money.”

The challenge for Democrats, Henson said, is that the power grid is not among voters’ top concerns.

“When we ask people ‘What do you think is the biggest issue facing the state?’ it doesn’t come up unprompted,” he said, adding that voters are more concerned with issues like border security and immigration.

Corbin Casteel, a Republican political consultant, also questioned the issue’s salience.

“I don’t think it would show up in the top 20 for [Republicans] or [Democrats],” he said. “It’s not a matter of saying ‘Is it important or not?’ It’s a matter of what’s gonna move votes.”

Casteel, who lobbies for the oil and gas industry, said GOP state officials have taken action to address some of the shortcomings that led to the grid’s failure and that a winter storm like the one the state experienced in February is unlikely to happen two years in a row.

“You see a lot of desperation in Democrats looking for something that will stick and I don’t think this is it,” he said.

But Democrats say the issue is resonating with their voters.

“There’s not one place in Texas that I visited that hasn’t been interested in hearing about it,” Collier said. “I don’t have to spend any time explaining to people how dangerous the situation is nor do I have to explain that they didn’t do anything to fix the grid.”

At a November rally in McAllen, O’Rourke blasted Abbott’s response to the power outages, saying his connection to the oil and gas industry “explains everything." In June, billionaire Kelcy Warren donated $1 million to Abbott’s campaign. His pipeline company, Energy Transfer Partners, made $2.4 billion from the winter storm, according to Bloomberg.

“Despite the tragedy and the loss of life, this governor has once again done nothing for the people of Texas,” O’Rourke said.

Abbott pushed back on O’Rourke’s criticism.

“Beto O’Rourke continues to run a campaign that thrives on misinformation and scare tactics to hide from his liberal open border, anti-law enforcement and job killing policies,” said Abbott campaign spokesperson Mark Miner. “Concerning the grid, the truth is Governor Abbott signed 14 bills into law that improve the robustness and resiliency of the electric grid and ensure the reliable delivery of electric service to all Texans.”

But Abbott’s getting it from both sides. Even his primary Republican challengers, former state Sen. Don Huffines and former Republican Party Chairman and Florida congressman Allen West, have also criticized the response to the winter power outages.

“Texans deserve a governor who can keep the lights on,” Huffines said a press release.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who oversees the Senate and is running for reelection, has also rebuffed criticisms that state leaders failed to act. In a statement, Patrick said he has delivered on his push to replace all members of the PUC and the ERCOT Board of Directors, adding that the new members of those boards will be held to a “higher standard for transparency and accountability.”

But several times this year, Patrick expressed dissatisfaction at the work the Legislature did and just last month he told the Texas Latino Conservatives that “we still have more things to do on our grid.”

Patrick led an aggressive push to reverse $3 billion in charges for electricity during the height of the winter storm that likely will be passed on to ratepayers. The Senate approved a bill but the House did not take up the legislation, saying it could disrupt international energy markets.

Patrick did not hide his frustration with the House’s inaction or with its leader, Speaker Dade Phelan, a Beaumont Republican.

“With broad bipartisan support, the Texas Senate passed legislation to require a repricing to return money to ratepayers. House leadership refused to allow their members to vote on these issues,” Patrick said.

Phelan defended the House’s response to the grid failures and said the chamber would continue to hold the regulatory agencies accountable “to ensure the grid never fails again.”

“Lt. Gov Patrick has held his post since 2015 without making the grid a priority, but in only my second month as Speaker it was the House that first demanded action and accountability after the fatal grid collapse,” he said in a statement. “The House's approach to grid reform was about saving lives in the future while the motivation behind and who benefits from the Senate's approach remains unclear.”

Henson, the political scientist and pollster, said both parties are betting that their side will be proven right after the winter. If the grid holds up and the state gets to the spring without any major incidents, voters will move on to the next big political issue.

But any semblance of a grid failure could sink some Republicans.

“Another significant problem with the energy grid in the state will change that context and will definitely create opportunities for Democrats,” he said.

Disclosure: University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

More Texas voters unhappy than satisfied over power grid, abortion and property taxes

Texas voters have a net disapproval for how state leaders have handled the reliability of the electricity grid, abortion and property taxes, according to a new University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll.

In an October poll of 1,200 registered voters, respondents expressed major disapproval for the state's handling of the reliability of the main power grid after statewide power outages in February left millions of Texans without power for days. Only 18% of voters approved of how state leaders handled the issue, and 60% of voters disapproved. Even lawmakers themselves have expressed frustration that the laws they wrote to prepare the power grid for extreme weather haven't led to enough preparations ahead of this winter.

"The lurking uncertainty and doubts about the electricity grid [are] a mine waiting to go off," said Jim Henson, co-director of the poll and head of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. "If there's another even moderate infrastructure problem in the state in the grid or service delivery writ large that can be connected with the February outages and the failure of the Legislature to respond in a way that people expect it to be effective, it's a real political problem for incumbents."

The internet survey was conducted from Oct. 22-31, a few days after the conclusion of a third special legislative session, and has a margin of error of +/ - 2.83 percentage points. For now, that special session wrapped up nearly 10 months of frantic activity at the Legislature, which passed laws that loosen gun restrictions in the state, severely restrict abortion access and double down on state spending on border security.

According to the poll, 39% of voters approved of how state leaders have handled abortion policy while 46% disapproved. Lawmakers this year passed the most restrictive abortion law in the nation, barring the procedure before many people know they are pregnant.

Only 20% of voters said they approved of the Legislature's handling of property taxes, while 46% said they disapproved. The Legislature has tried for years to cut increasing property taxes for homeowners across the state, but voters see only minor reductions in their bills.

Voter disapproval for the state's handling of the issue increased from June, when pollsters at the University of Texas last asked about the issue after the Legislature's regularly scheduled five-month special session.

The state's handling of property taxes was unpopular across the political spectrum, but disapproval increased the most among Republicans. In June, 33% of Republicans disapproved of how the issue had been handled. By October, that share had grown to 43%.

During the final days of the most recent special session, lawmakers approved placing a higher homestead exemption on next year's ballots that would amount to about $176 in yearly savings for the average homeowner. Voters would still have to approve that change.

But Henson said voters don't appear convinced by the minor effect on their tax bills.

"The approach that they've taken up to this point is not moving public opinion, and to the extent that it is moving public opinion, it's moving it in the wrong direction," he said.

In particular, voters had net approval for Gov. Greg Abbott using state money to add border barriers between Texas and Mexico, with 53% approving and 40% opposing. More than 90% of Republicans approved of that use of state money.

"He's playing the right tune," said Joshua Blank, research director for the Texas Politics Project. "There's no threat to the mantle of fiscal conservatism."

Henson said the issue's popularity likely means voters next year will hear more from Republicans about border security and immigration than about property tax cuts.

But there are also signs of concern for GOP leaders. More than 50% of independents disapproved of how the state handled immigration and border security, and half of independents disapproved of the state's handling of abortion policy.

Blank said there was a "significant decline" in how independents evaluated the state's handling of immigration since June, when 26% approved and 33% disapproved.

"What exactly is driving this among independents who are generally defined by their lack of attention to politics, we can't know," he said. "It's hard to say, but it's something to keep an eye on."

A plurality of 47% of voters opposed banning abortions after about six weeks, as the state's new law does, and 45% approve. Fifty-seven percent of voters oppose the law's provision allowing private citizens to sue people they believe helped someone obtain an abortion, including 35% of Republicans. Only 30% of voters said they approved of that portion of the law. If the plaintiff wins such a lawsuit, the law allows that person to be awarded at least $10,000, as well as costs and attorney fees.

"The idea of bounties and the problems with having private enforcement of public laws of what are seen currently as constitutional rights strikes at least more people as problematic than the actual law itself," Blank said.

Overall, the polls showed an uptick in approval of how the state has handled abortion policy since the last time voters were polled on the subject in June. Then, 32% of voters approved and 42% disapproved. Blank said that was marked by an increase in approval from Republicans as more voters learned of the state's new abortion law, which was passed in May.

Polls remained consistent on exceptions to abortion restrictions. More than 80% of voters said abortions should be allowed if a woman's health was at risk, and nearly three quarters said they should be allowed in cases of rape or incest. Nearly 60% said they should be allowed if there was a strong chance of a serious defect to the baby, but support for other exceptions dropped substantially from there.

On the state's growing racial and ethnic diversity, 41% of voters said it was a cause for optimism while 28% said it was a cause for concern. Both Republicans and Democrats said on the net it was a cause for optimism, but independent voters said it was a cause for concern.

Younger voters were more likely to believe the state's racial and ethnic diversity was a cause for optimism. Fifty-three percent of 18- to 29-year-olds believed it a cause for optimism while only 32% of those 65 years and older agreed.

Blank said that differences among age groups reflect how the state's younger residents are more likely to be people of color.

"That is the leading edge of the changing demographics of the state, so really that is the group that should be more optimistic," he said. "Conversely, the over 40, over 50, over 60 population in Texas is significantly more white, and so they're looking at a Texas that is going to be very different from the one that they were in growing up, so it's not surprising to see more reticence toward that among that group."

The poll showed broad support for gun rights, with 46% of voters saying they approved of how the state had handled Second Amendment rights and 32% saying they disapproved. But when the questions became more specific, voters began to show disapproval for the state's handling of gun violence and a recently enacted law that allows legal gun owners over the age of 21 to carry handguns in most public places in Texas without a permit.

A plurality of voters — 41% — disapproved of the state's handling of gun violence while 35% of voters approved. A majority of voters — 55% — opposed the state's permitless carry law, while 38% said they supported it.

While 51% of voters say Texas state government serves as a model for other states to follow, 42% of voters disagree with that statement. Moreover, that number has steadily dropped over the last decade. In February 2010, nearly 60% of voters said Texas served as a model, while only 31% disagreed.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s pick for top Texas election post worked with Trump to fight 2020 results

Gov. Greg Abbott on Thursday appointed John Scott — a Fort Worth attorney who briefly represented former President Donald Trump in a lawsuit challenging the 2020 election results in Pennsylvania — as Texas' new secretary of state.

As secretary of state, Scott would oversee election administration in Texas — a task complicated in recent years by baseless claims of election fraud from Republicans in the highest levels of government, fueled by Trump. The former president has filed a flurry of lawsuits nationwide and called for audits in Texas and elsewhere to review the results of the 2020 presidential elections. Trump's own attorney general, Bill Barr, said there was no evidence of widespread voter fraud nationwide, and in Texas, an official with the secretary of state's office said the 2020 election was "smooth and secure."

On Nov. 13, Scott signed on as counsel to a lawsuit filed by Trump attempting to block the certification of Pennsylvania's election. A few days later, Scott filed a motion to withdraw as an attorney for the plaintiffs. Scott's motion also asked to withdraw Bryan Hughes, a Texas state senator from Mineola who works for Scott's law firm, as an attorney for the case.

Scott will eventually have to be confirmed by the Legislature, which is not scheduled to meet again until 2023. Until then, he'll serve as interim secretary of state.

Abbott's announcement of Scott's appointment did not mention Scott's work for Trump — even as Abbott has endured mounting pressure from Trump supporters to call for audit elections.

"John Scott is a proven leader with a passion for public service, and his decades of experience in election law and litigation make him the ideal choice for the Texas Secretary of State," Abbott said in a statement. "John understands the importance of protecting the integrity of our elections and building the Texas brand on an international stage. I am confident that John's experience and expertise will enhance his oversight and leadership over the biggest and most thorough election audit in the country."

Scott will also be the state's liaison to Mexico, the state's biggest trading partner, and will advise Abbott on border and trade affairs.

Abbott's last two appointments for the top elections position, Ruth R. Hughs and David Whitley, were not confirmed by the Senate. Hughs resigned in May.

Scott has 33 years of legal experience, arguing more than 100 legal cases in state and federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court. Working at the attorney general's office under Abbott, Scott was deputy attorney general for civil litigation, overseeing more than 22,000 lawsuits for the state. He later was appointed chief operating officer of the state's Health and Human Services Commission, where he was in charge of 56,000 employees and a biennial budget of $50 billion.

Scott also has served as board chair for the Department of Information Resources. He has law offices in Fort Worth and Austin.

Disclosure: The Texas secretary of state has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.