AUSTIN, Texas (Legal Newsline) – Texans are no stranger to droughts, especially Democrats who run for state offices in the Lone Star State.
And perhaps the most parched race this election cycle is the race for attorney general – a contest in which state Sen. Ken Paxton, the GOP contender, could find his way into an office considered a stepping-stone to the governor’s mansion despite being a “weak” candidate in the eyes of some because of his violation of the Texas Securities Act.
“Even though Ken Paxton is a weak attorney general candidate – lack of funds, his Securities Act violation and an ongoing criminal complaint against him – he’s going to be swept into office,” said Cal Jillson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University. “The Republican slate will win despite the weakness of some of the candidates.”
On May 2, the Texas State Securities Board issued a disciplinary order against the attorney from McKinney, finding Paxton solicited investment clients without being registered with the state – a required act under the act.
Two months later, on July 18, Texans for Public Justice, an Austin watchdog group, filed a criminal complaint with the Travis County District Attorney’s Office, seeking a formal investigation into allegations that Paxton committed one or more felonies when he failed to register as an investment adviser representative of Mowery Capital Management.
Following the securities board ruling, Paxton declined to exercise his right of appeal, admitting to state regulators that he solicited clientswas, compensated for his services and hid the income he received on his state personal financial disclosures.
He was fined $1,000 for the transgression.
Regardless of the continuing controversy, the Paxton campaign released a poll on Sept. 1, showing voters favored the state senator over this Democratic rival, attorney Sam Houston, by a 52-to-28 percent margin.
Not everyone, however, sees the survey as proof Paxton will win come November.
Houston believes the Paxton campaign released the questionable poll as a “clumsy attempt to steal the news coverage” away from the fact the state senator is refusing to accept his debate challenges.
“It (the survey) was done by a pollster well-known for creating polls that purport to be fair but only include Republicans and conservatives,” Houston said. “A real poll that we had done showed that once voters knew about Mr. Paxton’s legal failings, they switched their votes to me. That is the message I am taking all over the state.”
Wilson Perkins Allen Opinion Research, a Republican polling firm, conducted the survey of 1,003 likely voters from Aug. 24 to Aug. 26.
The poll was released a day before Houston’s call for a debate.
On his campaign website, Houston displays a “Debate Challenge Clock” that counts the days, hours, minutes and even seconds since Paxton declined to go head-to-head with the civil litigator.
When asked why he thought Paxton is refusing to debate, Houston said the answer is “simple.”
“Ken Paxton has admitted to a crime — a third-degree felony — and he doesn’t want to have to answer for that to the people of Texas,” Houston said.
“He is the subject of a criminal complaint. Mr. Paxton has hidden behind his spokesperson and refused to speak to the media; he even went so far as to have his spokesperson physically restrain a reporter from asking him any questions. I feel very confident that if we can tell voters who our opponent is, we will win.”
The Paxton campaign did not respond to requests for comment.
“There is no greater violation of trust between an attorney and his clients than conflict of interest,” Houston said.
“Paxton was steering clients to a financial firm that was then paying him a portion of the fee charged to his clients. He made money on both sides of the deal. Paxton voted on the Texas Securities Act, not once but twice, and that act says what he did is a third-degree felony. How can Texans trust that Paxton would act in their interests if he were to be elected attorney general?”
Political entanglements and banter aside, Paxton continues to receive strong support and endorsements from right-leaning individuals and groups, including U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and most recently from Texans for Lawsuit Reform, the state’s largest civil justice reform organization.
"Sen. Paxton is a principled conservative who understands the importance of lawsuit reform in creating jobs and assuring access to doctors and health care throughout the state,” Richard Weekley, TLR co-founder and CEO, said in an Aug. 15 endorsement for Paxton.
“As a member of the Texas House of Representatives and as a state senator, Ken Paxton supported tort reforms leading to a fair and balanced civil justice system. Sen. Paxton will be an attorney general who is committed to justice and fairness for every Texan and one who will stand up for the Tenth Amendment and the state of Texas against the unwarranted intrusions by the federal government.”
TLR PAC, the political arm of TLR, declined to comment any further on the race beyond the endorsement, offering no thoughts on Paxton’s violation or Houston, who in a past interview with Legal Newsline said the Attorney General’s Office “ought to be about bringing in money and protecting consumer rights.”
Protecting state rights and fending off federal overreach is what resonates most with Texas voters and is the ideology fueling GOP dominance, says Jillson, the SMU professor from Dallas.
“From statehood to the 1960s, Republicans were closed out (of Texas state offices) just as effectively as Democrats are held out now,” Jillson said. “It used to be the Democrats who stood up for state rights.”
Jillson believes for Democrats to stand a chance on Election Day, they must adopt “center-right” positions and “sound reasonably conservative.”
And more than just saying the “right” thing, there are other factors preventing Democrats from being elected to state offices, he says.
Because no Texas Democrat has won in the past two decades, the left has no choice but to put forth inexperienced candidates. And without name recognition, donors shy away from funding them, making it nearly impossible for Democratic nominees to match the financial backing of their GOP rivals, Jillson said.
Such is the case in the Texas attorney general’s race.
Heading into the final months of the election cycle, Paxton holds the financial edge, according to the latest finance campaign reports on file with the Texas Ethics Commission.
From May 18 to June 30, Paxton raised $882,386.78 and still maintained nearly $386,000 in his war chest, in spite of being caught up in a costly primary runoff battle with state Rep. Dan Branch.
From Jan. 1 to June 30, Houston raised more than $169,000, with a large portion of that amount supplied by medical professionals and his fellow trial lawyers, including a $5,000 donation from the asbestos law firm Provost Umphrey in Beaumont.
“It’s not surprising that the legal community would support me rather than a person who violates state laws and ethical rules,” Houston said. “I have also spent many years helping physicians and others in the medical field resolve legal disputes - they know me to be a lawyer they can trust and they are supporting my candidacy because they believe I will be an attorney general they can trust.”
Houston’s firm – Shepherd, Scott, Clawater & Houston – has supplied around $10,000 in total contributions, including monetary and in-kind.
Sue Davis, Houston's campaign manager, says they have raised another $100,000 since the last report and have multiple more fundraisers scheduled.
Some of Paxton’s larger and more notable contributors include Cash Store owner Trevor Ahlberg ($25,000); the Austin firm Blackridge ($25,000); the Ryan Texas PAC ($100,000); Dallas business investor Chart Westcott ($50,000); and billionaire Pastor Farris Wilks ($100,000).
While funding, name recognition and controversy all factor into any campaign, the fact remains two-thirds of Texans vote straight ticket on Election day, Jillson says, making it apparent that when Lone Star Republicans close the voting booth curtain, they ultimately say to themselves: “Our guy on his worst day is still better than his guy on his best day.”
Reach David Yates at firstname.lastname@example.org