Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton's political career should be on its last legs. Throughout his first term, he's been dogged by controversy. He's under indictment for alleged securities violations, although his trial is unlikely to begin before 2019.
His defense of Texas' ill-fated 2013 abortion law cost the state millions. In the months before he took office, Paxton was forced to return another lawyer's $1,000 Montblanc pen with which he'd walked away from the Collin County Courthouse's metal detector.
There is no reason that Paxton should be shoo-in to win his second consecutive four-year term, but as things sit four months or so before the 2018 general election, that's how it looks. Paxton, for all his flaws, missteps and strange behavior, is going to be Texas' attorney general in January. He is, without doubt, the luckiest politician in Texas.
Let's look at the reasons why.
1. Paxton finds that the Trump administration is an all too willing blackmail victim.
In June 2017, Paxton issued a threat to President Donald Trump: End President Barack Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program or face a lawsuit from Texas. Three months later, Trump attempted to terminate the program, which grants legal status to hundreds of thousands of undocumented U.S. residents brought to the country as children.
Trump's order has yet to go into effect because of a series of federal court rulings, but Paxton is still working to take down DACA. In May, Paxton and seven other states' attorneys general filed his lawsuit, seeking a way around the previous decisions against Trump's executive order. While Paxton's suit is, on its face, against the Trump administration, the administration has no intention of defending the policy. Democrats, including Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, have accused U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions of colluding with Paxton before the suit in an effort to make sure DACA ends, one way or another.
It's not much of a fight if both sides are swinging at the ref.
2. Paxton gets endorsed by the president. Of the United States.
In the recent, sane past, a sitting president likely would've done all that he could to avoid associating himself with a controversial mid-level state official who happened to be under felony indictment. These are different times.
When Trump spoke May 4 to the National Rifle Association's annual convention in Dallas, he began his remarks with a robust endorsement of Texas' Republican state officials, including the attorney general.
"Attorney General Ken Paxton. Tremendous guy. You have my full endorsement, and Angela, your wife, she has my endorsement," Trump says.
Nothing like an official, presidential seal of approval in an election year.
3. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy retires just in time.
Before the retirement of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy last week, Paxton looked like he held the losing hand in two major abortion cases Texas is fighting with reproductive rights advocates. Paxton is defending a state law that bans the most common — and safest, according to doctors — method of second-trimester abortion. He's also responsible for defending a couple of decades' worth of abortion restrictions in a separate suit that could change the face of abortion in Texas.
Before Kennedy's retirement, Paxton seemed headed for defeat in both instances, based on pivotal votes by the justice in two of the Supreme Court's previous major abortion decisions — Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt and Planned Parenthood v. Casey. Now, with the potential of an anti-abortion rights justice being appointed in Kennedy's place, Paxton and Texas may have a chance to remake U.S. abortion laws for the first time since the '70s.
4. Paxton calls his play against the Affordable Care Act, Trump administration decides it isn't going to play.
In late February, Paxton announced that he was leading yet another lawsuit against the federal government. This time, the attorney general had the Affordable Care Act and its individual mandate in his sights.
“Through our multistate lawsuit, we hope to effectively repeal Obamacare, which will then give President Trump and Congress an opportunity to replace that failed experiment with a plan that ensures Texans and all Americans have better choices for health coverage at more affordable prices,” Paxton said.
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In June, before Paxton's fight against the health care law could really get going, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that his justice department would no longer defend the individual mandate — which requires that all Americans purchase health insurance.
Paxton's argument, one echoed by Sessions in his announcement that the Justice Department wouldn't defend the law, is that without a tax penalty for failing to maintain insurance coverage — something Congress eliminated when it passed Trump's tax cut earlier this year — the ACA is no longer constitutional.
5. Straight-ticket voting is here to clean up Paxton's mess.
According to the Texas Tribune's latest polling in the state, Paxton faces the toughest race of any Texas Republican, leading challenger Justin Nelson by just one point, 32-31. Paxton's advantage is likely larger than that, however, because Texas still has straight-ticket voting for the 2018 election.
Incumbent Texas Gov. Greg Abbott leads Lupe Valdez by 12 points in the same poll, so about a quarter of those voting for Abbott would have to split their tickets and seek out Nelson's name on the bottom in order for him to defeat Paxton. In 2020, Texas voters will have to vote in each of the state's races individually, leveling the playing field in down-ballot races.