Democratic candidate for Texas attorney general Justin Nelson talks to Michael Lummus ahead of September's Affordable Care Act hearing in Fort Worth.EXPAND
Democratic candidate for Texas attorney general Justin Nelson talks to Michael Lummus ahead of September's Affordable Care Act hearing in Fort Worth.
Stephen Young

Justin Nelson Outraised Ken Paxton Over the Last Quarter. Does It Matter?

Just looking at the two candidates' Facebook pages, it couldn't be clearer what Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and his challenger, Houston attorney Justin Nelson, are trying to do as they head into the homestretch of their campaigns.

Four years after gaining his office as a Tea Party insurgent, Paxton is trying to run out the clock on a rival who's proved far more formidable than anyone could've expected over the last year. Nelson is attempting to capitalize on momentum, some earned and some ceded by Paxton, that he's picked up this fall and to give himself a real chance at becoming the first Texas Democrat elected statewide since 1994.

According to the events section of Paxton's campaign Facebook, the attorney general has exactly zero upcoming public events. Over the next week alone, Nelson has 12, including meet-and-greets as far west (El Paso) and as far east (Texarkana) as one can go without leaving the state. Paxton pops up from time to time on TV and with Texas' Republican big names such as Sen. Ted Cruz and Gov. Greg Abbott, but he actively stays away from the media and potentially hostile crowds as much as possible. The attorney general's not just playing keep away, he's trying to take the air out of the ball.

"Paxton's strategy is to hide and effectively ride Greg Abbott's coattails and the straight-ticket Republican coattails back into office," Rice University's Mark Jones says.

For Paxton, it's a tried-and-true strategy. After winning a bloody GOP primary battle with Dan Branch in 2014, Paxton went to ground, keeping interactions with the mainstream press to a minimum and refusing to debate his opponent, Sam Houston.

This time around, Paxton has similarly refused to debate Nelson, saying that he will "communicate directly with the voters about important issues and his phenomenal record of accomplishment," in a July statement. The challenger, however, seems to be gaining traction where Houston couldn't.

According to new fundraising numbers released Wednesday morning, Nelson raised more money than Paxton by a more than 2-to-1 margin during the last quarter, racking up $1.1 million in donations to the attorney general's $488,000.

Nelson only spent $489,000 to Paxton's $3.2 million over the same time frame, highlighting the primary difficulty faced by his campaign — helping Texas voters find out who Nelson is. 

Ken Paxton at the 2016 Republican National Convention
Ken Paxton at the 2016 Republican National Convention

"I think with the minimal resources [Nelson has], he's been quite effective, but there's just too much going on," Jones says. "Between the Kavanaugh confirmation process, the Cruz-Beto race and all of these competitive congressional races in the major media markets of Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Austin — you throw all that together and there's just not enough bandwidth, especially for a position not many Texans even know exists."

Nelson's push for public awareness has been helped, in large part, by Paxton himself, thanks to the attorney general's twin fights against the Affordable Care Act and President Barack Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival's program.

Last month, lawyers from Paxton's office argued for the end of Obamacare's most popular provision — required protections for those with pre-existing health conditions — in federal court in Fort Worth. Nelson took advantage with a rally across the street that drew plenty of media attention. Paxton, of course, did not attend the hearing himself.

Nelson has also promised to withdraw Texas from a Paxton-led lawsuit to end DACA, which shields young immigrants brought to the United States as children from deportation, on his first day in office. According to a KTVT/Dixie Strategies poll taken earlier this year, almost 73 percent of Texans believe those with DACA protections should be given a path to citizenship or extended work permits to remain in the country.

While Nelson trailed Paxton by a single point (32-31) in a June Texas Tribune poll, there's been very little polling in the race overall. Even if there were, according to Jones, it likely wouldn't be very telling.

"It would effectively be D vs. R," Jones says. "An overwhelming majority of Texas voters have no idea who Justin Nelson is and only a slightly larger number know who Ken Paxton is."

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