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The Trib looks at the AG race

There’s case that this is the second-most interesting statewide race on the ballot.

Justin Nelson

Three years ago almost to the day, a Collin County grand jury indicted Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton for securities fraud. As the state’s top lawyer turned himself into a jail in his hometown of McKinney and smiled for his mug shot, Democrats couldn’t help but feel optimistic. The last time Texas elected a Democrat for attorney general was over two decades ago. Paxton’s legal troubles could potentially serve, they hoped, as the springboard to breaking that streak.

What perhaps no one could have foreseen back in 2015 was the dizzying array of twists and turns the legal case against Paxton would undergo. Three summers later, there is still no trial date in sight and one is unlikely to emerge before Election Day.

Yet despite avoiding a challenge from within his own party this year – arguably the biggest political threat for a statewide official in deep-red Texas – the political fallout from Paxton’s indictment remains to be seen. In November, he’ll face his first actual test of it at the ballot box: a challenge from Democrat Justin Nelson. The well-credentialed Austin lawyer is framing the race as a crystal-clear referendum on the charges that have dogged Paxton for the vast majority of his first term.

“The question that voters will have is who voters want to hire as a lawyer for Texas, for all Texans,” Nelson said in a recent interview. “Voters will be able to choose me, someone who has clerked for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor on the Supreme Court, who has taught at the University of Texas law school, Texas Super Lawyer, a partner at a successful law firm, versus my opponent, who it’s embarrassing that he’s indicted for fraud in one of the most heavily Republican counties in Texas.

“And I think that when voters see that contrast, it will be integrity versus indictment.”

[…]

In Nelson, Democrats have ample reason to be optimistic. He brings an impressive resume to the race as a clerk for former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and current partner at Houston-based litigation powerhouse Susman Godfrey. That network that comes with that — as well as Nelson’s own wealth — has allowed him to build a bigger war chest than any other Democratic statewide candidate beside U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who is running a far more high-profile race to unseat U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz. Still, Paxton maintains a wide cash-on-hand advantage.

In addition to Nelson’s fundraising, Democrats have been buoyed by a pair of public polls that suggested the race may be close. A recent University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll found Paxton leading Nelson among registered voters by just 1 percentage point, but 26 percent of voters had yet to pick a candidate.

“I feel really good about his race,” said state Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, ranking Paxton and Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller as ripe targets for Democratic upsets in November. “[Nelson’s race] is particularly compelling because … I’ve seen people react when you talk about an indictment and an attorney general — I mean, this is our lawyer, and they can’t get their head around the idea that our own lawyer is under indictment. They’ll easily concede, ‘Yeah, he’s innocent until proven guilty’, but it’s the whole image — it’s the whole cloud over the work — it just doesn’t sit easy when you hear about that.”

To be sure, Nelson is not building his challenge entirely around the incumbent’s legal troubles. Nelson also is campaigning on issues like ending gerrymandering, which was the topic of a pub crawl he led last month in Austin that touched three congressional districts in a five-block radius. During an interview at the last stop — at Easy Tiger in downtown Austin — Nelson said he would use his platform as attorney general to fight partisan gerrymandering in particular through written opinions, through the litigation process and at the Legislative Redistricting Board, where the attorney general has a seat. Nelson and Paxton were already on opposite sides of the issue before their race began, having signed on to dueling amicus briefs in the Wisconsin gerrymandering case that the U.S. Supreme Court declined to decide on last month.

Nelson has raised (and loaned himself) a few bucks, he’s got the national Democratic Attorney General Association in his corner, and there’s that one-point poll result; another poll from the Texas Lyceum that includes the AG race will be out next week. And then there’s the wild card of the Paxton trial, and how much the publicity for that has eroded Paxton’s natural advantage as a Republican. Going in on redistricting as an issue is a good idea as well. The main questions as always are how much does the average voter already know about this stuff, how much do they care, and how effectively can Nelson get his message out? Justin Nelson is a very appealing candidate, but he has to overcome the tide. That’s what this boils down to.

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