AUSTIN (Nexstar) — As state senators prepare to decide the fate of Texas’ top law enforcement official, many of them face a recent history of political activity tying them to the defendant as GOP mega-donors work behind the scenes to tilt the scales.
In June, campaign finance records revealed the pro-Paxton “Defend Texas Liberty” political action committee donated $3 million to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who will preside over the impeachment trial.
The donation immediately prompted condemnation from some senators and observers concerned about the influence of money in the quasi-judicial process.
“All of the support that we’ve ever given to elected officials after a session has been because they fought hard to deliver conservative policy results for Texans,” conservative activist and PAC leader Luke Macias said, framing the donation as a retroactive appreciation for the Senate’s conservative record rather than a push for favorable Paxton treatment.
Jonathan Stickland, the PAC’s president and former far-right legislator, implied the donation was intended to influence the trial.
“This is just the beginning. Wait till you see the next report,” Defending Texas Liberty founder Jonathan Stickland wrote on social media in July. “We will never stop. Ever. Grassroots conservatives will be heard.”
The PAC has further threatened to mount primary challenges against senators who vote to convict Paxton.
“Anyone that votes against Ken Paxton in this impeachment is risking their entire political career, and we will make sure that is the case,” Stickland said on former Trump strategist Steve Bannon’s program on Aug. 24.
“A vote to impeach Ken Paxton does put a senator against most of their Republican voters and on the side of Democrats, and that often does lead to them getting opposition from a very broad conservative coalition. Defend Texas Liberty PAC is often in that coalition,” Macias told Nexstar.
Campaign finance reports from Transparency USA show 95 percent of Defend Texas Liberty’s donations come from just two West Texas billionaires: Timm Dunn and Farris Wilks, who have long been far-right donors to Ken Paxton.
The PAC said they are not lobbying Lt. Gov. Patrick or the senators directly, rather, they are encouraging grassroots Republicans to urge their representatives to dismiss the articles of impeachment facing Paxton.
Virginia-based “San Jacinto 2023” spent $37,000 on ads urging voters to call their senators and tell them to “end the sham impeachment,” the Texas Tribune explained. The ads aired on Fox News at least once during the Republican presidential debate and targeted individual senators.
Donations from the ‘jury’
Senators themselves have also demonstrated a history of supporting, or defying, the attorney general.
As Nexstar first reported on Aug. 21, multiple senators have given thousands of dollars to Paxton’s campaign and his political rivals, prompting watchdog groups to question their impartiality.
According to Texas Ethics Commission records, Galveston-area state senator Mayes Middleton donated $300,000 to Louie Gohmert, the East Texas Congressman who ran to unseat Paxton in 2022. The donation came on Nov. 26, 2021 — just four days after Gohmert announced his campaign. Gohmert based his campaign on Paxton’s “improprieties,” often citing the Attorney General’s fraud and bribery accusations.
In June 2021, Midland Republican state senator Kevin Sparks donated $2,500 to Ken Paxton.
Across party lines, San Antonio state senator José Menéndez donated $1,000 to Rochelle Garza, the Democratic candidate for Attorney General in 2022, in Sep. 2022. That donation was made just two weeks before the general election.
Menendez’s office told Nexstar they would not be commenting on the matter, citing the gag order imposed on all parties to the impeachment proceedings. Neither Middleton nor Sparks responded to a request for comment.
Yet, all these senators will decide whether to remove Paxton from office. That is a departure from a standard applied by Republican appellate judge Marc Brown, who declined an offer to help preside over the trial due to a $250 he made to Eva Guzman in 2022.
Conflicts of interest
Two senators are on the list of witnesses whom Paxton prosecutors intend to call to the stand, while at least one has a clear connection to Paxton’s alleged mistress.
Sen. Bryan Hughes
East Texas Republican Bryan Hughes is implicated in the articles of impeachment. The House accuses the Paxton of asking Hughes to request a legal opinion from the Attorney General’s Office as a favor to Paxton ally and donor Nate Paul.
Sen. Donna Campbell
New Braunfels Republican Donna Campbell’s Senate office used to employ Laura Olson, the woman with whom Paxton allegedly had an extramarital affair. Olson is also listed as a witness.
Sen. Angela Paxton
North Texas Republican Angela Paxton is the defendant’s wife. She is also listed as a witness. Per the Senate’s trial rules, she is prohibited from voting on the fate of her husband. However, she will be required to be present for the trial.
By requiring her presence, the Senate effectively raises the barrier to convicting Paxton by one vote since conviction requires two-thirds of members.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick
Patrick’s campaign donated $250,000 to Paxton’s campaign in 2018, half of which was as a loan.
Patrick has maintained the Senate will conduct a fair and impartial trial, and the senators will weigh the evidence to make an independent determination of Paxton’s guilt or innocence.
“The citizens of Texas can count on the Senate of Texas to have a fair and just trial,” he said.