You wouldn’t think it would be possible for Ted Cruz to become more loathesome, but if you think that you seriously underestimate him.
Two nights before the Electoral College certification in Congress, Ted Cruz was in vintage form.
The junior U.S. senator from Texas was calling in to a friendly conservative radio host — Mark Levin — and setting up Wednesday’s vote to be the kind of intraparty line in the sand that has powered his political rise.
By then, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had made clear that he opposed objections to certifying Joe Biden’s election as the next president. But Cruz and 10 other GOP senators announced they would still object unless Congress agreed to an “emergency audit” of the presidential election results.
Cruz told Levin that there were some conservatives “who in good conscience” disagree with his view of Congress’ role in certifying the presidential election results, and that he had talked to them and did not fault them. On the other hand, Cruz said, there were “some Republicans who are not conservatives but who are piously and self-righteously preening” when it comes to the issue.
In spearheading the group of objectors, Cruz arguably upstaged U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, who announced his plan to object three days earlier — and, like Cruz, is considered a potential 2024 presidential contender.
But on Wednesday, what Cruz might have thought was a savvy political play took an alarming turn: Supporters of President Donald Trump stormed and ransacked the U.S. Capitol while lawmakers were considering Cruz’s objection. Three people suffered medical emergencies during the siege and died; their deaths were in addition to another woman who was shot by a Capitol police officer.
Cruz denounced the violence but incurred a fierce backlash from critics in both parties, who said his drive to question the election results — and appease the president and his supporters ahead of a possible 2024 run — helped fan the flames of anger among Trump supporters. Prominent Texas Democrats called for him to resign. Many others suggested he’d played an inciting role in one of the darkest days in modern American history.
Politically, it was a high-stakes distillation of GOP tactics in the era of Trump.
“His challenge of the Electoral College votes helps him among core Trump supporters but risks further damaging his political standing among rank-and-file Republicans like moderates and suburban swing voters who have traditionally formed a stable winning coalition for Republicans in Texas and nationally,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston, who added, “Siding with Trump is risky.”
Few people can pull of smarm and condescension at such a high level, but Cruz makes it look easy. The political environment was very favorable to Democrats in 2018 in large part because of anger against Donald Trump – and, it would seem, his absence on the ballot – and that went even further in the Senate race, where Cruz and his extreme unlikability took it the extra mile. Maybe a better politician, or at least someone who more closely resembles a normal human being, could get that to simmer down over time, but Cruz never misses a beat. He’s cast his lot with the Trumper deplorables, and maybe that’s his best bet to get an edge in the 2024 GOP presidential primary. All I know is, the more people who are sick of his shit, the better. Whether he runs for President or Senate or both in 2024 (remember that legally, he can do that in Texas), I expect we’ll be able to drum up some enthusiasm against him.
Having said all that, I’m unfortunately quite ambivalent about any effort to get him expelled from the Senate. I’ve no doubt that plenty of his Republican colleagues in the Senate also despise him, but voting to boot him out, which will take a non-trivial number of Republicans to happen, is a heavy lift. Just the act of putting a partisan target on his back like that will force some of them to defend him, and that’s the last thing we want to do. Chuck Schumer takes over as Senate Majority Leader on January 22, two days into the Biden administration. There’s a ton of vital stuff that needs to happen right away, from COVID relief to voting rights and much more, and the last thing we’re going to need is a sideshow. And look, as much as I’d love to see Cruz get the heave-ho, even if it did happen Greg Abbott would get to appoint his replacement, who almost by definition will be able to work better with his Republican mates. Where’s the upside in that? Let him stay where he’s mostly going to be ineffective and might help keep his caucus divided.
Now, Ken Paxton, on the other hand…
On Wednesday morning, Ken Paxton stood in front of a roaring crowd, reminding a sea of President Donald Trump’s supporters that the president “is a fighter” and his backers must be, too.
“We’re here. We will not quit fighting,” he said, slamming Republican officials in Georgia who have stood by President-elect Joe Biden’s victory there. “We are Texans, we are Americans, and we’re not quitting.”
But by the evening — after members of the crowd he had invited to Washington, D.C., stirred up with false claims about election fraud, resorted to violence, smashing windows and scaling walls to breach the nation’s Capitol in a mob that forced members of Congress to flee and left at least one woman dead — he had claimed they were not his ilk at all.
“These are not Trump supporters,” he falsely claimed on Twitter and Facebook, citing incorrect reports that the pro-Trump mob that invaded the Capitol had been infiltrated by liberal antifa activists.
On Thursday, Grand Prairie state Rep. Chris Turner, chair of the Texas House Democratic Caucus, called for an investigation into Paxton’s role in Wednesday’s riot, leaving the door open to curbing the power of his office, restricting its budget, even censure and impeachment.
“From filing a fraudulent lawsuit that fueled unhinged conspiracy theories about a free and fair election, to egging on the crowd of insurrectionists in Washington, D.C., Paxton has played a major role in creating the national crisis that culminated with the first breach of our nation’s capital since the War of 1812,” Turner said. “Even today, Paxton has used social media to spread lies about yesterday’s acts of violence and insurrection.”
In December, Paxton’s support for Trump took the form of a widely panned, and ultimately rejected, lawsuit before the U.S. Supreme Court seeking to toss the election results in four battleground states that had handed the White House to Joe Biden. The lawsuit leaned on discredited claims of election fraud in the battleground states.
Paxton finds himself in a precarious political position, even before Wednesday’s disastrous events. Since October, he has been embroiled in a scandal after eight of his top aides in the attorney general’s office told authorities they believed he was breaking the law by doing a series of favors for a political donor.
Texas Republicans — many of whom stayed quiet for the past five years as Paxton battled felony securities fraud charges — came forward to express their disapproval. Some fellow conservatives, including his former top aide U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, have called for his resignation. An FBI investigation into Paxton’s conduct is reportedly moving ahead full-throttle, and in the meantime, the fresh criminal allegations are poised to impose tens of millions of dollars in costs to his constituents: Texas taxpayers.
Paxton has been in hot water before, and often escaped it only to climb higher politically, galvanizing support from the Republican party’s right flank. He alienated some with a long shot run for Texas House speaker, then got elected to the state Senate. He has characterized long-running felony securities fraud charges as a political witch hunt, much as Trump did in Washington.
Still, Paxton may have fewer defenders now than ever before.
At a low point in his rollercoaster political career, Paxton is betting on the Trump base to bring him back up the hill, lending the legitimacy of office to debunked claims that have motivated violence.
Here, I think the calculus is a little different. Opposing Paxton’s need for need for millions of dollars in attorneys’ fees should be easy enough, and will provide a test as to whether his wings can get clipped a bit. I don’t expect much more than that, for the same reason I don’t expect even the biggest Cruz-hating Republicans in the Senate to support a motion to expel him, but we can certainly make him more toxic, and harder for his buddies to defend. Paxton had the second-worst showing in 2018, right behind Ted Cruz, and I think it’s fair to say that patience is a little thin for him. Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick and the rest have to consider the possibility that Paxton and his FBI investigation – even if Trump swoops in with a pardon – will be a burden on them in 2022. I’m sure they believe they’ll be re-elected anyway, but who needs the headache?
What they do about it is less clear. They could support a primary challenger – more likely, they’d just not get in a challenger’s way – or they could just avoid talking about Paxton as much as possible. Or they can just grit their teeth and stand by their man. I’m not listing the “quietly push him to not run for re-election” option, because I think it’s pretty clear that’s not going to work. So what we need to do is help keep the spotlight on our felonious and insurrectionist AG. There’s a petition to sign that calls for his resignation or impeachment, if you’re the petition-signing type. But mostly, just make sure everyone that you know also knows what a terrible person he is. We’re going to have to throw him out the old-fashioned way, so we’d better get to work on it.