McKINNEY, Texas - Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton was forced into a runoff after a bruising Republican primary campaign.
The incumbent faced three strong challengers as he sought his third term as attorney general amid legal woes and accusations of abuse of his office.
"To the establishment, they got what they wanted -- they got me in a runoff," Paxton told supporters Tuesday night at his watch party in McKinney.
Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush finished with nearly 23% of the vote, ahead of former Texas Supreme Court Judge Eva Guzman and East Texas Congressman Louis Gohmert, who both had roughly 17% of the vote.
"If you want to keep winning for Texas and if you want to be a part of saving Texas and saving this country, we're going to have to fight the fight for the next two and a half months. Get our vote out and unite the conservatives and go win this in May," Paxton said.
"We're getting ready for a three-month campaign to expose the most publicly corrupt candidate we've seen in Texas state history," Bush said. "I'm the only one who's running a grassroots campaign versus Ken. Ken hasn't shown up to any of the 10 scheduled debates, including the one televised debate. So if he runs the same style of campaign, he's going to lose."
Paxton’s troubles have kept other GOP officeholders at arms-distance. Notably, Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday declined to say if he voted for Paxton in the primary.
The incumbent skipped a debate last week with his three challengers, who all took turns attacking him and his record.
Paxton has been under indictment since 2015 on Texas securities fraud charges, but a trial has not taken place and he’s pleaded not guilty.
Paxton was accused of bribery and abuse of office in October 2020 by multiple assistants in the attorney general’s office, which resulted in the FBI opening an investigation. Paxton has denied wrongdoing in that matter, as well.
Despite all of his challenges, Paxton remained the favorite and has the endorsement of former President Donald Trump. He filed an ultimately unsuccessful Supreme Court case in attempt to contest 2020 presidential election results in multiple states and also spoke at rally that took place before the Capitol Riot on January 6, 2021.
The closing days of the campaign featured Paxton serving the GOP base plenty of red meat. Most notably, the AG’s office issued a legal opinion that said gender-confirming care for transgender kids was child abuse.
The strength of the Bush dynasty was also at stake. Bush is former President George H.W. Bush's grandson, the nephew of former President George W. Bush and the son of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
He cruised to easy wins in 2014 and 2018 and Texas Land Commissioner. But the Bush name isn’t what it used to be in Texas GOP circles.
The Bush campaign came into Tuesday hoping to place second and force a runoff.
Texas Democrats attorney general primary
The Democratic primary is also headed to a runoff in May.
The race is important for the party if Paxton wins the GOP nomination. He had the narrowest margin of victory in the 2018 general election and is considered vulnerable in the fall if he is the nominee.
Former ACLU attorney Rochelle Garza had a sizable lead as of late Tuesday night, but was not close to hitting 50 percent to avoid the runoff. The battle for second place involved trial lawyer and former mayor of Galveston Joe Jaworski and high profile civil rights lawyer Lee Merritt. Jaworski had a small lead, with more than half the ballots counted.
Merritt tweeted Tuesday night he remained confident in his chances to make a runoff.
"We are confident our team will be heading into a runoff but unfortunately we will not have a final vote tally until technical issues are worked out in Harris County. Thank you for your support and patience," he said.
Officials in Harris County requested additional time from the state to count returns due to damage to some ballots.
Garza was campaigning in a Democratic congressional primary to succeed retiring U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela (D-Brownsville). But when redistricting, approved in 2021, made a neighboring seat more competitive, that Democratic incumbent moved into her district and she abandoned her campaign.