Analysis: For a few Texas politicians, a bad time for bad news

After the FBI searched the home of U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, the Laredo Democrat said hell cooperate with the investigation. (Robin Jerstad For The Texas Tribune, Robin Jerstad For The Texas Tribune)

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A political campaign can survive FBI raids, indictments of advisers and even indictments of public officials themselves, but timing is everything.

The news of the past week includes the indictment of Todd Smith, a top adviser and longtime consultant to Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, a Republican. Smith is accused of soliciting bribes for hemp licenses from Miller’s agency.

In Laredo, the FBI swarmed the home of U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat, as part of an unexplained investigation. Cuellar said he’ll cooperate.

However those cases come out, the timing is awful for those incumbents. Both Miller and Cuellar have ambitious primary opponents eager to capitalize on their troubles.

Those two join another incumbent facing challengers in March, Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton, whose legal troubles include a long-pending securities fraud indictment, investigations spurred by whistle-blowing top aides and a Texas prosecutor’s threat to sue him if he doesn’t comply with open information laws by releasing records of his communications from the days around the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection in Washington, D.C. On Friday, the attorney general said he wouldn't comply.

Texans start early voting in this year’s primaries on Valentine’s Day, and March 1 is election day.

That short calendar puts candidates like Miller, Cuellar and Paxton in a pickle.

In the attorney general’s case, it’s the main reason that the Republican’s intraparty squabble includes U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert of Tyler, former Texas Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman and Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush. What’s that race all about? Whatever the incumbent might wish to discuss, it’s about Paxton himself, who was indicted in 2015 on charges he offered to sell stock without disclosing that he was being compensated for doing so. That case still hasn’t gone to trial. In 2020, a group of top aides to Paxton accused him of using his office for the personal benefit of a campaign donor, leading to a federal investigation and pending civil lawsuits.

In Miller’s bid for reelection, rumors of the investigations that produced his aide’s indictment were widespread at the time when his two primary opponents were deciding to compete — the indictment was just confirmation. That news bolstered the attacks from state Rep. James White of Hillister and rancher and farmer Carey Counsil of Brenham. Miller disassociated himself from Smith, but is no longer in a position to bat away questions about “rumors.” The rumors were true, and the incumbent has a short period of time between now and the primary election to try to clear the air.

The raid on Cuellar’s house came out of the blue, but took place at the beginning of a primary race against two candidates, including Jessica Cisneros, who came within 3.5 percentage points of beating him in the 2020 primary. The FBI hasn’t revealed what they were up to, beyond saying the searches were ordered by the courts. While Cuellar has said he’ll cooperate, he’s now in a more complicated run at reelection than he was a couple of weeks ago.

If they survive this first round, all three incumbents will face new challengers in the November general election. Five Democrats and a Libertarian are running for attorney general; two Democrats are running for agriculture commissioner. All of those people are probably hoping Paxton and Miller are on the ballot; it’s easier to run against a wounded incumbent than against a fresh face, especially for a Texas Democrat trying to get into statewide office.

In the cases of Paxton and Miller, those challengers were already on the scent of officeholder ethics. It’s a new predicament for Cuellar, and an uncertain one until the FBI or the courts — or Cuellar himself — describes what the raid was all about.

Their legal problems might come to nothing. But in political terms, the ethical questions pending at the beginning of an election are fodder for opponents and detractors.

The timing couldn’t be worse.