Debate between Texas GOP attorney general candidates got heated, even though incumbent Ken Paxton wasn’t there

Texas Attorney General candidates, from left, Eva Guzman, Louie Gohmert, and George P. Bush. (Sergio Flores For The Texas Tribune/Pool, Sergio Flores For The Texas Tribune/Pool)

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A debate between Republican Texas attorney general candidates turned into an all-out brawl Thursday as Land Commissioner George P. Bush and former Texas Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman attacked each other, and U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert targeted incumbent Ken Paxton, who declined to participate.

Bush and Guzman went after each other’s records and legal qualifications, with both candidates dropping their ceremonial titles and addressing each other by first name throughout the debate. Bush called Guzman a “gutter politician,” while Guzman said Bush was “entitled” and angry that she had jumped into the race.

Gohmert took advantage of Paxton’s absence to hammer the incumbent on an FBI investigation into allegations of bribery and abuse of office and present himself as a conservative alternative without the baggage.

Paxton has held a consistent lead in the polls throughout the campaign but does not appear to have garnered enough support to avoid a runoff. That has set his three challengers, who are all within striking distance of one another, into a frenzy to increase their support.

On Thursday, Paxton was at the Conservative Political Action Committee conference in Orlando.

The debate, held in Austin five days before election day on Tuesday, was organized by The Texas Tribune, Spectrum News and The Dallas Morning News.

The attacks began less than a minute into the debate when Bush took the final part of his allotted time to say Guzman had engaged in negative campaigning.

“She’s run a multimillion-dollar attack maligning my character, impeaching my track record and, of course, going after my wife,” Bush said. “Eva Guzman, you’ve crossed the line. You can go after me but you can’t go after my family. I look forward to this discussion to show you that you are a gutter politician.”

Bush’s campaign said Guzman’s camp had referenced the company of Bush’s wife in a negative mailer implying conflicts of interest.

Guzman came right back, saying Bush had lied about her in his ads by saying she did not support former President Donald Trump’s border wall.

“He knows that’s been part of my plan. It was on my website,” she said. “There is no room in Texas for another lying attorney general.”

Bush, who was the first GOP candidate to file to run against Paxton, comes from a political dynasty that includes his uncle, former President George W. Bush, and his father, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

“I’m sorry you’re so mad that I’m running, George” Guzman said. “I know you thought this was your job. But guess what? Texans get to choose, not you.”

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Gohmert stayed out of the fight between his two opponents on stage and set his sights on Paxton. From his first answer, he needled the incumbent for not showing up to debates and public events with the other candidates.

“It’s because he is under indictment for fraud,” Gohmert said, referring to a seven-year-old securities fraud case that is ongoing and adding that Paxton is also under FBI investigation. “He’s likely going to be indicted after the primary when we can’t replace him.”

Bush also chided Paxton for his absence, saying he was evading conservative voters.

“Ken, I know you’re watching, you’re sitting there on your couch,” he said. “When are you going to come out of the shadows?”

For months, Paxton’s opponents have blasted him for his legal troubles, which they see as signs that he is too distracted to effectively carry out his duties. Eight of Paxton’s former top deputies accused him of bribery and abuse of office, which the FBI is now investigating. Paxton has also been under indictment since 2015 on securities fraud charges.

With legal clouds hanging over his candidacy, Paxton is a prime target for Democrats in the general election. Bush and Gohmert said if Paxton wins, the Republicans would essentially hand the general election to Democrats.

On the issues, all three challengers were mostly in agreement. They said they would defend Texas’ new abortion restrictions approved by the Legislature last year, agreed with Gov. Greg Abbott’s floated idea of clemency for Austin police officers charged with using excessive force during a social justice protest last summer and agreed with Paxton’s recently issued legal opinion that called gender-affirming care for transgender children child abuse.

Bush and Gohmert criticized Paxton’s lawsuit to try to overturn the 2020 presidential election in four battleground states.

Bush said it was “frivolous” and said he was “clearly trying to save his own you-know-what” by trying to get a pardon from former President Donald Trump. Gohmert said the state had no standing to file the suit but Paxton filed it to distract people from the abuse of office accusations from his former top deputies.

When asked if they believed President Joe Biden had won the election, Bush and Guzman raised their hands, with Guzman saying it was “undetermined, but yes, he’s our president.”

Gohmert said: “I don’t know whether he did or not.”

Bush said he was the best candidate for the job because of his track record in the private sector, serving in the U.S. military and running a large state agency with 800 employees.

Guzman, a former Texas Supreme Court justice, touted her 22 years of legal experience in state courts and questioned Bush’s legal chops, criticizing him for suspending his law license over the last decade. Bush said he made the license inactive while he deployed to Afghanistan with the Navy.

“You know nothing about managing dockets,” Guzman said. “You never actually handled a lawsuit from beginning to end as a lawyer.”

Guzman said she was following in the footsteps of Abbott and U.S. Sen. John Cornyn by attempting to go from the Texas Supreme Court to the attorney general’s office.

Bush shot back with a throwback to former Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen’s retort in the 1988 vice presidential debate when Dan Quayle evoked a comparison to John F. Kennedy.

“She keeps on comparing herself to Greg Abbott and to John Cornyn,” Bush said. “But I know them both and, Eva, you’re not either one of those.”

Gohmert compared his record to Paxton’s.

“I’ve been a prosecutor, I’ve been a litigator at all levels,” he said. “I have much more experience.”

In the final months of the campaign, Paxton appears to have recognized Gohmert’s threat among conservative voters and began running negative TV ads against him in Gohmert’s home region of East Texas. A week before the election, Paxton ran TV ads that blasted Gohmert for missing hundreds of votes in Congress during his 17 years in office.

Gohmert brushed off those criticisms at the debate.

“That’s coming from an attorney general that’s under indictment and has lied repeatedly,” he said.

Gohmert said those were mostly procedural votes and he still gets an “A+” with voters for the votes he has taken.

Guzman also criticized Bush for his handling of federal recovery funds for Hurricane Harvey, which a Republican Harris County commissioner has called incompetent.

“Millions of Houstonians are in harm’s way because George mishandled the distribution of Harvey funds,” she said. “George gave millions of Harris County residents zero.”

Bush dismissed the criticisms as “gutter politics” and said Democratic leaders in Harris County squandered the funds provided to them by the federal government while he has built thousands of homes for people affected by the 2017 hurricane.