AUSTIN (Nexstar) – With the March 1 primary just days away, incumbent Attorney General Ken Paxton is polling below the threshold needed to avoid a runoff election.

The new Your Local Election Headquarters poll, a partnership with Emerson College Polling and The Hill, shows Paxton with 43% support, short of the 50% + 1 needed to win the nomination.

Paxton faces a challenge from current Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, who was second in the poll. Congressman Louie Gohmert and former Texas Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman are also in the picture for a potential runoff. Undecided voters make up 14% of the total.

Of the top statewide races, Paxton faces the stiffest challenge in the primary.

Paxton’s campaign advertisements have highlighted his aggressive approach toward the Biden administration, highlighting one example of a lawsuit against the Biden administration he has won. Since President Joe Biden was inaugurated, Paxton has sued his administration 20 times with mixed results of success.

All three of Paxton’s television advertisements have featured his coveted endorsement from former President Donald Trump, who is still seen to carry a lot of weight with GOP primary voters.

Close to half of Republicans polled said they would be more likely to support a candidate endorsed by Trump. Just 16% said Trump’s backing would make them less likely to vote for that candidate.

His competitors have been trying to draw ethical contrast to the incumbent, frequently pointing to the list of legal troubles he’s faced throughout his time in office. In 2015, Paxton was indicted on felony securities fraud charges. Last year, seven of his top aids reported him to the FBI over bribery and abuse of office accusations. He is now facing wrongful termination and retaliation lawsuits from those former aids.

Paxton rarely talks about the ongoing investigations into his actions. At a news conference earlier this month, he deflected a question about his Republican challengers calling attention to his legal issues, saying he would not talk about campaign issues, while operating in his official attorney general capacity.

Nexstar has tried several times setting up an interview with Paxton to discuss his re-election campaign. His campaign team has not responded.

If elected, Bush said he would start working to re-establish faith in the AG’s office on day one.

“It’s partly being a Christian, showing supplication, humility, to the legislature, to the people of Texas, to other county DAs, and restoring that trust. I pride myself on my relationships, not only in the legislature, but also with county judges, and DAs and county sheriffs,” Bush said in an interview for our State of Texas politics program.

While Paxton has also made efforts to secure our southern border, Bush said it hasn’t been enough.

“He’s just suing the federal government, which is important. And we can debate basically his win-loss record, which I don’t believe is strong enough as it should be. But what he’s not doing is helping local and county officials leveraging the power of the state of Texas to backstop our local law enforcement,” Bush said.

“Instead of sending information packets, we need to send lawyers and paralegals to help our farmers and ranchers, either build Texas’ wall and or prosecute under Governor Abbott’s Executive Order with Operation Lone Star,” Bush continued.

That executive order gives DPS troopers the authority to arrest and charge migrants caught crossing on private property, but that’s overwhelming local criminal justice systems in border towns.

“Every county sheriff, and DA that I talked to, or even border troops that I interact with, they say that the state of Texas has not been legally prosecuting criminal trespassing claims quickly enough,” Bush said.

He plans to send help to speed that process up, if elected.

“I’m the only candidate in this race that’s promoting the idea of a mobile prosecution unit to deploy. It’s similar to a military deployment of deploying whatever we have here in Austin to help our border communities,” Bush said.

Beyond border issues, Bush said he would also fight to protect free speech, specifically for conservatives.

“I believe that the First Amendment has been manipulated for the left, but not the right. Whether it’s on college campuses, or social media, canceled culture that we’re seeing where if you are conservative, and you put out controversial thoughts, suddenly your career is done,” Bush said.

Guzman said her experience sets her apart from the incumbent, and challengers.

“Texas is hiring a lawyer. I’m asking Texans to hire a lawyer with 22 years of experience in the judiciary. 12 of them on the Supreme Court of Texas, the highest court in the state,” Guzman said.

“I’m known for my respect for the rule of law. Ken Paxton thinks he’s above the rule of law. George P. Bush has not seen the inside of a courtroom as a lawyer since 2003. Louie Gohmert missed 846 votes while in Congress. We need an attorney general who is going to show up at work,” Guzman said.

Guzman said her efforts to secure our state’s southern border will be focused in the courts.

“That includes bringing in the types of lawsuits that force the Biden administration to do their job, which is to bring enough magistrates down to the border, to make sure that these claims are processed. I will use the courts to force the Biden administration to comply with Article Two of the Constitution, the take care clause, and under Article four, sue for the invasion, whether it’s fentanyl or humans or cartels, it’s an invasion,” Guzman explained.

She said border issues are personal for her.

“No one’s more motivated than me. Sadly, and tragically, my dad was killed many years ago by an illegal immigrant. I will sue Joe Biden, I will protect our borders so that no other family will have to experience what we did anyone can commit a crime,” Guzman said.

Beyond border issues, Guzman said if elected, she will also focus on protecting Texans from government overreach.

“I’ll always fight anything that impedes or restricts our individual freedoms, whether it’s mask mandates, closing our churches, vaccine mandates, we need to say no, to those types of intrusions,” Guzman said.

Gohmert: Paxton primary win would ‘hand the race over to the Democrat’

A Texan known as being one of the most-conservative members on Capitol Hill decided to forego his bid for re-election, and instead join the race for Texas Attorney General East Texas Congressman Louie Gohmert entered the race last, making the announcement official at the end of November.

Gohmert says Paxton’s personal legal troubles played a major factor in entering the race. Aside from his ongoing indictment on securities fraud charges, seven of Paxton’s top aides reported him to the FBI with allegations of bribery and abuse of office.

“That played a part because what I know is that it’s not like he is told some people, ‘Oh, a bunch of criminals stabbed me in the back.’ Because these are seven top people who were hired for their intellect, and hired for their integrity, despite what he has said about them,” Gohmert said in an interview.

Gohmert said he worries Republicans could hand the race over to the Democrats in November if Paxton is the one on the ticket then.

“[The DOJ] is not going to do anything until after the primary and under Texas law, I know I’ve Paxton’s supporters that, ‘Oh, no, we could replace them on the ballot if we wanted to.’ There is no basis for replacing someone on the ballot who wins the primary, then is either indicted or convicted, you can’t replace them on the ballot. So it’s time to make that adjustment now,” Gohmert explained.

Paxton’s Republican opponents have cited an outstanding indictment against him as well as an ongoing FBI investigation into allegations of abuse of office. But those legal issues don’t seem to matter to most primary voters.

In the poll, 41% of Republican primary voters said Paxton’s legal issues have no impact on their likelihood of voting for him, while 23% said the accusations actually made them more likely to vote for him. A quarter of voters said the legal issues make them less-likely to vote for Paxton.

Even with those legal troubles, Paxton received former President Trump’s endorsement over the summer. Gohmert said he has not asked Trump to take that back now that he’s entered the race, and maintains a good relationship with him.

“I talked to President Trump last summer a few weeks before he endorsed Paxton and I encouraged him not to endorse anybody in that race. And he said Paxton’s been calling him three or four times a week for weeks and begging him to endorse him. ” Gohmert said. “I also knew that once he endorsed, he’s never withdrawn on endorsement, that I’m aware of.”

Gohmert said one of his top priorities if elected will be border security, much like the other Republican candidates. He said his focus will be keeping migrants from ever stepping foot on Texas soil.

“Until somebody puts a foot on Texas soil, they’re not an immigrant, legal or illegally in the country. So the key I think, in complying with the [Arizona] Supreme Court mandate is you don’t let people put a foot on Texas soil unless they come through a lawful port of entry,” Gohmert said.

When asked how he would do this, Gohmert pointed to the wall and technology used by DPS.

“That wall is back from the border people are already in the United States by the time they encounter the wall,” Gohmert said. “We have our DPS has thermal technology, their balloons, you can float up that have thermal technology, night vision. And I’ve been with them when we would see with the thermal images of people coming to the Mexican side of the border, and would radio that into the Border Patrol. You don’t have to have a person every foot of the border.”

Gohmert said his other top priority will be securing elections in Texas, although there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud.

“The AG has over 750 lawyers, most a lot of them do child support collection. But when it comes to the election, we ought to have an assistant AG in every county in the state to make sure that elections are run fairly, securely, and get them TROs or injunctions anytime they’re not,” Gohmert said.

Gohmert said he also would not be afraid to push back against other state leaders.

“You wouldn’t see me, but I would be going personally to the Governor when I was concerned about something that was being done, saying, ‘Let me tell you about this mandate, I think that violates state law or the state constitution, let’s just behind the scenes in a friendly manner, work this out. Because otherwise, I gotta sue you in court,” Gohmert said.

‘A real opportunity to restore integrity’ – Diverse field of candidates battle toward likely runoff

The legal controversy surrounding Ken Paxton could also open a door for Democrats in November. But first, candidates will face a tough primary, and a likely runoff to win the party’s nomination.

The latest Your Election Headquarters Poll, done in conjunction with Emerson College Polling and The Hill, shows the Democratic primary shaping up as a three-way race.

Rochelle Garza leads the way with 30%, far below the threshold to avoid a runoff. Joe Jaworski and Lee Merritt are in the hunt to make the likely runoff. Mike Fields and “T-bone” Raynor are polling in single digits. Undecided voters make up 22% of the total for Democrats.

Those undecided voters will be key in deciding who advances from Tuesday’s primary.

Former ACLU attorney Garza says she is the only one whose experience makes her qualified to take on Paxton, assuming he still gets nominated for Republicans.

“He is clearly unfit for office. We should not reelect him, he should not be there,” she said. “But there is a real opportunity to restore integrity to the office.”

Garza pointed to a case she won before the U.S. Supreme Court as evidence she can have success in major legal battles. In Azar v. Garza, she represented a teenage, undocumented immigrant in U.S. custody who was denied access to abortion.

“I’m the only one that has been able to reinforce reproductive rights,” Garza said. “With Roe [Roe v. Wade] at risk this summer, we’re going to need someone like that. We’re going to need someone like me, a champion who knows how to fight these cases…knows how to ensure that we protect civil rights.”

Her case before the high court resulted in the “Garza notice,” a requirement that teenagers in immigration custody must be informed of their right to access abortion. 

The Brownsville native highlights herself as someone who “deeply understands” Texas working families and the issues they care about — especially when it comes to Texans’ grievances with the healthcare system.

Her campaign video highlights her younger brother Robby, who grew up with disabilities resulting from a brain injury, as something that made her passionate about affordable healthcare access. Garza points to this as a driving force behind her decision in pursuing civil rights law and championing the underdog.

“I just saw how important it was to advocate for each person in my family and to make sure that my family was well, and that’s how I look at the law,” she said. “That’s why I focused on civil rights law, practicing immigration, criminal defense, family, constitutional law, and ensuring that we’re protecting every single person and every single person’s civil rights.”

While the border remains a dominant issue in the Republican races, Garza said the GOP’s talking points around immigration are harmful and incorrect.

“What we’re seeing is a bunch of counties that are having to prosecute folks and then they’re not receiving the resources that they need in order to do so, or reimbursement,” she said. “…That is the job of the federal government, to manage the immigration issues. Operation Lonestar, building a border wall — these are all things that are just wasteful and they’re detrimental to Texans really.”

Garza says not only would she fight to make sure all Texans rights are protected, but be overall more representative of a state that’s rapidly changing in demographics. She would be the first Latina attorney general in Texas.

“I think it’s time that we have someone that is reflective of our communities that understands our experiences to take on this position,” she said. 

Former Galveston mayor Joe Jaworski is trailing Garza, but says is three decades of experience as a trial lawyer makes him the most qualified in the crowded field of Democrats vying for the position of Texas’ attorney general.

“Experience matters in the Office of the Texas Attorney General,” he said. “Because if you’re going to be the people’s attorney … you’re going to go up against some powerful interests. So you better have had a lot of experience in court.”

In the 2018 election, incumbent Ken Paxton won the race by a little over three percentage points. Jaworski believes with Paxton’s ongoing legal issues, Democrats could have a real chance at flipping the AG’s office blue in November.

“Ken Paxton is not a lawyer; he is a culture warrior. He is a politician posing as a lawyer,” he said. “And it’s a real shame, because the Texas Attorney General’s Office … ought to be about consumer protection for all voters, regardless of what stripe politically you are.”

Jaworski said if elected, he’ll take a different approach to the office, with less emphasis on suing the federal government — an anti-Washington tactic made popular by Texas AG predecessors. Incumbent Paxton has sued the Biden administration more than 20 times since President Joe Biden took office.

“Would [I] be an antagonist of perhaps an executive in the White House from a different party? No, not necessarily. It just depends on how they behave and whether they are hurting Texas interests,” he said.

Instead, Jaworski emphasized wanting to refocus the office toward consumer protection, specifically working to hold private health care insurance companies to account.

“This is a way that we can help Republicans, Democrats and Independents alike,” he said. “We let the private health insurance companies know that there’s a new sheriff in town, who will use the attorney general’s investigation powers as well as litigation to make them pay health care claims reasonably and on time.”

Immigration and border security remains a top issue for Texas voters in both parties, regardless of where they stand on the issue. Jaworski said he believes Texas needs a “firm immigration partnership” with the federal government and look at the issue from a legal standpoint. His policy proposal on such includes the following:

  • Using part of the OAG budget for funding up to eight attorneys and placing them in the U.S. Department of Justice to prosecute cartel members
  • Enlist third-year law students at Texas universities to offer legal advice to immigrants seeking asylum to help address the backlog of cases
  • Work with the Texas State bar to recruit under-purposed attorneys to work as judges and magistrate more asylum claims to also aid the backlog

“When we do that, we will clear out the backlog, and the border will be ours again,” he said.

Civil rights attorney Lee Merritt is hoping his national profile will help earn him the Democratic nomination. The Dallas-based attorney defends victims from corporate discrimination, police violence and racial injustice and is widely known for his involvement in high-profile cases.

He currently represents the family of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man who was chased and murdered by three men in Georgia in 2020. Now, Merritt hopes to be the state’s top lawyer.

“If you build it, they will come,” Merritt said. “I built a national practice that responds to those voters. I believe that they will come in response to that.”

At the forefront of his campaign, Merritt wants to fight what he sees as “a unique assault on voting rights in Texas,” in light of last year’s voting law.

“It’s going to be my priority to make voting easier in Texas and more accessible for all eligible voters. And to oppose the far right push to disenfranchise Texas voters,” Merritt said.

Facing an uphill battle in a Republican state, Merritt said he’s focused on energizing his blue base, not changing minds.

“We need Black and brown voters to be inspired to come out to the polls, and a centrist message, this design to catch possibly disgruntled Republicans voters is a losing strategy,” Merritt said. “Instead, we need to be pushing towards our base telling them that we’re going to fight for the issues that they care about.”

When asked about how he’ll combat the influence of Donald Trump, Merritt said he’s worked with the former president before to address the criminal justice system. 

“Our job is to uphold the Constitution, which is not necessarily a partisan issue,” Merritt said. “So where we can find agreement, we found agreement, which resulted in some executive orders that would serve Texans, and where there’s disagreement, there’s a fight required.”

Merritt said he hasn’t given much thought to which Republican candidate he’d like to run against. With a partywide assault on matters of voting, critical race theory and defunding public schools, Merritt believes the Republican candidates are one in the same.

“He’s the devil that we know,” Merritt said about Attorney General Ken Paxton. “But there’s a saying about the devil that you don’t know, that can be even worse.”

If elected, Merritt said his first priority will be protecting the right to vote by addressing gerrymandering and voter suppression and restoring a Civil Rights unit to the Attorney General’s Office.

“Once voters are empowered, we can begin to address all the other systemic issues that plagued Texas,” Merritt said.

Former Republican runs as a Democrat in race for Attorney General

As Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton looks to fend off challengers in the Republican primary, former Republican and former Harris County criminal court judge Mike Fields is looking to be elected as a Democrat.

“I have the qualifications that I think give me the ability to do the job,” he told KXAN.

Fields said the state’s deadly 2021 freeze was a big motivation for his run in the Democratic primary.

“I don’t think anyone was held accountable,” he said. “I think it’s imperative that we go after the folks who allowed our electrical system to go down.”

Fields said should he win the primary and general election, other priorities in office would include protecting voting rights, women’s reproductive rights and the LGBTQ+ community.

He said he would also roll back Paxton’s lawsuits against the Biden administration and adjust Paxton’s suit against Google.

As KXAN has reported, Paxton has accused Google of tracking users’ locations without consent, something the tech giant has called “inaccurate.”

“I’d start talking with [AG office] lawyers about how we can make that lawsuit better or non-existent by working with [Google’s parent company] Alphabet to ensure consumer privacy,” Fields said.

Texas attorney general Democratic candidate Mike Fields (Photo: Handout)

Fields comes with experience in the Texas AG’s office, having worked as an assistant attorney general in the 1990s before serving on the bench in Harris County for 20 years — as a Republican.

He lost his seat in a Democratic wave in 2018 and switched parties.

“The traditional Republican Party is not what it used to be. It has gone way too far to the right and way too mean spirited,” Fields said. “My ideas have always remained the same, and they still are. I think the party switched.”