While they ostensibly work on “tort reform” issues, Texans for Lawsuit Reform is the de facto political arm for some of the state’s biggest business interests. And while they are perceived as “Republican,” the organization regularly supports Democrats and is often seen as quietly working against – or, at least, to minimize – social conservatives.
Now, with just weeks left in the 2022 election season, many are worried TLR is quietly working to help a Democrat become the state’s next attorney general. In fact, lawmakers and staff say TLR’s team of fundraisers and lobbyists have explicitly told them the organization will not support or help Paxton.
It is an open secret in the Texas Capitol that TLR has never liked Ken Paxton. State records and interviews show the organization has never supported Paxton in his primary elections. They have, however, in previous cycles helped in his November elections against Democrats.
But not in 2022. TLR has reportedly grown frustrated with Paxton using the powers of the Office of the Attorney General to aggressively combat the Biden administration and Big Tech. Coupled with his popularity among social conservatives and the grassroots, the establishment-backing TLR has made removing Paxton a priority.
That was made evident earlier this year, when TLR bankrolled the disastrous campaign of liberal Republican Eva Guzman in her attempt to unseat Paxton. She placed a distant third in the four-way race, despite TLR’s heavy backing.
According to data compiled by TransparencyUSA, half of Guzman’s $8 million in campaign donations came from either TLR or its founder, Houston businessman Richard Weekley. She also received sizable donations from other TLR heavy-hitters. Her unsuccessful campaign was noted for its strident attacks on Paxton, personally and politically.
Many of Guzman’s attacks have since been picked up by Democrats, who have been locked out of statewide office since the late 1990s.
Paxton nonetheless earned 42.7 percent of the GOP vote, followed by George P. Bush at 22.79 percent, Guzman at 17.5 percent, and Louie Gohmert with 16.9 percent. (Gohmert’s campaign spent less than $1.2 million.)
Since no one earned 50 percent of the vote, state law triggered a runoff in which Paxton routed Bush, 68 percent to 32 percent.
Now, with more than $25 million in cash on hand, TLR is taking the unusual stance of sitting out the highly competitive race for attorney general.
Recent polls show Democrat Rochelle Garza within just a handful of points of Paxton among likely voters.
When contacted about the TLR’s absence, Weekley offered a terse response.
“We want Paxton to win and will vote for him but this time others can save him like we did in 2018,“ replied Weekley, who personally spent $1.1 million against Paxton in the primary.
Some might disagree with his characterization of 2018, 2022 is a different year – particularly given the attacks TLR itself funded directly against Paxton in the primary. And, again, many of those TLR-sponsored talking points bashing Paxton are being recycled by the Democrats in support of Garza.
Weekley’s refusal to back Paxton runs in contradiction to his regular post-primary talking point that conservatives should line up in support of the moderate Republicans he tends to favor.
And as one political consultant unaligned with either Paxton or TLR pointed out, the organization hasn’t even gone so far as to criticize Garza’s stances – many of which seem to be at odds with the “pro-business” and even “tort reform” positions of TLR and its major donors.
One lobbyist, who asked to remain anonymous due to the nature of their work, suggested TLR’s organizational pride is on the line in the attorney general race. The lobbyist recounted an email sent from TLR ahead of the primary in which they asserted Paxton would decidedly lose the general election.
Having failed to replace the A.G. in the primary, TLR seems determined to “prove themselves right” – to use the lobbyist’s words – by hoping their talking points sink Paxton in the general election. One person closely aligned with TLR said Weekley and his leadership have made their opposition to Paxton “personal.”
One has to wonder if the “others” to which Weekley referred would be those Republican-leaning business interests that have historically let TLR do their political thinking for them.
This seems to be a risky strategy. Now that TLR’s giving in the A.G. race is seen as “personal,” those TLR-backing businesses – which tend to donate impersonally for political access – could be left out in the political cold. Worse, a Paxton defeat in November leaves those businesses at the mercy of a decidedly anti-business Democrat.
A Paxton victory without TLR in November signals to other incumbent Republicans that TLR’s involvement isn’t necessary. One wonders what new pro-business political entities, taking a less personal approach, might arise to fill a coming void.