There was much conjecture about how the criminal prosecution against Donald Trump might affect his bid to regain the presidency when he turned himself in at a Manhattan courthouse on Tuesday. This has never happened before. No prior president has ever been arrested for any crime, let alone while running for office.
Yet the state of Texas could provide some insight into the future. People here, particularly Republicans, have made it obvious that they don’t care if their elected officials are criminally charged or related to others who are.
Republican strategist Brendan Steinhauser remarked, “We already see a situation in our state where an indictment or criminal trial does not equate to losing an election,” in reference to Attorney General Ken Paxton, who has been indicted for alleged felony securities fraud since 2015.
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Paxton easily won a third term in November, with a 12-point margin of victory against his Democratic opponent Rochelle Garza.
“He has cruised to re-election,” Steinhauser said. “We’re just so partisan, and people aren’t even going to consume the facts — they’ll just make their minds up.”
Just Paxton among the currently serving elected officials is being investigated or accused of wrongdoing in connection with close associates or the public. Experts in politics say that the Republican Party’s increasingly anti-institutional stance and the emergence of hyperpartisan politics are to blame for its longevity.
“Ultimately, it’s not going to have an impact on your political career, especially here in Texas,” said Joshua Blank, research director at the University of Texas at Austin’s Texas Politics Project.
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“It is very easy to take these sorts of situations, for a lot of voters, and just take it as Democrats versus Republicans. It’s not seen as somehow being separate from the political process.”
The evidence against Trump lends credence to the story his followers have been telling for years that the system is biased against the former president. “Ultimately, an indictment does more to reinforce those views than it does to undo them,” Blank said.
Several such recent cases of Texan politicians defying scrutiny can be found. Since his first run for statewide office eight years ago, Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller and his staff have been the subject of several ethics complaints and two investigations by the Texas Rangers, including one that resulted in the indictment of Miller’s campaign spokesman and political consultant on bribery and theft charges last year. The Republican was re-elected with an almost 13% margin of victory.
Last year, the FBI raided the Laredo, Texas, home and campaign headquarters of Democratic U.S. Representative Henry Cuellar. Although he was cleared of any wrongdoing, his opponents used the inquiry as a weapon against him in both the Democratic primary and the general election, which he ultimately won by a margin of over 15 points.
Even Austin has seen a miniature version of what happened in New York City on Tuesday. Former governor Rick Perry was indicted on two counts of felony abuse of power in 2014. He surrendered himself to authorities in Travis County and posed for a mug shot while wearing a suit and tie, which quickly went viral.
The accusations were withdrawn when Perry successfully contended that they were motivated solely by politics. Yet before Perry ran for president in 2015, he launched his campaign. In the end, the Trump administration appointed him to head the Department of Energy.
Republicans in Texas have not wavered in their support of Trump, even though he is accused of making illegal payments to settle allegations of an extramarital affair during the 2016 presidential campaign and faces 34 felony counts of manipulating corporate records.
The Texas Republican Party has joined Trump in claiming the investigation is politically motivated and accused Democrats of using the legal system as a weapon. Trump has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and criticized it.
“Alvin Bragg is an activist district attorney following through on an unhinged campaign promise, not the rule of law,” Harris County Republican Chair Cindy Siegel said.
“The Republican grassroots and voters of Harris County see this for exactly what it is, and that’s a gross abuse of power that makes a mockery of what was once one of the premier district courts in this nation.”
Fort Bend County’s Republican Party chairman, Bobby Eberle, said the case has energized Republicans in the county, which has been a political battleground for decades.
“This has been a galvanizing moment for people to just say, ‘This is wrong’ — and I’m talking about people who are not Trump supporters,” Eberle said. “It’s about the rule of law and it’s about abuse of power, and that’s how people see it.”
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