AUSTIN, Texas - Attorney General Ken Paxton is zeroing in on U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Tyler, with just weeks left until the March primary in which Gohmert and two other fellow Republicans are trying to force the embattled incumbent into a runoff.
Earlier this month, Paxton's campaign launched TV ads exclusively in East Texas, which is Gohmert's home base. Then an anti-Gohmert mail piece surfaced from the Paxton campaign. And on Wednesday, Paxton launched Facebook ads targeting Gohmert.
Paxton has criticized individual challengers before this election cycle, but the anti-Gohmert effort marks the first time he is spending real campaign money against one of them. And it comes as Paxton is looking to capture a majority of the vote on March 1 and avoid the protracted fight that comes with a runoff.
As a hardcore conservative who has aligned closely with former President Donald Trump, Gohmert is the most politically alike Paxton — and perhaps the most likely to siphon off the support that Paxton needs to win outright.
Paxton has theorized as much, saying in December that Gohmert was "talked into" running by people who "know that Bush can’t win the primary, and they need votes taken from me to make this a race for Bush." On the campaign trail, Gohmert regularly laughs off the suggestion that Bush allies recruited him.
Gohmert's campaign is taking encouragement from being the focus of Paxton's ire.
"The fact that our compromised AG is only attacking me also tells you that he recognizes the real conservative in the race," Gohmert said in a recent statement.
Stacy McMahan, the president of the conservative group East Texans for Liberty, said Gohmert has always enjoyed a strong home-field advantage, saying "folks out here love Louie Gohmert." She agreed that Gohmert has emerged as Paxton's biggest threat in the primary.
"He is, I do believe, and I don't believe it's just in East Texas," said McMahan, whose organization has not yet endorsed in the primary. "There's people in San Antonio that I'm aware of that are working really hard and a lot of folks in West Texas."
Paxton's anti-Gohmert campaign began on Jan. 11, when the attorney general launched the first TV ad of his reelection campaign. While the spot was positive, touting Paxton's confrontations with the Biden administration over immigration policy and his endorsement from former President Donald Trump, the markets the ad aired in were revealing: Tyler and Shreveport, Louisiana. Those are the two markets that cover Gohmert's 1st Congressional District in East Texas.
Then it came out that Paxton was going after Gohmert with at least one mail piece that directly attacked him. Complete with darkened, unflattering images of Gohmert, the mailer hit him for voting to raise his congressional salary over the years "despite missing hundreds of votes that impacted tax paying Texan families."
The Facebook ad, meanwhile, gets at a hotly debated subject in the primary: Trump's endorsement of Paxton. While the attorney general captured the coveted endorsement months ago, Gohmert regularly casts doubt on it on the campaign trail, suggesting Trump endorsed Paxton after wrongly assuming Gohmert would not run.
"Who is Trump's pick for Texas Attorney General? Not Louie Gohmert," the Facebook ad reads.
Gohmert has also gone tough on Paxton, joining the other Republican primary candidates in attacking Paxton's integrity as he battles ongoing criminal accusations. Gohmert, however, has been perhaps the most vocal, filling his stump speeches with speculation about the amount of legal jeopardy that could be still to come for Paxton.
"Ken Paxton is under indictment for securities fraud and facing a federal investigation for bribery and corruption, so Louie Gohmert is running to save Texas and restore honesty and integrity to the office of Attorney General," Gohmert says in his own online ads.
Paxton was indicted on securities fraud charges shortly after he took office in 2015, and he more recently came under FBI investigation over allegations by former top staffers that he abused his office to help a wealthy donor. He has denied wrongdoing in both cases.
Both men have been at the center of controversies related to the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol. Paxton spoke at the pro-Trump rally that preceded it, and he has been fighting efforts to get him to release his communications from that day under open-records laws. Meanwhile, it has been reported that Capitol Police were concerned that Gohmert was possibly encouraging political violence in the lead-up to Jan. 6.
There has not been any recent public polling of the primary. In early December, shortly after Gohmert began his challenge, Paxton said he did not think he was on track for a runoff.
Paxton has more than enough money to take on Gohmert. As of the end of December, Paxton had over $7 million saved up, while Gohmert, who launched his campaign in November, had $882,000.
More from The Texas Tribune