AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Before he mounted an upset U.S. Senate victory in the 2012 Republican primary, tea party darling Ted Cruz mulled running for Texas attorney general. Now, one of the three Republicans vying to become the state's next attorney general isn't being shy about billing himself as the second coming of Cruz.
"It's honestly very effective," state Sen. Ken Paxton said of modeling his campaign after the grassroots-fueled bid that sent Cruz to Washington. "It works."
Cruz has become the most-powerful political force in Texas, and emulating his rise from onetime longshot to conservative superstar is something many top Republican politicians statewide aspire to. But in an interview, Paxton insisted he has been more successful than most, energizing tea party groups, racking up endorsements from political activists and touting victories in straw-polls that have symbolic — if little scientific — value.
A former state solicitor general, Cruz opted not to run for attorney general in 2010 when it became clear the job's current occupant and his boss, Republican Greg Abbott, was staying put. Instead, he eventually topped Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst for the GOP senatorial nomination — shaking mainstream conservatism statewide to the core.
Abbott is now the front-runner for governor and Paxton, from McKinney and a district that includes fast-growing northern suburbs of Dallas, is vying with state Rep. Dan Branch and Railroad Commission Chairman Barry Smitherman for the Republican nomination to replace him in next week's Texas primary.
Little separates them on key social, fiscal or ideological issues. But Paxton hopes that enthusiasm among the grassroots can set him apart.
"In a Republican primary, whether it's somebody running for agriculture commissioner or somebody running for lieutenant governor or anything else, the message is, 'I'm conservative and I'm going to fight (President) Obama,'" Paxton said. "What really matters is what you've done in the past. That's where I distinguish myself."
Paxton has been in the Legislature since 2003 but was elected to the Senate before last year's session. As a representative in 2011, he threatened to challenge Republican and Texas House Speaker Joe Straus — who some conservatives decry as too moderate — but abandoned his bid before the floor vote.
Paxton also touts his votes against GOP-endorsed state budgets over the years because he saw them as increasing spending — though he knew all would pass without him since Republicans controlled both chambers.
Paxton's opponents also have campaigned on their conservative credentials. Smitherman says he cut jobs and budgets while heading the Railroad Commission, and also previously as leader of the Public Utility Commission. Branch has used television advertisements to trumpet his sponsorship of a 2003 law requiring public schools to hold a moment of silence during which students can pray wordlessly. Branch, however, is an ally of Straus and also says he's not afraid to actually govern instead of always adhering to obstructionist politics.
If no candidate wins a majority, a runoff election between the top-two finishers will be held May 27, an outcome Paxton said he expects. But die-hard conservatives may be more likely to turnout en masse for a second round of voting in a runoff that could otherwise feature low turnout. Cruz trounced Dewhurst in the low-turnout 2012 runoff after Dewhurst won, but didn't capture a majority, in the opening round of voting.
Cruz hasn't endorsed Paxton or any attorney general candidate. In fact, Branch counts among his supporters many of Cruz's colleagues from his days as solicitor general. Still, Paxton's website quotes Cruz calling Paxton "a tireless conservative warrior."
Also refraining from endorsing in the race has been Abbott, who has sued the federal government nearly 30 times since President Obama took office — challenging Environmental Protection Agency regulations, defending Texas' law that voters show picture identification at the polls and teaming with several Republican Attorneys General in other states to unsuccessfully challenge the White House-backed health care law.
All three Republicans hoping to succeed Abbott have promised to keep the lawsuits against Washington coming. Conservative activist Peggy Venable has endorsed Paxton — but noted that any of the trio can be counted on to continue Abbott's policies.
"General Abbott is extremely popular in Texas," Venable said "and I think wrapping themselves around him and his stellar reputation is just good politics for them."
Paxton acknowledged that praising Abbott is a winning strategy — but said being so quick to sue Washington wasn't about playing politics.
"I don't think he's politicized the office, I think that he's been forced to," Paxton said of Abbott. "Obama and (U.S. Attorney General) Eric Holder have made it necessary. They've forced us into action to defend our rights under the Constitution."