“Stop the Steal” Activists Target a Texas Judge
Conservative backlash to a ruling limiting the attorney general’s voter fraud unit has upended a Republican primary next month.
Michael Barajas, | February 17, 2022
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) often makes decisions that end in death. The court, the state’s highest authority on criminal cases, has a track record of rubber-stamping executions, even paving the way for the killing of people who were very likely innocent. But rarely does it trigger the kind of fury that followed its opinion last December limiting Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton’s authority to prosecute election-related crimes across the state.
Paxton, who achieved hero status among conservatives for aiding in the legal efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential race, has long fixated on baseless accusations of widespread fraud. He beefed up the voter fraud unit of the attorney general’s office to hunt for election-related crimes that GOP lawmakers can then cite when passing new voting restrictions. The court’s 8-1 ruling complicates that effort, keeping the power to prosecute in the hands of local district attorneys, and it prompted howls from all corners of the Texas GOP. Governor Greg Abbott urged the court to reconsider while Paxton fanned the controversy with help from Big Lie evangelists like Steve Bannon and Donald Trump loyalist Mike Lindell. During an appearance on LindellTV, Paxton solicited help pressuring the judges to reverse their ruling, asking viewers to “call them out by name.”
The barrage that followed ranged from angry to outright threatening, according to emails sent to the court that were obtained by the Austin American-Statesman. “Your court now is on my list to go after in The Patriot hunt for Communists,” said one message. “We are armed at all times so do not cross the line.”
Anger against the all-Republican court is now spilling into the GOP’s March 1 primary. Conservative activists have rallied against Scott Walker, one of the CCA judges who signed the opinion limiting Paxton’s power and the only member of the court who faces a primary challenger. Clint Morgan, a Houston-area prosecutor running to unseat Walker, has racked up support from conservative groups across the state, including some of the state’s most rabid purveyors of the Big Lie.
A down-ballot reckoning in Paxton’s name fueled by “Stop the Steal” conspiracies might signal just how deep their influence runs.
During his campaign, Morgan has touted endorsements from right-wing activists who have made it clear that voting issues are why they care about ousting the incumbent judge. He has not publicly shared his views on the 2020 presidential race, and he did not respond to numerous requests for comment from Bolts. But last month, he cheered a slate of endorsements that included Conservative Republicans of Texas, a group led by Houston doctor and hard-right activist Steve Hotze.
Hotze has been fueling the anger against the CCA judges over their decision limiting Paxton’s power. According to the Houston Chronicle, his group placed a robocall last month to tens of thousands of conservatives across the state asking them to contact the court, with a pre-recorded message of Hotze warning, “If this decision isn’t reversed, then the Democrats will steal the elections in November and turn Texas blue.”
Hotze has been a central player in Republican efforts to restrict voting rights in Texas far before the December ruling. Largely known for stirring up hatred against LGBTQ people, Hotze has in recent years focused on groundless fears of widespread fraud. He helped lead the Texas GOP’s fight to limit safe voting options during the pandemic and filed lawsuits attempting to invalidate more than 100,000 votes cast at drive-thru polling sites in Houston during the 2020 election. He also hired a team of investigators, purportedly to root out fraud in the state—including a former Houston police captain who was later criminally charged with detaining an air conditioning repairman at gunpoint in October 2020 and accusing him of “using Hispanic children” to steal the election from Trump.
Morgan also features on his website the support of the True Texas Project, an influential group in North Texas Republican circles that has helped fuel conservative infighting in the state in recent years. The group pushed for a state audit of election results despite assurances from the Republican-appointed secretary of state that voting in the state was “smooth and secure” (that official was later replaced by a former Trump lawyer who had challenged the 2020 results). The True Texas Project now recommends that voters fire Walker because of his December vote in the court’s election prosecution case.
“This is Texas’s chance to undo a silly vote for Scott Walker, who only won because he has the same name as someone famous!” the True Texas Project says, a reference to the former Republican governor of Wisconsin.
But Walker is himself not willing to shut the door on Trump’s false claims. Reached over the phone, he wouldn’t say whether he thought Trump lost in 2020. “I’m not qualified to say to what extent voter fraud has played in any particular election,” he said.
Walker also would not talk about the recent ruling impacting Paxton’s authority to prosecute elections crimes, saying state rules governing conduct for judges bar him from discussing it. “I think it would be best for me to stay away from that completely,” he told Bolts.
That has not stopped the campaign against Walker, which dovetails with a larger backlash by GOP officials against judges who issue rulings they disagree with in election-related cases.
While baseless conspiracies about voter fraud have long animated the Texas GOP, they now drive right-wing politics in the state. Paxton, whose office has been the tip of the spear in these efforts, faces indictments and investigations over criminal and ethical lapses, and he faces several seemingly formidable challengers in the March 1 primary, including a scion of the Bush dynasty. But he has channeled his fixation on voter fraud, and his accusations that Democratic prosecutors in the state are closing their eyes to election-related crimes, into conservative support. He landed Trump’s endorsement last year.
The issue is now casting unusual attention on CCA judges whose elections rarely take center-stage in the state’s politics. “There’s no money, nobody fundraises, they’re just backwater races,” said Scott Henson, a longtime advocate for criminal justice reform in the state. He says voters may not even know the state has two different high courts, since civil appeals land at the Texas Supreme Court. (Oklahoma is the only other state with separate high courts).
“Voters not only don’t know who the candidates are, they for the most part don’t even know that the court exists,” Henson told Bolts. “Those endorsements can matter a lot.”
The winner of the Republican primary between Morgan and Walker will face a general election against Dana Huffman, who is the only candidate running in the Democratic primary for this seat. Democrats have not won a statewide election in Texas in decades, though they came closer than usual in 2018.
Two other CCA judges are also running for re-election right now, but neither faces an opponent in the Republican primary. The filing deadline passed days before they issued their ruling against Paxton, and conservatives lamented the missed opportunity to recruit more challengers against them.
Morgan was already running against Walker at the time of the decision, espousing rhetoric traditionally associated with elected positions inside the criminal justice system. He currently works as a staff prosecutor in the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, and he is largely running on a tough-on-crime platform, with endorsements from state and local police unions.
Walker has not stood out during his time on the court as especially sympathetic to defendants’ rights, though he is a former defense lawyer. But Morgan was still a blast from the past during a candidate forum last month. “I believe we have a crisis of crime in our state, and I believe that we need to confront it the way that Republicans confronted the last wave of crime in the 1990s—with law and order,” Morgan told the crowd.