The impeachment trial of Ken Paxton that ended in his acquittal on Saturday was about more than the fate of the Texas attorney general. It was also the most dramatic flashpoint in a yearslong struggle among Republican leaders in the Legislature over control of the party and the future direction of the state.
The trial occurred only because a majority of Republicans in the Texas House voted in May to impeach Mr. Paxton, sending charges of bribery and abuse of office to the State Senate. Constitutionally obligated to hold a trial, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the staunchly conservative politician who sits at the head of the Senate, vowed to do so impartially.
But after the voting was done on Saturday, and Republican state senators decided overwhelmingly against removing Mr. Paxton from office, the lieutenant governor lashed out at the Texas House, whose Republican members are more moderate. He accused them of wasting “millions of dollars” and called for a “full audit” of public spending on the case since March, when the House investigation began, as well as stricter impeachment rules in the Texas Constitution.
“An impeachment should never happen again in the House like it happened this year,” Mr. Patrick said.
In response, the Texas House leader, Dade Phelan, said Mr. Patrick was “confessing his bias and placing his contempt for the people’s House on full display.”
The back and forth represented the latest stage of what has been a steady effort by hard-right Republicans to wrest control in Austin from the party’s more moderate, business-oriented old guard. The acquittal seemed to suggest that, for now at least, the stridently conservative wing of the party had the upper hand.
“Ken Paxton was the flashpoint, and clearly the conservative wing of the party won,” said Nick Maddux, a Republican consultant who is Mr. Paxton’s chief political adviser.
During the trial, Mr. Paxton’s lawyers were not shy about highlighting those political dynamics. It was, Mr. Maddux said, part of a strategy to speak beyond just the courtroom of the Senate to the party’s primary voters, many of whom expressed increasing outrage as the proceedings progressed.
From his opening remarks, Mr. Paxton’s lead lawyer, Tony Buzbee, reflected the tension within the party, accusing the former top aides to Mr. Paxton who were witnesses against him of being aligned with entrenched lobbyists and out of step with voters in the state.
At various points, Mr. Buzbee suggested that the impeachment was a plot by the Bush political dynasty in Texas to undercut an attorney general who has been a national champion for conservative causes. Mr. Paxton defeated George P. Bush, grandson of the former president, George H.W. Bush, in last year’s Republican primary.
“The people like what he does; the people like Ken Paxton,” Mr. Buzbee said in his closing remarks. “The Bush era in Texas ends today.”
From the start, the trial could not escape the fraught politics that were already roiling Austin in the spring, as Mr. Patrick and Mr. Phelan wrangled over property taxes and school vouchers, each seeking an upper hand through legislative bluster and gamesmanship. Their rivalry has not been unique in Texas. For years, the Senate under Mr. Patrick has been a reliable bastion of conservatism while the House, under various leaders, has been a bulwark against some of the most far-right proposals in the Legislature.
In 2017, for example, it was a San Antonio Republican who was then the Speaker of the House, Joe Straus, who prevented a “bathroom bill” aimed at transgender Texans from passing the House after it had been approved by Mr. Patrick’s Senate. During the legislative session this year, the House balked at a number of hard-line measures from the Senate, including a proposal to put the Ten Commandments in every public school classroom around the state.
Senator Bob Hall, who was one of six Republicans who voted to dismiss the impeachment articles before they even went to trial, said the case would further impair already brittle relations between the two chambers. “It’ll be an interesting challenge,” he said. He criticized the House for squandering money and wasting “a great deal of time on a sham investigation.”
None of the articles of impeachment, which required a two-thirds vote for conviction, received backing from even a majority of senators. Only two Republicans voted in favor of conviction and removal from office: Robert Nichols, whose East Texas district overlaps with Mr. Phelan’s, and Kelly Hancock, who represents an urban and suburban district that includes parts of Fort Worth. Neither is up for re-election until 2026.
Mr. Hancock said in a statement that he had been guided by an “obligation to seek the truth based on the facts made available through witness testimony and all documents admitted into evidence,” adding that he did not take any of the votes lightly.
The fight over Mr. Paxton, who aligned himself closely with the former president Donald J. Trump, appeared likely to reverberate through Republican politics across Texas and beyond. Mr. Trump praised the verdict. Mr. Paxton was expected to give his first interview after the acquittal to Tucker Carlson, flying to Maine to meet the former Fox News host on Tuesday.
Even before the verdict, the impact of the impeachment was already evident at local gatherings of Republicans around Texas, said Brendan Steinhauser, a Republican political consultant.
“I have been surprised to see how strong the support is for Paxton,” Mr. Steinhauser said. “This impeachment has not played well with the grass roots of the party.”
As the trial was going on, he said, he attended a county Republican Party gathering of about 60 people last weekend in La Grange, Texas. The local House member, who voted for impeachment, addressed the crowd, Mr. Steinhauser said, and it did not go well.
“Sixty percent of the crowd was vocal to his vote for his impeachment,” Mr. Steinhauser estimated. “It was very aggressive and very passionate.”
The rifts exposed by the impeachment could have immediate effects next month, when Gov. Greg Abbott is widely expected to call the House and Senate back to Austin to take up legislation to create a voucher system that would use state money to pay for private schools. The Senate has been strongly behind the plan, as are many conservative donors in the state. The House has resisted it, primarily because of concern among rural Republican members about the impact on local public schools.
Mr. Abbott, whose career in Texas politics stretches back to the 1990s, appeared eager to remain above the fray during the impeachment. After the verdict, he praised Mr. Paxton and celebrated the work of the Senate.
Beyond the issue of schools, the next big test will be in the March primary election, when some of the House members who strongly backed impeachment could face serious challenges. Representative Andrew Murr, who chaired the House investigation committee that introduced the impeachment articles, could be particularly vulnerable in his West Texas -district. Mr. Phelan, the speaker, could also face a concerted challenge.
“Today the campaign to completely rid Texas of RINOs begins,” Jonathan Stickland, the leader of Defend Texas Liberty, a strongly pro-Paxton group that lobbied hard for his acquittal, said on X, making a dismissive reference to moderates as “Republican in name only.”
“Those behind this sham Ken Paxton impeachment must be held accountable,” he said.
Defend Texas Liberty has been aligned with several Republican senators and, after the House voted to impeach Mr. Paxton, but before the trial, the group gave a $1 million contribution and a $2 million loan to Mr. Patrick’s campaign.
Mr. Murr, in a news conference after the vote, said he was proud of the work he and his colleagues conducted in the House. “We did our duty to bring the evidence into the sunlight through this impeachment process,” he said. “I know that we presented a factual, credible case. I would not do anything differently.”
Before the trial, and throughout the proceeding, conservative backers of Mr. Paxton sought to influence the vote through text messages, television advertisements and social media messages urging Republican voters to call their senators and demand acquittal.
During deliberations on Friday, senators were working behind closed doors, able to review binders of exhibits that were laid out on tables or rewatch hours of testimony captured on video. Meanwhile, some senate staff members said the phones in their offices were ringing almost constantly with calls from Mr. Paxton’s supporters.
“The defense tried the case to the Republican base,” said Senator Nathan Johnson, a Dallas-area Democrat. It was “calculated,” he said, and it worked.
David Montgomery contributed reporting.