An influential conservative political activist who spent the summer accusing the powerful Republican speaker of the Texas House of an illegal quid pro quo offer finally “brought receipts” Tuesday morning. Michael Quinn Sullivan publicly released a previously secret recording of his June meeting with Speaker Dennis Bonnen.
Bonnen’s lawyer attempted to minimize the effects before the recording’s release by proclaiming that his client had neither violated Texas law nor any House rule. After the release, Bonnen was even more defiant through a spokesman, claiming the recording provided “clear evidence now disproving allegations of criminal wrongdoing.”
Capitol insiders were less convinced as analysis of the one-hour-and-six-minute recording unfolded on Twitter and various media outlets. The Texas Tribune, which had previously excoriated Sullivan for grandstanding, acknowledged they got it wrong: “Analysis: Give Michael Quinn Sullivan his due — he was telling the truth about Speaker Dennis Bonnen.”
The lengthy conversation covered a wide range of topics, from small talk, arguments about legislation that didn’t make it through the House, to disparaging remarks about various Democrat members, as well as a “hit list” of Republican members that Sullivan’s group should feel free to target in upcoming primaries. It has gotten Bonnen in hot water with the very same colleagues who unanimously elected him speaker at the beginning of the last session. Many have already called for his resignation.
The part that is potential legal trouble is when Bonnen directly presses Sullivan to avoid spending money against certain incumbents in upcoming Republican primaries (including his own) and target other incumbent Republicans in those primaries in exchange for media credentials for his organization’s media arm that Sullivan had long sought (and was in the process of suing the Texas House in federal court to obtain).
The recording is pretty damning for Bonnen, who had repeatedly professed his absolute innocence and enlisted colleagues and friendly media outlets to push what can now be charitably described as a false narrative. It remains an open question if he will be subject to criminal prosecution, as the Public Integrity Unit of the Texas Rangers has not yet completed the investigation unanimously requested by the House General Investigating Committee in mid-August. The investigation is expected to wrap up later this week, with the Republican district attorney in Bonnen’s home county making a final determination on whether to proceed.
Bonnen’s Criticism of President Trump
Surely Bonnen will need to atone for the disparaging remarks toward colleagues, homophobic jokes, and general duplicity laid bare in the recording, but his remarks about President Trump have particularly caused problems for Texas Republicans. While professing his “love” for the president, Bonnen asserts “he’s killing us in urban-suburban districts.” The comments were quickly latched onto by Democrats.
Matt Rinaldi, a former state representative in one of those swing districts northwest of Dallas, disputed whether Trump was the reason Republicans were facing headwinds in those districts. He won reelection in 2016 in the district Hillary Clinton carried by 2 points. While he lost in the 2018 general, an after analysis of the results he attributed the loss more to the “Beto Effect” (the unprecedented midterm turnout driven by Beto O’Rourke’s unsuccessful campaign for U.S. Senate against Ted Cruz) than the president.
Rinaldi maintains suburban districts like his remain competitive, but “not with a guy who sounded like Richard Nixon on those recordings.” He continued, “We can’t have the guy on that tape [Bonnen] be the representation of our party headed into 2020.” One seasoned political consultant focused on Texas legislative races across the state echoed the criticism, saying “Bonnen staying as speaker will cost Republicans control of the Texas House long before Trump ever does.”
Neutering the Speaker’s Campaign War Chest
The post of speaker carries an ease of fundraising and an obligation to spread the wealth around to allies. Bonnen has ostensibly committed $3 million of his own campaign funds to keep Republicans in the Texas House majority. However, it is now unclear if money from Bonnen can be put to effective use.
Steve Allison, a freshman Republican representative from suburban San Antonio, and one of the ten Republicans targeted for primary opponents in the scheme uncovered on the recording, remained critical of the speaker. While his district doesn’t show the same level of competitiveness that some of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex or Houston suburban districts do, he knows the recording will make things more difficult for him on the campaign trail.
With regard to the speaker’s war chest he laments, “I don’t see how any of us [Republicans in the House] could take any money from him,” saying at this point he would feel obligated to refuse campaign contributions if they were offered.
Resign So a Democrat Can Lead the House?
Characteristically, Sullivan was more pointed, contrasting the president and the speaker by saying “the president is both loved and despised because there is little delta between what he says and what he does. Taxpaying Texans deserve to know that their public servants act and speak the same way behind closed doors as they do in public.”
His only regret? “I’m disappointed that Dennis [Speaker Bonnen] let it go this far, and the lieutenant governor and governor and other Republicans didn’t attempt to clean house on their own and decided to let it play out instead of displaying moral courage to address this.”
Multiple House colleagues and grassroots activists have called upon the speaker to resign his position. Complicating this is a nuance of the speaker’s approach to governance that some have described as his “insurance policy.” At the beginning of the last legislative session, Bonnen appointed Democrat Joe Moody of El Paso as his speaker pro tempore, a position that automatically ascends to the role of speaker should Bonnen resign or otherwise be removed from office.
This gives Bonnen significant leverage, but the speaker pro tempore serves at the pleasure of the speaker and can be replaced by him at any time. Absent Bonnen’s willingness to re-appoint a Republican as speaker pro tempore, Republicans are stuck with Bonnen or Moody headed into the contentious 2020 election season. Surely this will be a heated topic of discussion among a fractured Republican caucus at their long-scheduled meeting in Austin this Thursday and Friday.
Democrats Exploit the Vulnerability
Chris Turner, the House Democratic Caucus chair, condemned the speaker over the recording, saying his comments were “disgraceful and unbefitting” and “incompatible with Mr. Bonnen serving another term as Speaker.” He was quick to add, “While Republicans fight with each other, Democrats are united in our efforts to provide affordable health care for all Texans, strengthen public education and act decisively to protect Texans from gun violence.”
There are at least 10 to 15 vulnerable House seats that will decide the balance of power in the next legislative session in January 2021. At Thursday night’s rally in Dallas, the president is aiming to help close the gap and restore momentum for Republicans in Texas, who have struggled with messaging after a legislative session they’ve deemed successful, but conservative activists have panned as too “purple” because of Democrat minority’s success in advancing their party’s agenda.
Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio, elevated by the Republican speaker to vice chair of the powerful Public Education Committee, boasted, “the ‘successful’ [Legislative] Session people keep referring to was hallmarked by Republicans in large part adopting Democrat legislative priorities.” He continued, “Now you have even more reason to just vote for the real thing.”
It remains to be seen if Diego’s view or Trump’s view will prevail among coveted urban and suburban swing voters next November. But one thing is certain: if Bonnen continues to grasp the speaker’s gavel heading into the election season, closing that gap will be harder for Republicans in those districts, and will jeopardize control of the Texas House headed into the important 2021 session, during which census-driven decennial redistricting will occur.
That threat may be existential to Texas Republicans, who have enjoyed majority control of both legislative chambers since 2002, and have swept the table for statewide elected officials since 1998.