- Long-term demographic changes and the polarizing nature of the Trump presidency are threatening the GOP’s dominance in Texas.
- Making matters more complicated for Republicans is the scandal-plagued term of Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, who will step down at the end of his term.
- Allegations that Bonnen retaliated against GOP lawmakers who called for him to step down means that fractures in the state party could linger through 2020, affecting fundraising.
A new headache for Texas Republicans
Republican lawmakers in Texas have enjoyed nearly two-decades of dominance at both the state and federal level. Going into 2020, the Texas GOP maintains a strong advantage at every level, holding a majority of U.S. House seats (23 GOP representatives versus 13 Democrats), both U.S. Senate seats, the governorship, a 88-62 seat majority in the State House, and a 19-12 seat majority in the State Senate.
Many political analysts, however, argue that long-term demographic changes and the polarizing nature of the Trump era are nudging the state’s electoral makeup slowly but surely to the left, threatening the consistent GOP majority.
Making matters more complicated for Republicans is the scandal-plagued term of Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen. The speakership is one of the most powerful positions in the state. Some argue it has the potential to be even more influential and significant than the governorship. Bonnen has been busy at work in the role, overseeing what he claims was the “most successful legislative session in history,” and notching achievements on issues “such as school finance, property tax relief, and more.”
After being caught on tape last year offering media credentials to a political activist in exchange for targeting certain incumbent GOP lawmakers in primary elections (not to mention badmouthing his Democratic colleagues), Bonnen agreed to step down after finishing his current term, despite protests from both sides of the aisle that he resign immediately.
The Texas Rangers conducted an independent investigation of the incident and announced that no charges would be filed. Last December the House General Investigating Committee released a report to all House members finding that while Bonnen “likely” violated state law, the particular section of state law that he probably violated offered “no independent statutory consequences for a state official who violates (it).”
The report further noted that even though Bonnen’s actions likely broke the state constitution’s provision against bribery, it could recommend “no tangible penalties without further action by a prosecuting arm of government or by the Legislature itself.”
This offered some political cover for Bonnen’s intention to finish the rest of his term.
“The committee has confirmed what we have known for months and the conclusion of their report speaks for itself,” Bonnen spokeswoman Cait Meisenheimer said in a statement.
The report hasn’t satisfied certain Republican colleagues frustrated by the Bonnen’s actions. Quite the opposite, in fact. Just when it appeared that Bonnen would go on to quietly serve out his term, new allegations emerged that he acted in retaliation against fellow GOP lawmakers who called for his immediate resignation.
Specifically, Bonnen decided not to nominate State Rep. Chris Paddie (R-Marshall) to chair a significant state board tasked with reviewing the effectiveness of state agencies and recommending opportunities to cut down on government costs. The speaker also decided to remove State Rep. Lyle Larson (R-San Antonio) — who like Paddie called for Bonnen’s resignation — from a significant water supply funding committee.
Bonnen denies that these actions were retaliatory, and said that the individuals he appointed in their place are great candidates for the job.
“Every appointment I’ve made as Speaker has been purposeful and intentional, and it was because of this that we had the most successful legislative session in history — one that ended with monumental achievements such as school finance, property tax relief, and more. Countless members sought to lead these committees — the challenge of being Speaker is choosing one,” he told the Dallas Morning News.
“I think it’s sad when members denigrate another’s achievements and success because they didn’t get what they wanted,” Bonnen added. “It is important that the members who got such significant efforts over the finish line be put in a position to see them through.”
Many political experts, however, do not see it that way.
“Bonnen has few levers left to use, but one he does have until January 2021, he’s still going to be speaker of the Texas House and he has the ability to make committee appointments,” said Mark Jones, a political scientist at Rice University who closely watches the Texas Legislature. “These are specific acts to target two individuals that Bonnen considered to be very disloyal to him and very disrespectful to him in the aftermath of the emergence of the scandal.”
Similarly, Luke Macias, a GOP consultant who has called for Bonnen to step aside, said that Bonnen appears to be “more frustrated about his legacy than he is concerned about the future of the Republican party and his actions against Paddie reveal that to be the case.”
“Most of the membership are pretty disgruntled by his actions but they don’t feel it would be the most helpful thing to say anything about it. They just wish it would go away. I think people should just be saying ‘This is ridiculous,’” Macias added.
Jones said that such fractures among state GOP lawmakers are unlikely to draw the attention of most voters, but they could have a potentially more damaging effect. Specifically, they could prompt big-money donors to give to Democrats to hedge their bets against a party divided by infighting at a moment when it faces its greatest political challenge in decades.
“The Austin lobby and major individual donors are looking at this and grimacing with the question of ‘Didn’t we resolve to get along with the common goal of keeping the Texas House in GOP hands?’” said Jones, adding that Republicans are sending a signal to the people who finance their campaigns of “a party not unified, as well as what people would call petty acts.”
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Andrew Collins cut his teeth in politics as a congressional campaign staffer during the 2012 election. Since then he has worked in Washington, D.C. as the digital media manager and as a staff writer at the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity, and is a recent graduate of the Trinity Fellows Academy (class of ’17). His work has appeared in Politico, US News & World Report, The Chicago Tribune, The Daily Caller, and The Hill. He lives in Seattle, WA.