Texas Speaker of the House Dennis Bonnen danced with the devil. Now it seems like he might get burned.
For the better part of a week, Bonnen has been dealing with the fallout of a totally unforced error that could lead to his losing his role as the third most powerful man in Texas. The story starts with a meeting on June 12.
That day, Bonnen and Dustin Burrows, the head of the Texas House Republican caucus, took a meeting with Michael Q. Sullivan, the archconservative head of Empower Texas, the unofficial purity monitor of the Texas GOP. Bonnen and Sullivan agree that the meeting took place, but not on much else.
Late last week, Sullivan published his version of what took place during the meeting on his website. Bonnen, Sullivan said, offered him a quid pro quo: If Sullivan attacked a Bonnen-approved list of 10 GOP House members during the 2020 Republican primary, Empower Texas would get media credentials for the House floor during the 2021 session of the Texas Legislature, a privilege that's previously been denied to the advocacy group.
Monday, Bonnen said Sullivan's story wasn't true.
"Let me be clear," Bonnen said in a statement. "At no point in our conversation was Sullivan provided with a list of target Members."
Burrows, who Sullivan says actually provided him with the list, has yet to comment on what took place at the meeting.
That's where things stood until Wednesday afternoon, when Sullivan wrote another blog post, asserting that he had an audio recording of the meeting — one he was ready to release unless Bonnen "recant(ed) his false claims about the meeting." Sullivan also began playing the tape for members of the House GOP caucus.
In response, Bonnen told Sullivan to make the tape public.
"Mr. Sullivan," Bonnen said in a statement, "release your recording. Release it in its entirety."
Several representatives who have heard the tape, including outgoing Bedford tea party firebrand Jonathan Stickland and Travis Clardy, a Nacogdoches Republican Sullivan says was on the list, both claimed in interviews with The Dallas Morning News that it is consistent with Sullivan's retelling of the meeting.
If they're telling the truth, Bonnen could have a big problem with his caucus. But there's likely a reason Sullivan has yet to release the recording, according to Rice University political scientist Mark Jones. Burrows, he says, has less ground to stand on if he signed off on the targeting of his colleagues.
"I think Bonnen knows if it comes out fully, it's not as bad as it's being portrayed now and that there's probably something in there that Sullivan says that makes it look a little worse for him," Jones says. "At this point, I think Burrows is dead in the water."
Despite his self-inflicted wound, Jones says he thinks Bonnen can hang on as speaker thanks to his successes during the 2019 session, provided there is no smoking gun on the tape.
The real threat to Texas Republicans, Jones says, is disunity heading into the crucial 2020 election.
"At a time when the Republican Party needs to be unified to maintain its majority in the Texas House in 2020 and control redistricting for the next decade, Sullivan has essentially thrown a monkey wrench into the machine and essentially caused what had been a united Republican front moving into 2020 to be a disunified front where nobody trusts anybody," Jones says. "Fundraising becomes difficult. The primaries become more conflictual and abrasive and bloody. It took what could've been a smooth, easy process (for Republicans) and made it all the more difficult."