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Speaker of the Texas House Dennis Bonnen let his pragmatic hardcore conservative colors shine through.EXPAND
Speaker of the Texas House Dennis Bonnen let his pragmatic hardcore conservative colors shine through.
Texas House of Representatives

Social Conservatives Are Mad After Lege Session. That’s Good for the Texas GOP.

Texas' state government is still, just as it has been for a couple of decades, dominated by Republicans. The GOP holds every statewide elected office and big majorities in both chambers of the Legislature. Twenty-three of the state's 36 U.S. House representatives are Republicans.

Texas is still severely conservative, no matter the angle from which one chooses to look at the state. You'd never know it listening to the state's conservative activists after the close of the 2019 legislative session, however.

"Across the nation, Republican-held states are passing conservative legislation and Democrat-held states are pushing liberal agendas," Michael Quinn Sullivan, CEO of the arch-conservative advocacy group Empower Texas, lamented on Memorial Day. "At a time when citizens are looking for bold colors, Texas Republicans delivered a legislative session of pale pastels. Republican 'red' and Democrat 'blue' merged into a purple coalition which undermined the policy priorities of conservatives."

Despite the Chick-fil-A bill, huge cuts to property taxes and the Legislature moving to stop the invented scourge of infanticide this spring, Sullivan and his fellow travelers on the far right were enraged that the state didn't do more to turn itself into the Randian paradise of their dreams.

"The Regular Session of the 86th Texas Legislature concludes today, and unfortunately, politicians achieved few goals," Texas Right to Life said on its blog. "No bills that stop abortion passed. Even pathetic attempts to assuage the grassroots with feel-good, Pro-Life sounding bills failed. The House could hardly feign weak Pro-Life victories to dupe weary voters."

Julie White McCarty, a leader with the Northeast Tarrant County Tea Party, wrote on Facebook that she was taking her ball and going home.

"I will not personally campaign nor lead NETTP to campaign for any reelection. Not worth my time when the returns yield nothing. Open to new candidates but I’ll be pretty picky," McCarty said.

Sullivan, McCarty and Texas pro-life groups have previously exerted tremendous sway over the Legislature and its priorities. This year, they ended up mad and on the sidelines.

"Two main things happened," Rice University political science professor Mark Jones says, "Beto O'Rourke and Dennis Bonnen."

Ted Cruz's close shave against O'Rourke convinced even the state's most conservative politicians, like Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, that they'd pushed things too far to the right, Jones says.

Bonnen, the Texas House's new speaker, also played a big role in keeping the Legislature from getting bogged down in the culture wars, according to Jones.

"No one could accuse Dennis Bonnen of one, having arrived in office via untoward means — he was elected with the support of every Republican (unlike Joe Straus, the previous speaker) — and the second is, no one can accuse Dennis Bonnen of being a RINO or a liberal Republican. He's a hardcore conservative. He's a pragmatic hardcore conservative, but he's a conservative nonetheless. None of the attacks that worked in the past (against Straus) worked all that well this session," Jones says.

The dozen or so Texas House Republicans who could be vulnerable in the 2020 election escaped the session without any legislative millstones around their necks. While it might be anathema to those who think Texas should've joined states like Georgia and Alabama in testing the constitutional limits with extreme abortion restrictions, Texas suburban and urban Republicans did what they could do to survive. 

"They're still going to be at-risk, but the question is, What can you do that's in your power? If you're Dennis Bonnen, Greg Abbott, if you're a Texas Republican, you can't control who the Democrats nominate in 2020," Jones says. "What you can do is control the narrative here in Texas about the direction of the Texas Legislature."

If 2020 is a Democratic wave election, Texas Republicans who just hung on in 2018, like Dallas County's Morgan Meyer and Angie Chen Button, will likely get taken out with the tide, according to Jones. If the election is close, however, the 2019 Legislature taking a more moderate path could help them keep their seats.

"They were able to keep the noise down," Jones says. "The image of the Republican party that was too extreme may have existed in 2017. That's not the case in 2019."

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