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Dennis Bonnen

Let the sun shine in

Make ’em disclose.

Empower Texans, the deep-pocketed conservative advocacy group, is well-known for its heavy hand in steering the Texas GOP further to the right and for its shadowy setup that hides its funding sources from the public.

But a court case seeking to force the group’s leader to register as a lobbyist could reveal more about the inner workings of the organization — and others like it in Texas — than ever known before, after the Texas Supreme Court last month ruled that it must divulge communications and financial records to the state ethics commission.

Empower Texans CEO Michael Quinn Sullivan, through his dark money group — made up of a web of political action committees and of nonprofits that aren’t required to report donors — has made $9.5 million in political contributions since 2007, state records show. All the while, Sullivan has been able to keep secret even basic information such as his own compensation, which a Hearst Newspapers analysis found was hundreds of thousands of dollars more than the salary reported on tax forms.

[…]

The suit stems from a 2014 fine the Texas Ethics Commission assessed against Sullivan for failing to register as a lobbyist starting in 2010. Sullivan appealed, and a series of delays have held up the case from going to trial, including a fight over the county where it should be held and attempts by Sullivan to have it dismissed.

Sullivan and his attorney, Tony McDonald, did not respond to requests for comment.

In a parallel court case, Sullivan is trying to gut the state agency, alleging that the Texas Ethics Commission does not have the legal authority to carry out actions such as levying fines for campaign finance law violations, saying only an executive branch agency, not a legislative branch agency, can enforce laws.

That suit, which is before the 8th Court of Appeals in El Paso, also has the potential to reorganize the ethics commission, which already has some of the weakest enforcement capabilities in the country.

But in a testament to the political influence of Empower Texans in Republican circles, Attorney General Ken Paxton has declined to defend the Ethics Commission in that suit.

Instead, Paxton, who has received more than $400,000 in campaign contributions from Empower Texans since 2009, has sided with Sullivan — saying he agrees with the group’s legal stand and has a “duty to uphold the Constitution,” despite his obligation by statute to defend challenges to state laws, state agencies and state employees.

The ethics commission has hired its own lawyers in the case.

I probably have some posts about this case in the archives, but I didn’t feel like spelunking for them. You already know everything you need to know about Empower Texans and MQS, truly the scum of Texas politics. The bottom line for me is that I do not understand the argument that this organization somehow deserves to be exempted from disclosure laws. Every single thing they do is for the purpose of influencing our government. The rest of us have a right to know who’s paying for that. It’s all just sophistry and special pleading after that.

July 2020 campaign finance reports: State races, part 2

Let’s move on to finance reports from the State House, which I will break up into two parts. Today’s look is on the various races in the greater Houston area, and after that I’ll look at the other races of interest from around the state. Part One of my look at the July reports for state races is here. January reports for Harris County State House races are here, January reports for other area State House races are here.

Martin Shupp, HD03
Cecil Bell, HD03

Lorena McGill, HD15
Steve Toth, HD15

Jeff Antonelli, HD23
Mayes Middleton, HD23

Brian Rogers, HD24
Greg Bonnen, HD24

Patrick Henry, HD25
Cody Vasut, HD25

Sarah DeMerchant, HD26
Matt Morgan, HD26

Eliz Markowitz, HD28
Gary Gates, HD28

Travis Boldt, HD29
Ed Thompson, HD29

Joe Cardenas, HD85
Phil Stephenson, HD85

Natali Hurtado, HD126
Sam Harless, HD126

Kayla Alix, HD129
Dennis Paul, HD129

Gina Calanni, HD132
Mike Schofield, HD132

Sandra Moore, HD133
Jim Murphy, HD133

Ann Johnson, HD134
Sarah Davis, HD134

Jon Rosenthal, HD135
Justin Ray, HD135

Akilah Bacy, HD138
Lacey Hull, HD138


Dist   Candidate       Raised     Spent       Loan     On Hand
==============================================================
HD03   Shupp              430         0          0         430
HD03   Bell             8,750    24,449     82,140      19,327

HD15   McGill          11,010    12,791          0       3,437
HD15   Toth            32,849    22,015          0      20,413

HD23   Antonelli        2,104         0          0       2,104
HD23   Middleton        9,782   271,170    500,000      87,325

HD24   Rogers             970         0          0       1,445
HD24   Bonnen          16,120    35,375    450,000     563,721

HD25   Henry            3,660     5,113          0       3,660
HD25   Vasut           48,486    68,549        100      28,176

HD26   DeMerchant      12,998     5,138        975       6,178
HD26   Morgan          25,702    44,030     29,615       3,998

HD28   Markowitz      287,618   243,837          0      48,119
HD28   Gates          497,620   632,891  1,736,100      58,549

HD29   Boldt           16,531     7,228          0      15,682
HD29   Thompson        59,521    72,807          0     412,652

HD85   Cardenas         9,298     4,542          0       1,800
HD85   Stephenson      20,243    40,447     29,791      34,720

HD126  Hurtado        121,203    30,604          0      66,783
HD126  Harless         28,914     2,965     20,000     124,052

HD129  Alix            33,836     3,868          0         898
HD129  Paul            38,885    17,665    156,000      46,752

HD132  Calanni         92,315    33,941          0      99,500
HD132  Schofield       63,290   134,658          0      53,016

HD133  Moore            4,025     2,352          0       3,862
HD133  Murphy          60,100    27,894          0     514,779

HD134  Johnson        267,651   110,996          0     193,642
HD134  Davis          133,245    98,848          0     169,966

HD135  Rosenthal      129,685    61,548          0      87,108
HD135  Ray             64,170    53,847          0      60,774

HD138  Bacy            76,135    38,924          0      48,944
HD138  Hull            25,638    49,438          0      20,518

The first thing to keep in mind is that the time period covered by these reports varies. Candidates who did not have a primary opponent did not have to file eight-day reports for March, so those lucky folks’ reports cover the entire six months from January 1 through June 30. Those who had a March primary and emerged victorious did have to file an eight-day report for March, so their reports cover February 23 through June 30. And those who had to endure the runoff election also had to file an eight-day report for that race as well, so their reports cover February 23 through July 6. Got it? Check the individual report links themselves if you’re not sure what applied for a given candidate.

For obvious reasons, candidates who had contested primaries and/or runoffs may have raised and spent more than someone who could have cruised through that period. Looking at these numbers, it’s not actually all that obvious who was running in a real race during this period and who wasn’t, but that was a factor. Also, remember that the runoff for the special election in HD28 was in January, so much of the fundraising and spending for Eliz Markowitz and Gary Gates includes that.

So with all that, a few things to note. Ed Thompson (HD29) and Jim Murphy (HD133) have clearly followed the well-trod path of multiple-term incumbents, building up a decent campaign treasury for the year when it may be needed. Remember how I once suggested that Jim Murphy could make sense as a candidate for Houston Mayor in 2023? The strategy of building up a campaign war chest while a member of the Legislature worked pretty well for Mayor Turner. I’m just saying. First term Democratic incumbents Jon Rosenthal and Gina Calanni, neither of whom were big fundraisers in their successful 2018 campaigns, have done all right for themselves so far. They’re not going to scare anyone off with their bank accounts, but they’re not starting from scratch, either.

Nobody in the hot races in HD26 or HD138 has a lot of money right now, but I don’t expect that to last. I figure the 30-day reports will tell more of the story there, and of course there will be a ton of PAC money at play. Eliz Markowitz will have a larger network of donors from her special election to tap into, but will be operating in a much more competitive environment, and as before will be running against a guy who prints his own money. Natali Hurtado has some catching up to do in HD126, but she’s off to a roaring start. No one in the lower-profile races has done anything to raise their profiles.

By the way, when you see a puzzling disparity between raised/spent and cash on hand, the answer is almost always because the amount raised includes a significant “in kind” share. Kayla Alix in HD129, for example, raised $33K, but $26K of it was an in-kind donation for office rental. It’s a real contribution, but it doesn’t manifest as cash on hand.

The two oddest reports to me are those belonging to Sarah Davis and Mayes Middleton. What in the world was Middleton, a first-term incumbent with no primary opponent, spending $271K on? About $78K on advertising, and at least that much on six or seven paid staff, in monthly installments. Why does he have so many people on monthly retainers? You’d have to ask him. As for Davis, I have no idea how it is that she doesn’t have $500K or so in the bank. She’s been an incumbent for as long as Murphy has (they both were elected in 2010; Murphy had served a term before that and was defeated in 2008 but came back the following cycle), her last serious Democratic challenger was in 2012 (Ann Johnson again), and like Murphy she represents a wealthy district with plenty of well-heeled constituents. I recognize that this is a tough cycle for her, by most reckoning one in which she is likely to lose, so I can understand how Johnson is outperforming her now. What I don’t understand is why she didn’t have more socked away for exactly this circumstance. Not complaining, you understand, just marveling.

From the “Live by the leaked audio, die by the leaked audio” department

Oh, the irony.

Two staffers for the hardline conservative group Empower Texans have been caught on an audio recording disparaging Gov. Greg Abbott with profanity and joking about his wheelchair use.

Upon the comments surfacing Friday morning, Abbott’s office and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick denounced them and Empower Texans said the staffers were “suspended from all public activities with the organization immediately.”

The comments came on an unedited version of the group’s podcast, Texas Scorecard Radio, featuring Empower Texans’ vice president, Cary Cheshire, and general counsel, Tony McDonald. The audio was published — apparently inadvertently — Thursday. The unedited version was replaced with an edited episode later in the day.

After the show ends in the unedited version, McDonald and Cheshire laugh about references they made to Abbott that could be perceived as highlighting the fact he has used a wheelchair since being partially paralyzed in a 1984 accident.

“I feel like before there was a switch I could flip to avoid that, and I’m just so frustrated that I’ve flipped it off,” Cheshire says. “He’s such a revolting piece of shit.”

The two had been venting over Abbott’s recent comments allowing local officials to order businesses to require customers to wear masks amid the coronavirus pandemic. The governor’s approval of such policies came after a stretch of confusion over what exactly local officials could do to mandate regarding mask use under his statewide orders. In clarifying the statewide mask rules earlier this week, Abbott said Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff had “finally figured” out what was allowed.

The sentiments by Cheshire and McDonald are not dissimilar from criticism of Abbott they have lodged publicly, though without profanity and reference to his disability. Empower Texans and some other hard-right activists have been generally critical of Abbott lately for ceding too much power to big-city Democratic leaders to fight the virus.

“It’s like, I have created this riddle for you and you have figured out how to fuck your citizens with it — ‘Great job, I’m with you,'” Cheshire says in the unedited podcast while talking about Abbott’s mask confusion. “And it’s like, you’re an awful piece of shit.”

McDonald adds that Abbott “created a shitty policy that’s vague because he wanted to avoid accountability.” As for Abbott’s eventual clarification that counties and cities can require businesses to mandate mask wearing, McDonald says, “Well, just like, fuckin’ say it. Don’t clown around. ‘You read between the lines.’ Well, fuck you.”

It was the Quorum Report that broke the story, though of course much of what they wrote is behind their paywall. You can hear the full audio here. Somewhere, I figure future ex-Speaker Dennis Bonnen is grimly enjoying a double Scotch and a cigarette.

Let’s make three points here. One of course is that lots of people, myself included, have criticized Abbott’s ridiculous “riddle me this” statement as well. He’s been doing his best to dodge accountability for his own actions, and non-actions, all along, and he deserves all the brickbats he’s gotten for it. The issue here, in addition to their awful ableist slurs, is that Empower Texans themselves, from their wingnut billionaire sugar daddy Tim Dunn to their loathsome leader Michael Quinn Sullivan on down to their staffers, are the epitome of shitty politics in Texas. (Note that while Sullivan made a typically pious statement about how “unacceptable” this was and how “heartbroken” it made him, moneybags Dunn has not said anything yet.) You don’t have to believe me about this. Go read what a former staffer had to say, or go have a look at some of Cary Cheshire’s tweets. These guys are the worst.

Two, they’re also huge supporters of many elected Republicans, including the likes of Dan Patrick, who did a little pearl clutching of his own. I’m sure he went right back to counting all the money he’s gotten from them in the past.

And on that note, credit where credit is due:

Pretty sure no one, least of all Dollar Bill Dan, will be handing their donations back to Empower Texans. The Chron has more.

Coronavirus and the state budget

Ain’t gonna be great. How bad, we don’t yet know.

Comptroller Glenn Hegar briefed Texas House members on the state’s economy and budget Sunday night, saying that while it was too soon for specific forecasts, both are expected to take potentially massive hits in the wake of the new coronavirus pandemic, according to multiple people who were on the conference call.

The members-only call, led by House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, was one of state lawmakers’ first glimpses of the impact the virus is expected to have on multiple industries, state finances and Texas’ largely oil-fed savings account, known as the Economic Stabilization Fund or the rainy day fund.

Hegar, who referred to the state of the economy as “the current recession,” according to multiple people on the roughly hourlong call, predicted both the general revenue for the state budget and the savings account balance will be drastically lower — possibly by billions of dollars — when he makes a revised fiscal forecast. He said that update could happen in July.

Later Sunday, the comptroller’s office said that unless the Legislature spent money out of the savings account before July, the balance for the fund would be revised down, but not by more than $1 billion.

In October 2019, Hegar estimated that the state budget would have a nearly $3 billion balance for the fiscal 2020-21 biennium. The balance of the Economic Stabilization Fund, Hegar announced at the time, would be around $9.3 billion by the end of the 2021 fiscal year in August of that year.

[…]

Abbott, for his part, noted last week that he and the Legislature can tap into the state’s disaster relief fund immediately to help respond to the virus. He also said that the Economic Stabilization Fund could be used “at the appropriate time,” which he said would happen when state leaders “know the full extent of the challenge we’re dealing with.”

Before the stabilization fund could be used, Abbott would need to summon state lawmakers back to Austin for a special session before the Legislature reconvenes in January 2021. When asked at a town hall about the possibility for calling such a session, Abbott said “every option remains on the table,” while noting that there would not be any need for such an action if every Texan followed guidance to help curb the virus.

Obviously, the crash in oil prices doesn’t help the state’s financial picture, either. It’s sales tax collection that will really suffer, and that pain will be spread to the cities and counties as well. As always, the big picture here is “how long will this take” and “how many businesses and jobs will be lost in the interim”, and right now we don’t know.

I will say, situations like this are among the reasons why balanced budget requirements are such a bad idea. Let the state – and the cities – run a deficit for a year or two, rather than cut a bunch of programs and lay off a bunch of employees, both of which will exacerbate the effect of the overall downturn. I assure you, society will not crumble around us if we do that. We will see plenty of shenanigans pulled by legislators to worm their way around the balanced budget requirement, as we have always done. So why not be honest about it and just admit that the whole thing is a sham and we should just not worry about it, at least for this cycle? We can always get back to it next time. Much easier said than done of course – constitutions and charters can’t be so easily cast aside, which again goes to my point about why these things are stupid – but in a world where everything has been thrown into chaos, this just makes sense. Same for revenue caps as well – if the revenue for the state, or the city of Houston, falls ten percent this year, it will take three years under the existing 3.5% revenue cap just to get revenue back to existing levels, while forcing needless cuts in the meantime. It’s all a sham, we should seize the moment to recognize it for the sham that it is, and free ourselves once and for all from its ridiculous shackles. Won’t happen happen, but I’ll never stop pointing it out.

Runoff roundup

Here, as best as I can determine, are the runoffs of interest for May:

US Senate – MJ Hegar versus Royce West

CD02 – Sima Ladjevardian versus Elisa Cardnell
CD03 – Lulu Seikaly versus Sean McCaffity
CD10 – Mike Siegel versus Pritesh Gandhi
CD17 – Rick Kennedy versus David Jaramillo (D), Pete Sessions versus Renee Swann (R)
CD22 – Troy Nehls versus Kathaleen Wall (R)
CD23 – Tony Gonzales versus Raul Reyes (R)
CD24 – Kim Olson versus Candace Valenzuela
CD31 – Christine Eady Mann versus Donna Imam

Note that Wendy Davis (CD21), Sri Kulkarni (CD22), Gina Ortiz Jones (CD23), and on the Republican side Wesley Hunt (CD07) all won outright. I skipped a couple of Republican runoffs in safe D districts, because life is short.

Railroad Commissioner – Chrysta Castaneda versus Roberto Alonzo

SBOE5 – Robert Morrow versus Lani Popp (R, wackadoo versus what passes for normal)
SBOE6 – Michelle Palmer versus Kimberley McLeod

SD19 – Xochil Peña Rodriguez versus Roland Gutierrez
SD27 – Eddie Lucio versus Sara Stapleton-Barrera

Didn’t mention this yesterday, but Susan Criss prevailed in SD11.

HD02 – Dan Flynn versus Bryan Slaton (R)
HD25 – Ro’Vin Garrett versus Cody Vasut (R, this is Dennis Bonnen’s old seat)
HD26 – Suleman Lalani versus Sarah DeMerchant (D), Matt Morgan versus Jacey Jetton (R)
HD45 – Carrie Isaac versus Kent Wymore (R)
HD47 – Jennifer Fleck versus Don Zimmerman (R)
HD59 – Shelby Slawson versus JD Sheffield (R)
HD60 – Jon Francis versus Glenn Rogers (R)
HD67 – Tom Adair versus Lorenzo Sanchez
HD100 – Lorraine Birabil versus Jasmine Crockett
HD119 – Liz Campos versus Jennifer Ramos
HD138 – Akilah Bacy versus Jenifer Pool
HD142 – Harold Dutton versus Jerry Davis
HD148 – Anna Eastman versus Penny Shaw

Note that in that HD47 primary, one (1) vote separates second and third place, according to the Travis County Clerk. I assume there will be a recount, and even before then late-arriving mail ballots could change this. In the event of an actual tie, there will be a coin flip to determine who goes to the runoff. I’m rooting so hard for that outcome, you guys.

In the HD67 primary, 63 votes separate Lorenzo Sanchez and Rocio Gosewehr Hernandez, or 0.3 percentage points. I would expect a recount there as well, but with a far lesser chance of affecting the outcome.

Lorraine Birabil was the winner of the special election in HD100 to fill out the unexpired term of Eric Johnson, who is now Mayor of Dallas. Anna Eastman was the winner of the special election in HD148 to succeed Jessica Farrar.

14th Court of Appeals, Place 7 – Tamika Craft versus Cheri Thomas

164th District Court – Cheryl Elliott Thornton versus Alex Smoots-Thomas
339th Criminal Court – Te’iva Bell versus Candance White

County Commissioner, Precinct 3 – Diana Martinez Alexander versus Michael Moore

Moore was leading most of the night, but Alexander caught and passed him as final results came in. I don’t care to go through the various Constable and JP races, but the good Jerry Garcia was leading problematic incumbent Chris Diaz going into the Precinct 2 Constable runoff.

Whatever turnout there will be in the runoffs will be driven primarily by the Dem Senate race and the Congressional races on both sides. Won’t be much, but it ought to be a bit more than usual, and surely more on the D side if there were no Senate runoff.

Bonnen “likely violated” the law

Well, isn’t that special?

Rep. Dennis Bonnen

The House General Investigating Committee on Friday unanimously adopted a report from its legal advisers that said House Speaker Dennis Bonnen “likely violated” state law during a June meeting with a fellow member and a hardline conservative activist — though members didn’t raise the idea of any possible action against Bonnen and said the investigation was closed.

“Today’s action concludes the committee’s investigation,” said state Rep. Morgan Meyer, a Dallas Republican who chairs the committee, after members met behind closed doors for over an hour.

Meyer, who left the hearing room at the Texas Capitol without taking questions from reporters, said the full report from the three legal advisers retained in October by the committee would be “promptly transmitted” to House members. The committee did not immediately release the report to the public, though a copy was later obtained by The Texas Tribune.

The report concluded by saying the information produced “militates against criminal prosecution” against either Bonnen or state Rep. Dustin Burrows, a Lubbock Republican considered one of the speaker’s top lieutenants who involved in the political fallout — a line that the speaker’s office reiterated in a statement after the news.

“The committee has confirmed what we have known for months and the conclusion of their report speaks for itself,” Cait Meisenheimer, a spokesperson for Bonnen, said in a statement.

Bonnen “likely violated” section 572.051(a) of the Texas Government Code, according to Meyer, who was reading from the report during the committee hearing — but advisers in the report said the law provided no “independent statutory consequences” for a state official who breaches it.

[…]

Democrats, for their part, said that Friday’s news reiterated the need for the Texas Legislature to pass “substantial ethics reforms.”

“It is unfortunate that Chairman Meyer scheduled today’s hearing to be part of a Friday news dump right before the holidays,” state Rep. Chris Turner, who chairs the House Democratic Caucus, said in a statement. “If the committee has found that there is no consequence for transacting campaign business in the state capitol building or exchanging House media credentials for political favors, then we need to pass new laws. House Democrats will be ready to lead that effort when the Legislature convenes in 2021.”

Further action is now up to the full 150-member House. The General Investigating Committee, according to House rules, can propose articles of impeachment — but did not do so during Friday’s hearing.

See here for the background, and here for a copy of the report. It’s a little frustrating to see the committee acknowledge that there was likely a violation of the law, then state that there’s basically nothing to be done about it. Not that I think Dennis Bonnen needs to be thrown in jail, just that it’s always annoying to see powerful people get away with abusing their power. Then again, at least Bonnen will be out of power soon enough, and not by his preference. It’s something, if not wholly adequate. Read the report and see what you think. And very much yes, this is a thing Democrats should make a priority out of, on the trail and in the Lege next session.

Filing period preview: SBOE, Senate, House

Previously: Congress, and Statewide. As before, I am using the Patrick Svitek spreadsheet as my primary reference.

Buckle up, there’s a lot to talk about here. I’m going to limit my discussion of State House races to the greater Houston area.

SBOE: There are three SBOE seats on the ballot that were carried by Beto in 2018. Winning all three would give Democrats am 8-7 majority on this famously flaky board. One of these seats in within Harris County, and that’s SBOE6, where Michelle Palmer and Debra Kerner have been in for some time.

State Senate: Unlike 2018, there’s really only one competitive district on the ballot, and that’s SD19, the seat Dems fumbled away in the special election. State Rep. Roland Gutierrez and Xochil Peña Rodriguez, daughter of former Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, are in. Despite the self-own in 2018, the district is basically 55-45 Dem, with a bit of variance on either end. Beto took it by 15 points, but even Lupe Valdez cleared fifty percent. A return to normal partisan behavior should make Pete Flores a temporary Senator.

Democratic incumbents Carol Alvarado (SD06) and Borris Miles (SD13) do not have primary opponents as yet. I tend to think someone will run against Miles after those harassment allegations against him were reported, but if so it will likely be a newcomer. One other Dem who both needs and has primary opponents is Eddie Lucio; I discussed Ruben Cortez and Sara Stapleton-Barrera, his known opponents, here. SD29 in El Paso is open following the retirement of Jose Rodriguez, with State Rep. Cesar Blanco the only contender to succeed him so far.

The two Republican-held seats in the Houston area have Dem challengers. For SD04, mostly in Montgomery County, there’s Jay Stittleburg, who ran for Montgomery County Judge in 2018. Griffin Winkworth is listed in the spreadsheet as having filed a designation of Treasurer. SD11 has two contenders: Margarita Ruiz Johnson, who was a candidate for CD22 in 2018 but did not advance to the runoff, and Susan Criss, former District Court judge in Galveston County and candidate for HD23 in 2014. Neither district is particularly competitive – Beto got 41.5% in SD11, but most Republicans carried it by 20 or more.

State House: Let’s start with the districts that don’t have Dem challengers yet. As noted, this is limited to the greater Houston area. You can peruse the spreadsheet at your leisure for other districts.

HD03 (Montgomery/Waller)
HD15 (Montgomery)
HD16 (Montgomery)
HD18 (Liberty)
HD23 (Galveston)
HD24 (Galveston)
HD29 (Brazoria)
HD85 (Fort Bend/Wharton/Jackson)
HD127 (Harris)
HD129 (Harris)
HD133 (Harris)
HD150 (Harris)

HDs 29 (which originally had a Dem who later withdrew) and 127 were the only ones in 2018 that went unchallenged. HD29 in particular is a district of interest, as it was a 47% Beto district in 2018.

Now for Republican-held districts that do have Dem challengers, at least according to the spreadsheet.

HD25 (Brazoria, the now-open Dennis Bonnen seat) – Someone named J. Patrick Henry, whom I cannot conclusively identify.
HD26 (Fort Bend) – Sarah DeMerchant, the 2018 candidate; Rish Oberoi; Suleman Lalani.
HD28 (Fort Bend) – We all know about Eliz Markowitz, right?
HD126 (Harris) – Natali Hurtado, the 2018 candidate.
HD128 (Harris) – Josh Markle, who got a nice fundraising boost from Beto after his little tiff with incumbent Briscoe Cain over automatic weapons.
HD130 (Harris) – Bryan Henry.
HD134 (Harris) – Ann Johnson, the 2012 candidate; Ruby Powers; Lanny Bose, the most recent entrant.
HD138 (Harris) – Akilah Bacy; Josh Wallenstein, who was a candidate in the primary for HCDE at large in 2018.

Two Democratic incumbents so far have primary opponents, Alma Allen in HD131 (Carey Lashley) and Garnet Coleman in HD147 (Aurelia Wagner). Both always seem to draw primary opponents, for whatever the reason. Ron Reynolds in HD26 usually draws one as well, for reasons that are more clear. I note that the spreadsheet lists Richard Bonton as a Republican opponent for Harold Dutton in HD142. Bonton ran against Dutton in the Dem primary in 2018.

We can’t end this conversation without bringing up HD148. I fully expect Anna Eastman to win the special election runoff, which is most likely be on December 14, the same day as the city of Houston runoffs. It doesn’t have to be on the 14th – Greg Abbott sets the runoff date, and he has some discretion. The last time we had a special election for a State Rep seat in an odd year was 2005 with the election in HD143, and that runoff was held on the same date as the city runoffs. Not a guarantee, but a data point. In any event, whatever happens in that race, there’s no reason to believe that some other candidates won’t file for the primary in HD148 as well. Any of the runners up may conclude that this was a wonky election, and that maybe they lost some votes to not-that-Adrian-Garcia. For sure, the primary will have a very different electorate, and Anna Eastman will not be very well known to them. I will be a little surprised if Eastman has the primary to herself.

Last but not least in this series: county races. I don’t get to lean on the spreadsheet for that one.

Dan Patrick’s budget destruction

It’s not what you think it is, but it’s still bad.

Tucked away in a quiet corner of Texas state government, an arcane team of 100 or so budget nerds has led a private, if stressful, life — running financial models, ensuring state government and its private contractors aren’t spending beyond their means, and keeping lawmakers informed about each line item in the state’s 1,000-page, $250 billion two-year budget.

But these days, interviews with current and former budget agency staff indicate the emptying halls of their downtown Austin office feel more like the setting of an Agatha Christie novel.

The Texas Legislative Budget Board, created in 1949 to support full-time experts who track fiscal issues for the state’s part-time Legislature, provides the analysis on which the state bases its budget calculations — for example, how much money it costs to pay public school teachers or to fund hospital beds for people in mental health crisis.

It’s up to state lawmakers to set spending priorities, but legislators say their ability to make funding decisions is only as good as the information they receive from the experts.

“The LBB provided invaluable, unbiased information, which is critical to the development of the state budget,” former state Rep. John Zerwas, a Richmond Republican who chaired the House Appropriations Committee, said in a statement.

The quality of that information may be in jeopardy; the agency is moldering as a quiet war erupts between its two masters.

State law names the lieutenant governor and House speaker as co-chairs of the 10-member board, which is supposed to jointly appoint an executive director to lead the agency. Last year, for the first time in nearly 70 years, that failed to happen; by Halloween, the agency will have been headless for a year.

Veteran employees have departed in droves with no one to replace them, leaving behind a trail of vacant offices and a dearth of institutional knowledge. Staff size has fallen 26% since 2015 — from 146 to 108 employees — and four of the agency’s five executive leadership positions will soon be unfilled. The agency’s lone remaining executive told a tearful staff last week that he, too, intends to resign.

Now, with House Speaker Dennis Bonnen announcing he will not run for reelection next year amid a scandal that has shaken the entire lower chamber, the board finds itself in its most precarious position yet.

Interviews with more than a dozen budget agency staff, Capitol staff and state lawmakers — who requested anonymity to discuss private board deliberations — indicate that the Senate’s presiding officer, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, has wielded a kind of veto power over the board to keep the agency undermanned and under fire.

They contend that his motive is to remake the agency to give the Senate more direct control over the number-crunchers; the current group of nonpartisan bureaucrats has produced analyses that at times conflicted with the lieutenant governor’s political messaging.

Basically, this is an attack on expertise and data. Dan Patrick doesn’t want accurate and objective facts about revenue and fiscal notes and what have you. They don’t serve his purposes. He wants minions who will tell him what he wants to hear so he can use it as a cudgel. If he can starve the LBB to death, maybe the end result (as the story suggests) would be two separate budget agencies, one for the House and one for the Senate, which would be under the control of the Lite Governor. Patrick is on the leading edge here – Senate Finance Chair Jane Nelson had similarly nice things to say about the LBB as outgoing House Appropriations Chair John Zerwas did – but where Dan Patrick goes, other Republicans tend to follow. The longer he gets to press this attack, the greater the odds he’ll eventually get what he wants. Do I need to add that this is yet another reason why we need a Democratic House and a Democratic Speaker in 2021?

Every Speaker’s race is unique

The one to come has a more uncertain outcome than the last few we’ve seen.

Found on the Twitters

The current party mix is 83 Republicans and 67 Democrats. Republicans hope to hold their advantage after the 2020 elections, while Democrats, encouraged by their 12-seat gain in 2018, hope to win back the majority they lost in 2002.

The next race for speaker, a certainty with Bonnen’s announcement that he won’t seek reelection, probably won’t happen quickly — unless Bonnen can be persuaded to leave office earlier than January 2021 to allow a faster switch to new management.

Why? If the House majority isn’t overwhelming — in either party’s favor — it will probably take a coalition to replace Bonnen. A Republican speaker will need some Democratic votes to win; a Democrat, some Republicans. And until they know what the mix will be, uncertainty will prevent most state representatives from committing to any speaker candidate.

[…]

The list of people who might succeed Bonnen probably starts with the list of people he beat last time in a race that started slow, percolated for about a year, and then sprinted to a close. Straus announced in October 2017 that he wouldn’t seek a sixth term. A couple of aspirants announced quickly, and more trickled in as the year went on — especially after the primary elections were over.

But nobody could put together 76 votes. Bonnen, who had demurred when he was first mentioned as a candidate, became a late entry. Within a matter of days after the 2018 general election, he had the votes he needed.

And a year later, the House is back where it was two years ago, looking for new leadership with a tough election ahead, doing the preparatory work for a redistricting session with high political stakes, a huge budget to write and other big issues to confront.

And no strong incentive to hurry.

In early September of 2018 there were seven candidates for Speaker, six Republicans and one Dem. Two of them – Republican John Zerwas and Democrat Eric Johnson – are no longer in the Lege, while the others are in safe seats. Seems like those five would be in the mix, but there would be plenty of others, including who knows how many Dems. Bonnen got in as Zerwas got out just before the 2018 election, and he was the clear choice shortly thereafter. My guess is that while there are a lot of members who can envision themselves as Speaker right now, they’re mostly going to keep it on the down low until after the election, when it will at least be known which party will have the numerical advantage. After that, it will all be about counting votes. We may not know who the Speaker will be until the start of the session. The potential for excitement, and some bruised feelings, is quite high.

No charges against Bonnen

No surprise.

Rep. Dennis Bonnen

Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen will not be criminally prosecuted for the things he said during a secretly recorded June meeting with a hardline conservative activist, the district attorney in his hometown announced Thursday.

“As repugnant as Speaker Bonnen’s actions and statements are,” Brazoria County District Attorney Jeri Yenne said in a statement, “I do not believe there is sufficient evidence from the June 12, 2019 meeting to warrant a criminal prosecution of Speaker Bonnen for Bribery or Solicitation of a Gift by a Public Servant, therefore no criminal charges will be brought.”

[…]

A spokesperson for Bonnen said Yenne’s decision “deflates Michael Quinn Sullivan’s entire reason for going public three months ago — that, according to him, the Speaker solicited a bribe and broke the law.”

“Unfortunately, we now live in a political climate where one is guilty until proven innocent, and not only has that thrown the ability of Republicans to hold onto our House majority into jeopardy, it sets a dangerous precedent moving forward,” Cait Meisenheimer, the speaker’s press secretary, said in a statement. “While justice prevailed today, unfortunately, the damage has been done.”

See here, here, and here for the background. This was the conclusion of the Texas Rangers investigation – their report was submitted to DA Yenne earlier this week, according to the story. There wasn’t anything in the tape to suggest criminal activity, just deep stupidity, for which Bonnen will leave the Legislature and Yenne chewed him out. All things considered, I’ve got no gripes about how this turned out.

Still more Bonnen business

I don’t know how much longer we’re going to be obsessing over the Bonnen implosion, but we’re not done yet. Today’s topic is What It All Means for 2020.

Rep. Dennis Bonnen

“The quarterback and coach have been taken off the field,” said Bill Miller, a longtime Republican lobbyist. “It’s short notice, it’s a big leadership change, and they don’t have a lot of time. It’s problematic for Republicans.”

One of the more obvious questions is what happens to Texas Leads, the political action committee that Bonnen unveiled in July to help keep the majority — and touted in his conversation with Sullivan. Bonnen started the group with $3 million transferred from his own campaign, which saw a seven-figure flood of donations after he emerged late last year as the likely next speaker. Bonnen promised an “ongoing commitment” to the PAC, though its first campaign finance report is not due until January, so it is unclear how much more he raised since the PAC’s July launch.

In any case, the money now carries the stain of Bonnen’s scandal — “I don’t see how any of us could take any money from him,” recently remarked a member targeted in the Sullivan recording — and likely would only make a race more complicated. Still, Democrats are not taking any chances.

“I can give you 3 million reasons why Democrats are not gonna let their guard down going the 2020 election cycle,” said state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, who Bonnen referenced in the recording while talking about his rule against member-versus-member campaigning. “Speaker Bonnen’s announcement is by no way a message that Democrats can take the day off. We have a lot of work to do.”

[…]

In addition to the fate of Texas Leads, uncertainty abounds about Bonnen’s end-of-session threat of consequences for members who campaign against other members. Bonnen’s edict was already undermined by comments he made in the recording, but his decision to not seek reelection only further invalidated his self-appointed role as political disciplinarian.

“I don’t think that Speaker Bonnen — and we heard it on the tape — I don’t think he ever was sincere about that edict,” said Royce Brooks, executive director of Annie’s List, which works to elect Democratic women at the state level who support abortion rights.

Brooks and other Democrats involved in House races said Tuesday it was full steam ahead regardless of Bonnen’s political standing throughout the rest of the cycle. For Annie’s List, that means following through on its plan to have female nominees in at least 20 of the 29 seats that it believes are in play.

See here for the previous update. Honestly, I think the main effect of the Bonnen affair will be to depress and disorganize Republicans by at least a little bit. The ten Republicans who were targeted by Bonnen have every reason to be pissed off, and in being pissed off pull back a bit from being a team player in favor of focusing on themselves. Is that a difference-maker at a state level, or in the most hotly contested districts? Probably not. But it won’t help them, and this year they need all the help they can get. On the other hand, it clarifies things greatly for Democrats, and puts focus on the goal of winning the House. I’d say there was already clarity and focus in abundance, but a little more can’t hurt. It’s not much but it’s better for us than for them, and that’s good enough.

Bye bye, Bonnen

Wow.

Rep. Dennis Bonnen

First-term Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen on Tuesday announced he will not seek reelection to the lower chamber in 2020 — completing a stunning fall for the Angleton Republican who enjoyed near unanimous support in the House just months earlier.

“After much prayer, consultation, and thoughtful consideration with my family, it is clear that I can no longer seek re-election as State Representative of District 25, and subsequently, as Speaker of the House,” Bonnen said in a statement, which included a list of 43 House Republicans — a majority of the House GOP Caucus — that the speaker said “have made clear that it is in the best interest of both myself and the House to move on.” (Bonnen’s own brother, Greg Bonnen of Friendswood, was among those on the list.)

[…]

Bonnen’s decision not to seek reelection means his seat in House District 25 will be open for the first time in over two decades. One Republican, emergency room nurse Rhonda Seth, was already running for the seat before Tuesday, aiming to take out Bonnen. The district in southeast Texas is solidly Republican.

With Bonnen’s exit, members will be jockeying among one another to become the next speaker. That election officially won’t happen until the next time the Legislature convenes, which is scheduled to happen in January 2021. In the meantime, if Bonnen remains in place until then, he can carry out typical interim duties, which include assigning issues for committees to study ahead of the next legislative session.

The race to replace Bonnen is coming ahead of a competitive election cycle for Republicans, who, after losing a dozen House seats to Democrats in 2018, are gearing up to hold onto their majority in the lower chamber. If Democrats were to flip nine seats and hold onto the dozen they picked up, they could be the party in power in the House and, consequentially, elect a member from their caucus to lead the lower chamber.

It’s unclear what role — if any — Bonnen will play in 2020 in helping to hold onto the GOP seats. In July before Sullivan’s allegations surfaced, Bonnen announced he had infused a new political action committee with $3 million to support House Republicans running for reelection. Since the speaker became engulfed with the drama though, some members have privately wondered whether Bonnen would be a help or hindrance to their fundraising efforts heading into the election cycle.

Shocking, but in retrospect not at all surprising. The day had started with this story about Republicans abandoning the Bonnen ship:

Some of the most powerful Texas House Republicans said Monday they no longer support GOP Speaker Dennis Bonnen, marking the biggest blow yet to his political future amid the fallout from a secret recording released last week by a hardline conservative activist.

Five Republicans considered senior members of the lower chamber issued a statement withdrawing support for him: State Reps. Four Price of Amarillo, Dan Huberty of Houston, Lyle Larson of San Antonio, Chris Paddie of Marshall and John Frullo of Lubbock.

“As long-serving members of the Texas House, we informed Speaker Bonnen earlier today that we no longer support him as our Speaker,” they said in a joint statement released Monday night. “It is clear that trust and confidence in the Speaker has significantly eroded among our membership, and the matter has both damaged the reputation of the House and relationships among individual members.”

All five members were closely aligned with Bonnen this year during his first session as speaker. A number of them also chair some of the chamber’s most powerful committees: Price chairs the House Calendars Committee; Huberty heads the Public Education Committee; Larson chairs the Natural Resources Committee; and Paddie chairs the Energy Resources Committee.

Later Monday night, another high-profile chair, Phil King of Weatherford, who heads the Redistricting Committee, joined the calls for Bonnen to resign. So did Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, who said on Twitter she planned to pen a letter on Tuesday to the caucus chair requesting a caucus meeting to vote on it. Even Dan Flynn of Van, who just days before had reiterated his support for Bonnen, said he could no longer support the speaker.

See here for the previous update. Clearly, things snowballed from there. Bonnen likely could have won re-election – HD25 is indeed a strong R district, where Ted Cruz got nearly 70% – as there were no big name primary challengers yet, but he was certainly toast as Speaker, and I guess he didn’t want to deal with life as a regular member again. I’d have had a hard time with that too, given all that has come out. I supported Bonnen as Speaker this year – he was hardly ideal from my perspective, but he was smart and was effective as Speaker pro tem. Dems did all right under him. I’m still shocked that he was dumb enough to trip over his own dick like this. Rick Casey summarizes it well in describing Bonnen’s ill-fated meeting with MQS as “almost criminally stupid – both tactically and strategically.” I don’t know what happens from here – obviously, Dems winning enough seats to put one of them at the podium would be best, but someone from the wingnut faction could end up on top as well – but at this point it’s hard to be sorry about what happened. Dennis Bonnen brought this on himself. He deserves what he’s getting. Good riddance. A statement from the TDP (which has also moved to dismiss its lawsuit over the recordings) is here, and Texas Monthly, the Chron, the Texas Signal, the Observer, and the Current have more.

So now what with Bonnen?

Democrats will wait and see.

Rep. Dennis Bonnen

On Thursday night, as Republican House Speaker Dennis Bonnen’s political fate continued to hang in the balance, some of the most influential Democrats were in El Paso for a town hall and were split on whether the first-term leader should immediately resign from his post.

“That decision, ultimately, isn’t mine,” said state Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, a top Bonnen ally. “Like all other situations, that decision is best left up to the voters in the state of Texas. I trust them.”

“There is this urgency to respond in kind with negativity or delight in this situation,” Moody added. “[But] I am sad about this, I am disappointed in it. I don’t delight in this.”

Others were less measured.

“He’s done damage to the body,” state Rep. Celia Israel of Austin, the new head of House Democrats’ campaign arm, told a reporter for The Texas Tribune. “And for that reason, I think he should resign.” (Just months before, at the end of the legislative session, Israel said Bonnen was “the right man at this point in Texas history.”)

Those two answers — and that vast departure from where most members stood earlier this year — provide a glimpse into a caucus that’s navigating how to respond as the minority party to the drama that has dogged Bonnen over the past few months.

[…]

On Wednesday evening, roughly half the House Democratic Caucus met in Austin for a meeting that was already on the calendar. The Bonnen issue, of course, took center stage, and while no formal action was taken, multiple members there said there was talk of calling another meeting sometime soon to discuss potential further actions.

“I think there’s a desire to bring the entire caucus together with a specific agenda to have a discussion that could result in a vote,” state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, told the Tribune on Thursday. “Certainly [Wednesday’s] discussion was clear that there was no one in the room who felt anything but anger and betrayal and disappointment.”

“The general consensus … was that people should feel free to put their own messages out there and that we should be united as a caucus moving forward,” Howard said. “So far I’ve heard nothing that would indicate that we’re not all on the same page.”

But there has been variation in Democrats’ public positions. There’s also the question of whether it would be politically advantageous for Democrats to act beyond what the caucus chair, state Rep. Chris Turner of Grand Prairie, has already said — that the latest “revelations are incompatible” with Bonnen serving another term — before Republicans have a chance to move on the issue themselves.

I don’t have any problem with deliberation, and the potential is there for the Republicans to fracture and generate some heat for us, but at some point we need to be speaking with one voice on the topic. Pick a direction and take it.

Meanwhile, the Republicans use harsh language.

After gathering behind closed doors for hours Friday, the House GOP Caucus released a statement condemning “in the strongest possible terms” language used by Republican House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and one of his top lieutenants during a secretly recording meeting with hardline conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan.

“Both members violated the high standards of conduct we expect of our members,” the statement said. “Their conduct does not reflect the views of our Caucus membership.”

[…]

“We completely and fully support the [House] members mentioned in the recording,” the statement said. “Further, the views expressed in the taped recording in no way reflect the high regard we have for our locally elected officials.”

The statement was released as members, on the tail end of their annual retreat, left the ballroom at a resort in Austin. Most of them declined to comment as they departed the meeting, which was originally scheduled for 45 minutes but lasted for just over four hours.

But soon after, a group of four Republican lawmakers from North Texas — state Reps. Justin Holland, R-Rockwall; Matt Shaheen, R-Plano; Scott Sanford, R-McKinney, and Jeff Leach, R-Plano — issued a joint statement calling on Bonnen “to work diligently to prove to all 149 House members and, more importantly, to the people of Texas, that he can rebuild trust and continue to faithfully lead the House and our state forward.

“If that is not possible, the people of Texas expect and deserve a new Speaker of the House during the 87th Legislature,” the members said.

You can see the full statement here. Like I said, there’s plenty of potential for further dissension on the GOP side, and it’s fine to give them some room to express it. Just have a strategy and a plan to execute it, that’s all I ask.

So are there any legal consequences to the Bonnen tape?

Probably not, but maybe a little. Does that help?

It was, according to his critics, “hurtful,” “vindictive” and “unbefitting of the high office he holds.” But was House Speaker Dennis Bonnen’s June 12 meeting with conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan illegal?

In June, when Bonnen met with the hard-charging Tea Party activist, he asked Sullivan to stay out of, and get into, certain electoral battles — “help us out, and maybe kill off one or two or three [moderate Republican House lawmakers] that are never going to help” — and in return offered Sullivan media credentials for the news arm of his organization — “If we can make this work, I’ll put your guys on the floor next session.”

During that meeting — a recording of which was released to the public Tuesday — Bonnen seemed to blur the line between the official and the political. It prompted the Texas House General Investigating Committee, which has subpoena power, to request a probe by the state’s elite investigative unit, the Texas Rangers.

With that investigation ongoing and little word from Brazoria County District Attorney Jeri Yenne, who is expected to make the decision on whether to bring a criminal charge, there’s been ample room for speculation — which only escalated after the secret recording was made public Tuesday morning. In Capitol circles, the rule is generally: Don’t offer official tit for political tat. But whether the smudging of those boundaries constitutes criminal activity is a case-by-case consideration, a decision ultimately made by a prosecutor and, if it gets that far, a jury.

“With just the information we know at this time, it’s not clear that a crime was committed,” said Buck Wood, an Austin ethics lawyer who helped rewrite the state’s restrictions in the 1970s after a major political scandal. “But it’s also not clear that a crime wasn’t committed.”

See here for the background. Long story short, while the DPS is still doing its investigation, it seems unlikely that any criminal charges will ever result. The law in question is narrowly tailored to be about personal financial gain, and it would take a pretty broad reading of it to try to get an indictment. Unless there’s new evidence to uncover, I don’t see any danger for the Speaker here.

What about a civil case, though?

Democrats were in court in Travis County Tuesday pressing forward with their lawsuit arguing that Sullivan’s recording revealed serious violations of Texas campaign finance law. The party, along with state Rep. Ana-Maria Ramos, D-Richardson, sued Sullivan in August, demanding the release of the full recording of the meeting.

The lawsuit was also filed against an “unknown political committee” that the lawsuit said includes Bonnen and Burrows. But the two lawmakers are not named defendants. At the hearing, attorney Chad Dunn argued for the Democratic Party that the newly released recording confirms there was discussion in the Capitol about political spending and requested the release of more documents about the meeting.

He said if the judge orders the information released, the party will use those documents to decide if Bonnen and Burrows should also be named as defendants in the lawsuit.

Under Texas election law, a political contribution can’t be made or authorized inside the Capitol. A violation of the law could result in up to a year in jail and a $4,000 fine. In civil court, it could mean having to pay back targeted candidates or opposing PACs. Dunn said the recording contains “a whole lot of authorizing.”

“If we live in a state of laws, there’s not going to be private conversations with the Speaker in the people’s Capitol authorizing illegal political contributions and expenditures,” he said.

Roark said in the August memo to the Texas Rangers that there was no political contribution authorized at the June meeting, so the law was not applicable in this case.

See here for the background. I don’t have enough information to make a reasoned guess about this one. I will say, one thing the next Lege could do is review the existing laws on what constitutes bribery and political contributions, to see if they could be improved. That would never get through Dan Patrick’s Senate, but as was the case with ethics-related bills last session, it would still be worth the effort. Would be more likely to happen with a different Speaker, that much is for sure.

The Bonnen tape is out

It’s a doozy.

During a June conversation at the Texas Capitol, Republican House Speaker Dennis Bonnen urged hardline conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan to target members of their own party in the 2020 primaries and suggested he could get Sullivan’s group media access to the House floor, according to a secret recording of the conversation released Tuesday.

Bonnen could also be heard speaking disparagingly about multiple Democrats, calling one House member “vile” and suggesting that another’s “wife’s gonna be really pissed when she learns he’s gay.”

The 64-minute recording of Sullivan’s June meeting with Bonnen and another top House Republican, then-GOP caucus chair Dustin Burrows, was posted on Sullivan’s website and the website of WBAP, a talk radio station in Dallas on which Sullivan appeared Tuesday morning. The recording largely aligned with Sullivan’s initial description of that June 12 meeting — and with what certain Republicans who listened to the audio before it was public had described.

While its release prompted immediate outcry from Democrats and silence from Republicans, Bonnen said in a statement that the audio makes clear he did nothing criminally wrong in the conversation, adding that the “House can finally move on.”

Roughly nine minutes into the recording, after discussing Sullivan’s recent trip to Europe, Bonnen tells Sullivan he’s “trying to win in 2020 in November.”

“Is there any way that for 2020 we sort of say … let’s not spend millions of dollars fighting in primaries when we need to spend millions of dollars trying to win in November,” Bonnen says. “I wanted to see if we could try and figure that out. … If you need some primaries to fight in — I will leave and Dustin will tell you some we’d love if you fought in. Not that you need our permission.”

Roughly five minutes later, the speaker said, “Let me tell you what I can do for you. Real quick, you need to hear what I want to do for you.”

“I don’t need anything,” Sullivan responded.

[…]

Before Bonnen made his offer, he also disparaged a number of House Democrats. The speaker said state Rep. Jon Rosenthal, a Houston Democrat, “makes my skin crawl” and is “a piece of shit.” Bonnen, after saying he’s”begging this is all confidential,” then recounted a meeting with the freshman, after which he asked his chief of staff, Gavin Massingill, what he thought about the new House member.

“Massingill said it best,” Bonnen recalled. “Well, his wife’s gonna be really pissed when she learns he’s gay.”

The room dissolved in laughter before Bonnen turned to discuss other members of the lower chamber’s minority party.

“We’ve got Michelle Beckley, who’s vile,” he said, referring to the freshman Democrat from Carrollton who unseated a Republican in 2018. He exhorted Sullivan to help target these Democrats in competitive districts.

See here for the previous update. I kind of don’t think there’s going to be any “moving on”, except in the sense that no Democrat has any reason to support Bonnen’s re-election as Speaker now. All well and good if Dems take the House in 2020, and still theoretically possible even if they come up a member or two short. Remember, Bonnen was also targeting ten of his fellow Republicans, who may well want to keep their own options open. It’s hard to imagine a Republican in a Republican-majority House backing a Democrat for Speaker, but at this point I think we can all agree that crazier things have happened.

By the way, in regard to those ten targeted Republicans, the Rick Casey theory that they were in Bonnen’s crosshairs because they opposed a bill to ban local government entities from hiring lobbyists sure looks on the money given this quote from the tape: “My goal is for this to be the worst session in the history of the legislature for cities and counties.” Quite the sentiment, no?

Anyway, there’s plenty more out there. The Signal has some clips, the Trib – which is all over this – has choice excerpts, and other outlets like the Chron, the Observer, Texas Monthly, and the Dallas Observer are going to town. If that’s still not enough, go search the #txlege hashtag on Twitter. On a side note, the TDP claimed victory in their lawsuit now that the tape has been released, but there was still a court hearing about it. All that’s left – before the next election, anyway – is for the DPS to finish their investigation. Hope this helps with evidence collection, guys.

How’s that investigation into the Bonnen-MQS kerfuffle going?

About how you’d expect.

Found on the Twitters

If recent history is any indication, House Speaker Dennis Bonnen has little to fear from a Texas Rangers investigation into allegations he offered a bribe to a conservative activist.

Investigators who have delved into accusations of impropriety against the state’s most powerful politicians over a 15-year period delivered just five cases that led to convictions. The Rangers inherited the public integrity caseload in 2015 and have yet to secure a conviction of a lawmaker at any level, records reviewed by Hearst Newspapers show.

Experts say these cases are difficult to prove, often caught in the gap between suspicious behavior and violations of law.

“Is this really a corrupt move or was this just some stupid thing that a politician did, or a cop did, or just a normal citizen did? Usually it’s pretty clear,” said Johnny Sutton, a former U.S. attorney for the Western District of Texas from 2001 to 2009. “That’s why we tend to look for the real bribes, the cash-in-the-pocket type of activities, which there’s plenty of, even to this day here in Texas.”

[…]

Investigators for the Rangers’ Public Integrity Unit will have to unearth facts to help a committee of lawmakers — and possibly a prosecutor — decide whether Bonnen offered a bribe or committed offenses such as official misconduct or retaliation. But that could be a difficult case to make.

Bonnen says he has no control over whether any group receives press credentials, which guarantee access to the House floor and lawmakers while they debate and vote on bills. The Texas Scorecard, which is affiliated with Empower Texans, has been denied the credentials in the past because Empower Texans makes millions of dollars in political donations, and House rules forbid interest groups from having them. But the credentials also seem to have little, if any, monetary value — one of several potential sticking points in the investigation.

Without having heard the tape, it’s difficult to determine exactly what Bonnen said and what the understanding was, said Buck Wood, a prominent ethics lawyer of more than 50 years. But investigators don’t need a “magic word” from Bonnen to determine whether the offer constitutes a bribe or threat, he said.

“All you have to do is ask someone to do something and, ‘If you do that, I will do something for you,’” said Wood. “You don’t have to say, ‘By the way, I want to give you a bribe.’”

See here and here for the background. The rest of the story goes into the long and often unsuccessful history of pursuing prosecutions against politician peccadilloes, the transfer of the responsibility for such prosecutions from the Travis County DA to local DAs with unfunded assistance from DPS, and so forth. In short, don’t expect much (or for it to happen soon), and never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity. That said, with the pending release of the tape, we may at least get a bit more clarity than we have now. The Texas Standard has more.

MQS says he will release the Bonnen tape

Well, well, well.

Hardline conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan said Thursday he will release a secret recording of his controversial meeting with House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and another top GOP member next week.

“I have been given the green light to do so by my legal team,” Sullivan wrote in his morning “Texas Minute” email to subscribers. “Later today I will announce that the audio will be released next week.”

Sullivan could share the recording ahead of an already-scheduled House GOP caucus meeting on Oct. 18, which will mark the first official Republican gathering since the head of Empower Texans accused the speaker of planning to politically target members from his own party. That allegation has, for the past couple of months, thrown the 150-member House into turmoil.

[…]

In August, at the request of a House committee, the Texas Rangers Public Integrity Unit launched an investigation to look into the allegations surrounding that June 12 meeting. It’s been unclear when that investigation could wrap up. Earlier this week, the Rangers were hand-delivering letters to House offices at the Capitol requesting members to provide “any testimony, recordings, documents, records, or other information relevant” to the investigation by Oct. 17.

Before then, on Oct. 15, Sullivan is scheduled to appear in a Travis County court as part of a lawsuit spearheaded by the Texas Democratic Party, which has sued over the recording. A couple of days later, the House Republican Caucus will be in Austin for its annual retreat, which was on the books before Sullivan’s allegations first surfaced.

See here for more on that Travis County court action, and here for previous blogging on this saga. It has always been my belief that MQS would release the tape when and if he decided it was better for him to have it out there than to have people continue to speculate about it. I still believe that, and while it’s possible that the court could have forced him to turn it over, that hasn’t happened yet, and he’s not known for walking away from a fight. So we’ll see what this means. The Texas Signal has more.

Dan Patrick and Michael Quinn Sullivan fighting is the sweetest sound you will ever hear

Inject this directly into my veins.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Michael Quinn Sullivan, a hardline conservative activist long aligned with the head of the Texas Senate, publicly accused each other of “destroying” the Republican Party on Tuesday — seeming to further a rift that has emerged between the two longtime conservative allies.

The dust-up on Twitter started over gun rights, specifically Patrick’s recent support of requiring background checks for private person-to-person gun sales — an idea Sullivan opposes. But the most aggressive sparring came over a secret recording Sullivan has of House Speaker Dennis Bonnen during a June 12 meeting at the Capitol. Sullivan has said he caught Bonnen and one of the speaker’s top allies on tape asking Sullivan to target 10 GOP lawmakers in the 2020 primaries, but Sullivan hasn’t made the recording public.

“BTW, release the tape,” Patrick tweeted at Sullivan. “You are destroying our party.”

To be clear, Bonnen and state Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, have forcefully pushed back against Sullivan’s allegations. And both, along with Patrick and other Republicans and Democrats, have also called on Sullivan to release his recording of the meeting. Sullivan has so far declined to do so, though he has allowed certain Republicans to listen to the roughly hour-long audio privately.

[…]

Responding to Patrick, Sullivan tweeted that the lieutenant governor hadn’t yet listened to the audio himself — and suggested that Patrick may be “too scared to make a moral judgment without a poll.”

“What’s actually destroying the GOP is moral cowardice in which elected officials are unwilling to address the unethical behavior of other politicians,” Sullivan tweeted.

See more of the thread here. Read it, share it, enjoy it. As an old beer commercial once said, it just doesn’t get any better than this. The Texas Signal has more.

As the Bonnen turns

Drip, drip, drip

Rep. Dennis Bonnen

In the hours after hardline conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan exploded his political bombshell in late July — alleging House Speaker Dennis Bonnen wanted to target some of his own GOP members in 2020 — the lower chamber’s top Republican lawmaker made a series of phone calls to assure his flock that Sullivan was lying.

“This is Dennis,” the speaker said to a House member in a 22-second voicemail soon after Sullivan lobbed his allegations. “Hopefully, you know better than to believe anything Michael Quinn Sullivan would bother to say. … I did meet with him to tell him he should not campaign against any Republican in the primary — um, obviously the opposite of what he’s trying to present.”

Now that voicemail, obtained by The Texas Tribune, is giving more ammunition to critics who say it was Bonnen — not Sullivan — who has lied and misled the people who elevated him to the powerful elected position he could be in danger of losing.

Such a response from the speaker in the aftermath of Sullivan’s allegations, multiple members say, has prompted some to wonder whether the chamber will ever fully trust Bonnen again — or if the damage that’s been done is simply beyond repair. For House speakers, who owe their job not to nameless Texas voters but instead to a few dozen fellow members they know well, trust is the coin of the realm in the lower chamber.

At least five members on the alleged 10-person political target list were told either by Bonnen or by someone on his team that Sullivan’s allegations were downright false in the hours after the news broke, according to multiple people familiar with the matter.

In most cases, Bonnen batted down the allegations and questioned the credibility of Sullivan, who many state lawmakers already loathed thanks to his track record of criticizing — and, oftentimes, spending against — members in his own party.

In a statement to the Tribune late Wednesday, Bonnen’s office renewed the speaker’s call for Sullivan to release his secret recording of a June meeting from which his allegations stem.

“There is significant context missing from reports, namely, the hour long recording that has been strategically withheld from the public despite repeated calls from the Speaker, state leaders, and objective journalists for its release,” said Cait Meisenheimer, the speaker’s press secretary. “The Speaker believes that Members are owed the opportunity to draw their own conclusions based on the full context of the conversation — not the slow leak of cherry-picked information that has been used to fuel speculation.”

Since his immediate denial though, according to those familiar with the matter, the speaker hasn’t spoken with at least a few of those members who were allegedly mentioned during that June 12 meeting at the Texas Capitol between Bonnen, another top House Republican and Sullivan.

And though Bonnen has since apologized to members for saying “terrible things” during the meeting, he hasn’t directly addressed Sullivan’s allegations about a 10-member list — which has fed into a frustration that’s been simmering for almost two months among a broader coalition of Republicans.

“He’ll deny, deny, deny, a little more will come out, then he will dial back his denial and get a little more technical about it,” one person who works closely with multiple Republicans on the alleged target list told the Tribune. “It’s a constant walking back of previous details.”

There’s more, so read the rest. As a reminder, all of the reasons why Bonnen and others want MQS to release the full recording are also exactly the reasons why he won’t. MQS is in it for himself, as he always is. You can’t overstate how big a self-own by Bonnen it is to make the loathsome and sleazy Michael Quinn Sullivan look like a truth teller.

On a side note, we’ve been wondering from the beginning why Bonnen would target these particular members of the House, since they included seeming allies. Rick Casey puts forth a theory:

What did the 10 on Bonnen’s would-be hit list have in common? They all voted against one of Bonnen’s pet bills, a measure that would have made it illegal for cities, counties, school districts, and other local government agencies to hire lobbyists to represent them at the state legislature and in Washington.

It’s a very bad bill that had been pushed for years by the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation. Speaker Straus had made sure it didn’t see the light of day in previous sessions, but Bonnen signed on as a co-author.

The only Bexar County legislator on the hit list was, somewhat ironically, Straus’s successor, Allison, to whom Bonnen had made an in-kind contribution of $20,000 earlier this year. While he was a rookie in the 86th Legislature, Allison is no stranger to local government. He has served on both the Alamo Heights school board and on the VIA Metropolitan Transit board. Like Straus, he is not an ideologue. He is conservative, but he wants government to work.

Bonnen’s bill would not only have prohibited local governments from hiring lobbyists, but it also would have barred them from belonging to associations that hire lobbyists. So the school board would not have been able to belong, at a very modest cost, to the Texas Association of School Boards, which lobbies on behalf of the more than 1,000 school boards in the state. Likewise the City of San Antonio would have had to quit the Texas Municipal League unless it fired its lobbyists, considerably reducing its value to its members.

[…]

What’s stunning is that Bonnen would react by secretly asking a sworn enemy to do something he himself had so publicly criticized – working against incumbents. Being so vindictive against those who vote for the interests of their constituents rather than acceding to the speaker’s desires is, ironically, what led to the downfall of former Speaker Tom Craddick.

It’s an interesting hypothesis and Casey is the first person I’ve seen identify a common thread among the Bonnen Ten. That doesn’t mean this is the reason, but until someone comes up with a better explanation I’m willing to go with it. Every way you look at this, it’s such a bad look for Bonnen.

MQS-Bonnen secret meeting investigation update

Noted for the record.

Rep. Dennis Bonnen

The top prosecutor in House Speaker Dennis Bonnen’s home district has joined the probe into Bonnen’s secret meeting with a conservative political activist, in which the activist alleges he was offered an illegal quid pro quo.

Brazoria County District Attorney Jeri Yenne said Tuesday that she asked the Texas Rangers Public Integrity Unit to investigate the meeting on Aug. 13, one day after the House General Investigating Committee made the same request.

“Upon completion of the investigation by the Public Integrity Unit, the investigation will be expeditiously reviewed to determine whether any laws were violated,” Yenne said.

Yenne is the top prosecutor in Bonnen’s county of residence, so under a law passed in 2015, the investigation would ultimately have been referred to her for review if the Rangers had reasonable suspicion that Bonnen had committed a crime.

[…]

Earlier Tuesday, the Department of Public Safety, the agency that houses the Rangers, said investigators were “gathering evidence related to the meeting, to include a copy of the recording.”

“To protect the integrity of the investigation, no additional information will be provided, and we request additional questions be referred to the Brazoria County District Attorney,” the agency said in a statement.

Prior to 2015, investigations into public corruption by state lawmakers were conducted by the Travis County District Attorney’s Public Integrity Unit. But that year, state lawmakers changed the law to put the Texas Rangers in charge of those investigations. If the Rangers find reasonable suspicion that a crime occurred, they refer the case to “the appropriate prosecutor of the county in which venue is proper,” usually a lawmaker’s county of residence.

See here for the background. I have a hard time imagining criminal charges coming out of this, and even if they somehow did (if a grand jury gets empaneled, then maybe) I can’t see this ever going to trial. I mean, we may never see Ken Paxton go to trial, and that was a long time ago with a much clearer crime. I also still think the Republican vendetta against the Public Integrity Unit in the Travis County DA’s office will come back to bite them one way or another, some day. We’ll see how this one goes.

Pretty much everybody wants MQS to release the Bonnen recordings

From Twitter:

Rep. Stephanie Klick is the current Chair of the House Republican Caucus, having replaced Rep. Dustin Burrows after he resigned from that post. Burrows and several of his friends in high places, such as Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick, have also called for the release of the tape. So have some unspecified number of House Republicans. I’m sure more will add on the longer this drags out.

And I appreciate their efforts. It’s very much in the public interest for the full recording to be released. As Scott Braddock notes in an interview with Chad Hasty, “if Empower Texas really is media, which they’re suing to try to be, then they ought to act like media and publish the findings of what they say is their investigative journalism.”

All of this is unquestionably true. It’s also unquestionably true that what MQS is the rights of being classified as “media”, but without any of the responsibilities. This is when Rep. Klick and others find out that what MQS cares about is himself, and that releasing the tape would be in conflict with his own interest of keeping everyone attention on himself. So again, while I appreciate the gesture, I’m pretty sure it’s going to go unrewarded. Thanks for trying, though. The DMN has more.

The Bonnen-MQS saga makes the Times

Gotta love it when our little intramural squabbles go national.

Found on the Twitters

In Texas, they are calling it the case of “The Speaker and the Creeper.”

The political imbroglio started last month, when Michael Quinn Sullivan, a conservative pit bull who routinely antagonizes establishment politicians, accused the Republican House speaker, Dennis Bonnen, of offering his organization coveted House media credentials if it would work to defeat 10 incumbent House members from Mr. Bonnen’s own party.

Mr. Bonnen denied it, and the bombshell was initially greeted with some skepticism. Why would one of the state’s top politicians court a back-room deal — to undermine his own bench — with a man Texas Monthly recently described as “one of the biggest snakes in Texas politics”?

Except there was a tape.

Now Mr. Sullivan’s accusations are at the heart of the biggest scandal to hit Texas in years, one that is throwing the state’s Republican-led House of Representatives into turmoil and threatening to bring down the speaker.

[…]

The big question many are trying to answer now in the Texas capital is why Mr. Bonnen would have approached a group about which he has been openly dismissive.

After Mr. Sullivan criticized the latest “amazing LOSER #Texlege session” on Twitter, Mr. Bonnen brushed it off. “They speak only for themselves,” he told reporters. “They aren’t worth responding to. The reality of it is, if we passed every pro-life bill filed in the history of the state they would say we have not done enough. You will never please or appease those folks and I’m sure as hell not going to waste my time trying.”

That was at the end of May. Then came the meeting in the speaker’s office, in June. Mr. Sullivan said he was expecting a “tongue-lashing” for not supporting what he called the “lackluster results” of the legislative session, but instead, according to his account, he was asked by the House speaker to refrain from further criticizing the just-ended legislative session, leave a select group of Republicans alone and target 10 others.

In exchange, Mr. Sullivan said, he was offered press credentials for Texas Scorecard, the media arm of Empower Texans — though the House speaker has since pointed out he would not have the authority to grant such credentials.

Cal Jillson, a political-science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, said Mr. Bonnen may have been seeking to soften the “enmity” between Republican factions and head off “incoming fire” from Empower Texans and affiliated groups in the future. “What Sullivan did was lay a trap for him,” Professor Jillson said.

In a July 29 press statement before Mr. Sullivan revealed that he had taped the conversations, Mr. Bonnen said that he had “one simple reason for taking the meeting — I saw it as an opportunity to protect my Republican colleagues and prevent us from having to waste millions of dollars defending ourselves against Empower Texans’ destructive primary attacks, as we have had to do in the past several cycles.”

Mr. Bonnen has said he supported the Texas Rangers investigation and has called on Mr. Sullivan to release the statement “in its entirety.”

Texas is no stranger to scandal, and a few old hands around the Capitol still remember the granddaddy of them all — the Sharpstown stock fraud scandal of 1970-72, which centered on quid pro quo stock purchases that resulted in charges against more than two dozen current and former state officials and led to a wholesale turnover in state government.

The latest investigation, which is becoming known as “Bonnenghazi” or “Bonnghazi,” will determine whether the current speaker hangs on to power or is forced to the sideline, further casting Republicans in disarray in a race for a new leader and perhaps even giving an opening to Democrats in their perennial efforts to regain control of the House for the first time in nearly two decades.

The question of what exactly Bonnen was doing talking to MQS in the first place remains the big mystery to me. None of it makes sense, including the list of alleged targets. I’m happy to continue to stoke the flames on this, but I think we would all be well advised to maintain some skepticism until such time as the full tapes come to light. The odds that MQS has been bullshitting us all this whole time via selective editing or other trickery remain non-trivial. Bonnen deserves a heaping pile of criticism for his actions, but that doesn’t mean we should believe anything MQS says.

Rep. Dustin Burrows steps down as House GOP Caucus Chair

Noted for the record.

Rep. Dustin Burrows

State Rep. Dustin Burrows of Lubbock has resigned as chair of the Texas House GOP Caucus, according to two people familiar with the matter. Burrows’ departure comes amid allegations that he and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen planned to politically target members from their own party in the 2020 primaries — and it marks the largest fallout yet since the accusations surfaced.

Burrows has served in the House since 2015. His resignation is expected to be announced to House Republicans sometime Friday. State Rep. Stephanie Klick of Fort Worth, who serves as vice chair of the caucus, will be elevated to chair.

Burrows has not yet publicly responded to the accusations made by Michael Quinn Sullivan, a hardline conservative activist who heads Empower Texans. Over the past few weeks, a number of House Republicans have privately expressed frustration that their caucus leader was largely remaining silent on the accusations made against him.

In a statement, Bonnen said that Burrows “was a strong leader for the caucus.” He added, “I respect his decision and I remain committed to strengthening our majority.”

Normally, this is super-deep Inside Baseball stuff, of interest to almost no one outside of the people who actually inhabit the Capitol. But these are not normal times, and Burrows is enmeshed in the current unpleasantness surrounding Speaker Dennis Bonnen and professional troglodyte Michael Quinn Sullivan. The fact that Burrows has maintained such strict radio silence is either a tribute to his loyalty to Bonnen or a measure of how deep the doo-doo is. Some day, perhaps we’ll find out which is the case.

Here come the Rangers

I don’t know where this is going to go, but it sure will be fun getting there.

Rep. Dennis Bonnen

The Texas House General Investigating Committee voted Monday to request that the Texas Rangers look into allegations against House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and one of his top lieutenants in the lower chamber.

The committee vote, which was unanimous, followed roughly an hour of closed-door deliberations among the five House members who serve on the panel. At issue is whether Bonnen, an Angleton Republican, and state Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, offered hardline conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan media credentials for his organization in exchange for politically targeting a list of fellow GOP members in the 2020 primaries.

[…]

State Rep. Morgan Meyer, a Dallas Republican who chairs the House committee, said Monday that the Texas Ranger’s Public Integrity Unit “will conduct an investigation into the facts and circumstances surrounding” that meeting between Sullivan, Bonnen and Burrows. Meyer also requested that the Texas Rangers provide a copy of its final investigative report to the committee at the end of its investigation.

See here for the background. What might happen next could get complicated.

Aside from the quid pro quo aspect of the scandal, exchanging money in the Capitol or directing expenditures from a Capitol office has been a Class A misdemeanor ever since the Legislature reacted to a 1989 public outcry over the late chicken producer Lonnie “Bo” Pilgrim handing out $10,000 checks to nine senators in the Senate chamber during a hearing on workers compensation reform.

Besides the issue of whether there was bribery involved, there are also potential election law crimes, including not disclosing the source of campaign contributions directed by Bonnen. The Texas Democratic Party filed a lawsuit against Sullivan on Thursday, alleging nine different potential criminal violations of the Texas Election Code, each a Class A misdemeanor. The lawsuit seeks to preserve evidence and damages of $100,000.

Given the potential for criminal wrongdoing, what happens next?

First, consider the dramatic changes that the Texas Legislature made to how public corruption cases are handled in Texas. Under a state law passed in 2015, the Travis County public integrity unit no longer has jurisdiction over elected officials at the Capitol. Potential criminal cases must be investigated first by the Texas Rangers. As of Thursday, the Rangers had not been asked to investigate the Bonnen/Sullivan controversy, nor had they initiated an investigation on their own, according to a Texas Department of Public Safety spokesperson.

If the Rangers do investigate and decide further action is warranted, the case is referred to the home county of the public official. That means any corruption charges against Bonnen would have to be brought by the Brazoria County DA. For Burrows, it would be the Lubbock County DA. Travis County would retain jurisdiction only over Sullivan. In cases of multiple jurisdiction, the Texas attorney general’s office can take charge.

Funnily enough, Attorney General Ken Paxton is under indictment on securities fraud charges in his home territory of Collin County. Paxton is accused of failing to register as a securities agent as part of his private law practice. He claims he is innocent and that the case is politically motivated. Paxton counts among his allies the funders of Empower Texans. (The plot always seems to thicken in this scandal.)

You know what this would mean: Special prosecutors would be needed. Nothing could possibly go wrong with that approach. It’s almost as if abolishing the prosecutorial power of the Public Integrity Unit was a bad idea with all kinds of potentially unwanted consequences. We are getting way ahead of ourselves here, so let’s reel it in a bit and say we can’t wait to see what happens next. Ross Ramsey has more.

TDP sues over Bonnen-MQS secret meeting

Here’s an interesting turn.

Rep. Dennis Bonnen

The Texas Democratic Party is suing House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan, alleging they created an unregistered political action committee and violated other state election laws.

The lawsuit, filed in Travis County District Court on Thursday, stems from a June 12 meeting Sullivan had with Bonnen and Republican Caucus Chairman Dustin Burrows in Bonnen’s Capitol office. In the meeting, Sullivan has said, Bonnen and Burrows offered to give writers at his website, Texas Scorecard, House media credentials in the next legislative session in exchange for Sullivan’s political group targeting 10 Republican incumbents in next year’s primary elections. Sullivan said he rebuffed the offer.

But Democrats allege that meeting and any agreements reached in it show a coordinated effort “between political actors intended to influence the election or defeat of specific candidates” and amounts to an unregistered political committee as defined by state law.

The Democrats also allege that Bonnen and Burrows directed Sullivan to make political contributions or expenditures at their request under his political action committee, Empower Texans, which is illegal under Texas campaign finance law. They further claim that the alleged quid pro quo Bonnen offered Sullivan of public benefits in return for targeting elected officials amounts to a violation of state law.

The complaint says any contribution proposed at the meeting violated state law because it was made in the Capitol and during the Legislature’s fundraising moratorium.

[…]

As part of their lawsuit, the Democrats request that Sullivan produce the entire recording of the June meeting and any other recordings Sullivan has of Bonnen and Burrows. The Democrats also ask Sullivan to produce a list of all the people who have listened to the June recording and any documentation relevant to that meeting.

Ramos, a Richardson Democrat, is a plaintiff in the case because the Democratic Party says she “is one of the candidates mentioned in this recording as a target of the coordinated political efforts between the Speaker and Sullivan.” It is unclear whether she was named as a target, though multiple people who have heard the recording confirm Bonnen called her “awful.”

“Texans deserve to know exactly what happened on June 12, 2019 and they deserve accountability from their elected officials,” Ramos said in a prepared statement. “There needs to be accountability for any violations of ethics or the law that occurred during a meeting between a Republican activist and the Speaker of the House.”

You can see the TDP press release here, and a copy of the lawsuit here. We know about the tape. There’s no argument I can see for keeping it secret, though I’m sure MQS will come up with something. The Texas House General Investigating Committee investigation may also serve as a way to get the tape released, though I’d put more faith in the courts to serve as a fulcrum if it comes to that. One caveat about the House investigation:

But the actions of the committee – which can issue subpoenas, hire outside investigators or tap the state’s existing criminal investigative capability, such as the Texas Rangers – may complicate matters.

Under state law, a person testifying about incriminating behavior before the Legislature may not be prosecuted or indicted for any actions about which they truthfully testify, potentially giving Bonnen, Burrows and Sullivan immunity in any further legal actions if they testify before the committee.

If we didn’t have complications, we wouldn’t have anything. That said, MQS will not be able to delete the recording while the litigation is active, either, so we’ve got that going for us. Juanita and the Trib have more.

Time to investigate

So, hey, that conversation we now know Dennis Bonnen had with MQS? The subject of that conversation, which involved a quid-pro-quo access-for-political-activity proposal, may be a violation of house rules. So, the relevant committee will have a look-see to check that out.

Found on the Twitters

The powerful Texas House General Investigating Committee is set to launch an investigation into allegations that Speaker Dennis Bonnen offered a hardline conservative organization media credentials if it politically targeted certain Republican members in the lower chamber.

“Last night, I initiated internal discussion with General Investigating staff about procedure with the intention of launching an investigation. Our committee will be posting notice today of a public hearing which will take place on Monday, August 12,” state Rep. Morgan Meyer, a Dallas Republican who chairs the committee, said in a letter dated Wednesday.

He was writing to state Rep. Nicole Collier, a Fort Worth Democrat who serves as vice chair. Earlier Wednesday, Collier wrote to Meyer requesting he “launch an immediate full investigation” into “whether not there has been a violation of any policy or rules that the committee is charged with overseeing.”

Collier specifically asked for an investigation into “the allegations relating to media credentials, as well as the circumstances and events surrounding a June 12, 2019 meeting, including any and all correspondence, statements and/or recordings related thereto.”

[…]

The General Investigating Committee, comprised of five House members, has sweeping jurisdiction and holds subpoena power. A person who disobeys a subpoena by the committee may be cited for contempt or prosecuted for contempt, according to House rules, which were adopted at the beginning of the 86th legislative session in January. The committee can also meet at any time or place and has the jurisdiction to enter into a closed-door meeting if deemed necessary.

Since Sullivan revealed he had recorded the meeting, Bonnen, along with a number of Republicans and Democrats, have called for the audio to be released. Sullivan hasn’t yet indicated when — or if — he will.

State Rep. Chris Turner, a Grand Prairie Democrat who chairs his party’s caucus, said in a statement Wednesday that Collier “is right to make this call and has my full support in this effort.” He added that the committee should take up the allegations because “there are simply too many rumors about what was said or not said in this meeting for anyone who has not heard the recording to have confidence they have the truth.”

Earlier Wednesday, a member of the committee, state Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, said on Facebook that, since there was a chance the allegations could come before the panel, it wouldn’t be appropriate to comment. He did, though, offer general thoughts on how he thinks the process should play out.

“We should not rush to judgment but we should not drag our feet either,” Krause said. “We should not condemn anyone arbitrarily but also must not be scared to move forward if we find evidence of wrongdoing.”

On Wednesday evening, as news of the House committee investigation spread, more people were listening to Sullivan’s recording and went public with details about it.

See here for the background. It looks like everyone agrees that the actual recording should be released, which sure seems like the logical thing to do. Whether MQS and his ego will go along with it, that’s another question. I won’t be surprised if he comes up with some weird legal pretext to decline to cooperate, in which case we’ll likely wind up in court. But maybe I’m wrong, and he thinks it’s to his advantage to play along. We’ll start to get some answers on Monday. Trail Blazers has more.

Bonnen blinks

OMG.

Found on the Twitters

Speaker Dennis Bonnen on Tuesday apologized to his 149 colleagues for “terrible things” he said about some of them, just hours after more details emerged about slurs against fellow House members uttered by him and his chief GOP sidekick Rep. Dustin Burrows.

“It was a mistake,” Bonnen wrote of his and Burrows’ June meeting with longtime conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan.

“I said terrible things that are embarrassing to the members, to the House, and to me personally,” Bonnen said in an email obtained by The Dallas Morning News. “You know me well enough to know I say things with no filter.”

Bonnen, whose hold on power has been rocked by Sullivan’s disclosure of the June meeting in Bonnen’s Capitol office, stopped short of admitting he has lied. Bonnen said he plans to meet individually in coming days and weeks with House members.

“I ask for your forgiveness, and I hope to rebuild your trust,” he wrote.

[…]

Bonnen acted Tuesday afternoon, more than five hours after Direct Action Texas, a grassroots conservative group critical of state GOP leaders, provided new and damning details of Bonnen and Burrows’ alleged targeting of incumbent House Republicans in a blog post.

On the Fort Worth-based group’s website, [Daniel] Greer, a former colleague of Sullivan’s, quoted Bonnen as labeling certain Democratic colleagues as “awful” and “vile,” while he said Burrows, the House GOP caucus’ chairman, derided fellow Republican Rep. Keith Bell of Forney as a “dumb freshman.”

Richardson Democratic freshman Rep. Ana-Maria Ramos “is called awful, [Houston Democratic freshman] Rep Jon Rosenthal makes the Speaker’s skin crawl … and [Carrollton Democratic freshman] Rep. Michelle Beckley is vile,” according to Greer’s account of a June 12 meeting between the two GOP House leaders and Sullivan. Sullivan secretly made the audio recording, and Greer wrote that he listened to it Sunday.

While The News could not independently confirm the account, Nacogdoches GOP Rep. Travis Clardy, who was named among the list of 10 targets and has listened to the recording, told the newspaper that the new account was mostly in line with what he’d heard.

As some House members, including Bonnen, were attending a national legislative conference in Nashville, Tenn., many were said to be discussing the Sullivan affair.

As texts and phone calls about the Greer post proliferated, Bonnen issued the apology.

See here for the previous update, and here for a copy of the Bonnen letter. There’s a lot here, so I’m going to summarize:

– My initial, hot-take reaction is that I don’t see any way forward for Dennis Bonnen to remain as Speaker. I’m not certain he can stay in the House. He’s going to have to smooth an awful lot of ruffled feathers, that’s for sure.

– But then, if Rep. Jon Rosenthal is typical – and according to Glenn Smith, he may be more typical than I’d have thought – maybe he will survive. Though I still don’t see how he can be Speaker again. Maybe that’s just me.

– By all accounts, Dennis Bonnen is a smart guy. And yet, this was galactically stupid of him in every regard. I have no idea what he hoped to gain, what he had against the members in question, why he let his guard down around a known enemy like MQS, all of it. Maybe someday he’ll spill his guts to a reporter to explain himself, but until then, boy howdy was this dumb.

– At least now we understand why Dustin Burrows has been hiding these past few days. I wouldn’t want to explain my role in this clusterfudge, either.

– As a Democrat, I almost can’t believe our luck. I do wish all of this were coming out later in the cycle, but this is going to leave a mark. I generally downplay the long-term effect of hard-fought primaries. There’s plenty of time to regroup and focus on the common goals. Here, I don’t think forgive and forget are in the cards. MQS being MQS, he’s sure not going to let people forget.

– Even after all this, it still feels like there’s another shoe to drop. At this point, all those calls to release the full tape may now work in MQS’ favor. I’m sure he will continue playing it for more people, and we’ll keep getting reactions from them. Who knows how long this will drag out?

So yeah, let’s keep that popcorn coming. The Trib has more.

UPDATE: This guy, clearly a Republican, is tracking statements of House members accepting Bonnen’s apology.

It’s all about the tape

You want to hear the recording of that conversation between Speaker Dennis Bonnen and MQS in which Bonnen supposedly trashed a bunch of Republican legislators? You can’t hear it unless MQS wants you to.

Found on the Twitters

For the past week, Texas Republicans, Democrats and even Speaker Dennis Bonnen have called for the full release of audio that allegedly captures him attacking members of his party and making crude remarks about House colleagues.

But now some of those who listened to the audio are calling for the full recordings to be withheld from the public.

The fear? Mutually assured destruction.

“Any representative calling for this to be released in its unredacted, unedited form hasn’t heard it, because if you had heard it you wouldn’t want it to be released,” said Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, who listened to the recordings last week.

Toth is among at least a half dozen people who say they’ve listened to the full audio of a conversation captured by conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan. He has roiled the state Capitol with accusations that Bonnen and House GOP Caucus chairman Dustin Burrows asked Sullivan to target a list of 10 Republican legislators ahead of next March’s primary.

Six people who say they listened to the audio have confirmed Sullivan’s side of the story, despite Bonnen saying publicly that Sullivan is lying. Sullivan last week began allowing Republican lawmakers, party leaders and conservative activists listen to the audio in the presence of his lawyer.

[…]

The list of supposed Republican targets includes Reps. Tan Parker of Flower Mound, Steve Allison of San Antonio, Trent Ashby of Lufkin, Ernest Bailes of Shepherd, Travis Clardy of Nacogdoches, Drew Darby of San Angelo, Kyle Kacal and John Raney of College Station, Stan Lambert of Abilene, and Phil Stephenson of Wharton.

From that list, Parker and Clardy have told news outlets they have listened to the recording, but it’s unclear how many others have listened to it. Parker declined further comment to the insider newsletter Quorum Report. Clardy called the comments on the recording “repugnant” and said it was “the most disappointing thing I’ve ever seen.”

Sullivan has denied Democrats a chance to listen to the audio, even those who he says were mentioned by name. He has also denied requests from news outlets to hear the recording.

See here for the previous update. Democrats of course want the full recording to be released, as do some Republicans, but MQS is gonna do what MQS is gonna do, and as long as only a select few get to hear it, it keeps his name squarely in the news. What more could an egotist like him want? All I know is I haven’t run out of popcorn yet.

Your daily Bonnen-MQS update

I’m just sittin’ here watching the wheels go round and round…

Found on the Twitters

After a week of denying that he asked an arch-conservative to target 10 fellow Republicans in the next primary election, House Speaker Dennis Bonnen challenged Empower Texans CEO Michael Quinn Sullivan to release a secretly-recorded audio of their meeting.

But three House members who have reportedly listened to the recording said the speaker is not being truthful about the alleged list of GOP targets, rocking the Texas Republican party as it prepares for its most challenging election cycle in decades.

“It’s pretty shocking. I’ll be honest with you. It is,” said Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford. “There’s just frankly vomiting of the mouth, if you will, by these individuals and you can’t help but just kinda cringe by some of the stuff I heard … It’s beneath the office, for sure.”

Stickland, a darling of Empower Texans who is not running for re-election, said Bonnen offered media credentials to Sullivan during their June 12 conversation. Stickland said he heard on the audio that Bonnen then sweetened the deal by offering to deny media credentials to political reporter Scott Braddock of the Quorum Report. The credentials give journalists access to the floor of the Texas House when the Legislature is in session, and provide better access to lawmakers for interviews and follow-up questions.

[…]

Two other Republican lawmakers who have heard the audio have offered fewer details about what they heard, although Rep. Travis Clardy, R-Nacogdoches, confirmed the audio reveals that Burrows gave Sullivan the names of members who could be challenged in their primary elections without repercussion.

Clardy, who is on the list, said there are things on the recording that will be hurtful to some members, but each representative will have to determine for themselves “what it means and how to take it and whether they will be able to move past it.”

For his part, Clardy said he has already moved past it and wants to talk to Bonnen and Burrows, who he has yet to speak with to since news of the meeting broke last week.

See here, here, and here for the background. Let’s hear from Scott Braddock about this:

Here’s Ross Ramsey:

Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen isn’t cooked, yet — but the water is boiling.

The compact between a speaker and the members of the Texas House who elect him goes like this: Protect the members from the outside world (and from fratricidal colleagues), and in return, you get the title, the fancy corner office, the apartment in the state Capitol, and the gavel and the dais when the Legislature is in session.

Protection for power. It’s not a complicated transaction.

And the threat to that compact is why Bonnen is facing a crisis seven months after winning the job. Accused of selling out 10 of his fellow Republicans to a political operative, he’s now pitting his word with that activist threatening to make public a recording of their conversation.

[…]

As more members hear the recording — assuming they’re hearing a clean and complete rendition — they’ll compare that to what Bonnen has been telling them for the last week. If the stories don’t match, the speaker — this is the gentlest way of putting it — will have to explain the discrepancies.

In a trust-based relationship between a leader and the followers who elected him, that’s perilous.

A speaker who doesn’t have the trust of his own members isn’t in a secure spot. And one caught working directly against those members is cooked.

Plus two more Trib stories. Never let it be said that MQS doesn’t know how to get his name in the papers.

It is certainly possible that Bonnen, normally a pretty astute fellow, was dumb enough to talk to MQS and say these things he supposedly said. I don’t know why he’d do that, I don’t see what was in it for him, but maybe he was just saying the quiet parts out loud and forgot that he was dealing with a fundamentally dishonest broker. That’s the real key here, that no one with any integrity of their own should ever believe a word MQS says. If he’s got the goods on Bonnen, then put that recording out on the Internet for all of us to hear. I don’t care one way or the other what happens to Bonnen, but to me this is analogous to all of those “sting” tapes that grifters like James O’Keefe have put out over the years, supposedly showing people they don’t like saying or doing horrible things. Except that at a closer look, the whole thing falls apart, as the tape in question was heavily and dishonestly edited to make the sting subject look bad. I wouldn’t put that past MQS at all, but again, the answer here is simple. He says he’s got the goods. Let the rest of us hear it for ourselves. If MQS himself doesn’t also want that, we should wonder why.

I just can’t quit the Bonnen-MQS squabble

How much popcorn is too much? Asking for a friend.

Rep. Dennis Bonnen

A hardline conservative activist who has accused Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, of offering his group long-denied media access to the lower chamber in exchange for politically targeting 10 GOP lawmakers says he has a recording of their conversation — and suggested he may soon release it to the public. Bonnen has denied Sullivan’s characterization of the June 12 meeting.

“Speaker Bonnen and Rep. [Dustin] Burrows must recant their false claims. All of them. Immediately,” Michael Quinn Sullivan wrote Wednesday. “If they do not, I believe I will be obligated to release the recording—in whole or in part, I haven’t decided yet—so as to set straight the record they have tried to contort.”

Sullivan, CEO of Empower Texans, made the statement on his group’s Texas Scorecard website. Sullivan last week accused Bonnen and Burrows of offering Sullivan’s organization House media credentials if the well-funded political action committee he heads targeted 10 Republican members in the 2020 primaries. According to Sullivan, Bonnen left the room before Burrows handed over a list of the 10 members. Burrows, a Lubbock Republican, chairs the House GOP caucus.

In an email to House Republicans the day after those allegations surfaced, Bonnen disputed Sullivan’s version of events. And in a statement released Monday, Bonnen said that “at no point in our conversation was Sullivan provided with a list of target Members.” Burrows has remained silent publicly since Sullivan first made his allegations.

See here and here for the background. Everyone knows that MQS is a lying liar, but folks from Ross Ramsey to Christopher Hooks to Erica Greider are baffled by Bonnen’s weak denials and Burrows’ disappearing act. Hooks notes the claim of a recording and calls it “a potentially mortal threat to Bonnen’s speakership”. I only wish this were all happening about 14 months from now.

UPDATE: Oh, yeah.

“Mr. Sullivan, release your recording. Release it in its entirety,” the speaker said in a statement late Wednesday.

Keep at it, boys.

UPDATE: More, more, more.

Two members of the Texas House who listened Wednesday night to a recording of a meeting that has shaken up the Legislature refuted House Speaker Dennis Bonnen’s denials that he offered a list of 10 GOP representatives for a hardline conservative group to politically target.

“What I derived from the audio tape — it’s very clear — is that Speaker Bonnen was not truthful about a list not being provided,” state Rep. Steve Toth, a Republican from The Woodlands, told The Texas Tribune after he listened to a recording of Michael Quinn Sullivan, CEO of Empower Texans, visiting Bonnen’s office June 12.

State Rep. Travis Clardy, R-Nacogdoches, who is said to be on the alleged list, later told The Dallas Morning News that what he heard is “consistent with” what Sullivan has alleged.

Please never stop feuding over this.

Keep that popcorn coming

Oh, yeah.

Rep. Dennis Bonnen

Four days after a hardline conservative activist accused him and GOP caucus chairman Dustin Burrows of plotting to target 10 fellow Republicans in primary elections, House Speaker Dennis Bonnen forcefully denied the allegations Monday afternoon.

“Let me be clear. At no point in our conversation was [Michael Quinn] Sullivan provided with a list of target Members,” Bonnen said in a prepared statement. “I had one simple reason for taking the meeting — I saw it as an opportunity to protect my Republican colleagues and prevent us from having to waste millions of dollars defending ourselves against Empower Texans’ destructive primary attacks, as we have had to do the past several cycles.”

Bonnen also defended Burrows, the GOP caucus chairman and one of Bonnen’s top allies, by saying he asked him not to comment on the matter.

“I asked Chairman Burrows to be present as a witness to our conversation. I also asked him not to comment on this matter because this was an attack by Sullivan on me as the Speaker, and I wanted the opportunity to communicate with Members directly in an email that I sent on Friday evening,” Bonnen said. “I have apologized to Chairman Burrows for everything he has gone through — at no fault of his own — as a result of simply doing what I asked him to do.”

Bonnen’s denial and his defense of Burrows come as at least one member on the alleged target list was demanding answers.

Rep. Ernest Bailes told The Dallas Morning News on Monday morning that he was drafting a letter to seek answers from Burrows.

“I am making a formal request now to get that response from Burrows,” Bailes had told The News. Bailes, R-Shepherd, said the caucus sent members an email Monday morning asking for information about the representatives’ district events, while “completely ignoring” the allegations facing its chairman.

Burrows was accused of delivering the alleged list of 10 GOP targets. Bailes said the radio silence from Burrows was unacceptable: “That’s why he serves in that capacity.”

He did not immediately respond to a request for comment following Bonnen’s denial. Burrows did not respond to a request for comment Monday. He has not addressed the matter publicly since the allegation was made Thursday.

See here for the background. I don’t expect this squabble to last very long, certainly not all the way through next November. But I sure am going to enjoy it while it lasts. The Trib has more.

The Bonnen-MQS kerfuffle

As they say, pass the popcorn.

Rep. Dennis Bonnen

Less than three weeks after state lawmakers wrapped up their 2019 legislative session, an unusual meeting convened with unlikely conferees from opposite ends of the Texas Capitol power structure.

On one side: Republican House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and top ally Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, both fresh off a first session that had left lawmakers trumpeting the no-nonsense, landmark school finance and property tax legislation set to soon become law.

On the other: Michael Quinn Sullivan, a hardline conservative activist, whose Empower Texans organization had just unsuccessfully fought a number of the big measures that passed, prompting political observers to wonder whether the group’s influence within the Republican Party had hit a new low.

What happened in that June 12 meeting has become a major point of dispute, and the uncertainty surrounding it has roiled a GOP-controlled House heading into one of the most important election cycles in recent history.

On Thursday, Sullivan went public with an online post detailing his version of the story: Burrows gave Sullivan a list of 10 fellow House GOP members to target during the 2020 primary elections. In return, Texas Scorecard, an Empower Texans operation that bills itself as a news site, would receive long-denied House media credentials when the Legislature reconvenes in 2021. Sullivan linked to a letter that Bonnen sent on June 27 claiming that Sullivan, who had sent his own letter earlier that month to reject the offer, had “a misimpression of our meeting” and that no such deal had ever been on the table.

And on Friday evening, Bonnen, though he did not explicitly mention Sullivan’s allegation about the 10-member list, forcefully denied Sullivan’s version of the story — and recounted his version of how that meeting played out in an email sent to House Republicans that was obtained by The Texas Tribune.

According to Bonnen, the two ran into one another at a Houston airport after the legislative session ended. “I approached him and asked him what his problem was with the House.” Bonnen wrote. “It was a short and curt exchange, and he asked me at that time if he could meet with me. I said ‘sure.'”

You can see Bonnen’s letter to House members here, and Ross Ramsey’s recap of the situation here. The main lesson to take away from this is, of course, that Sullivan is a toxic force that should be avoided at all costs. In the meantime, Republicans are welcome to fight among themselves all they want. Now where’s that popcorn?

The battle for the Lege is gonna be lit

Fasten your seat belts.

While the Texas Senate appears safe for Republicans, Clinton’s comments underscored the emphasis that some Democrats — both in Texas and outside it — are already putting on the fight for the majority in the state House, where their party is nine seats away from control of the chamber. Views vary on just how within reach the majority is for Democrats, but few disagree that 2020 will be a frenzied cycle for House races as Democrats work to protect — and potentially build on — their recent gains. Republicans, meanwhile, are pushing to take back seats and head off the worst-case scenario: a Democratic-led House heading into the 2021 redistricting process.

The early contours of the fight are taking shape in the wake of a legislative session that saw Republicans largely eschew divisive social issues for a bread-and-butter agenda following a humbling election cycle in which they lost a dozen seats in the lower chamber. There is also a new speaker, Angleton Republican Dennis Bonnen, who appears intent on keeping the GOP in power by minimizing the kind of internecine conflict that has previously bedeviled the party.

“Everything is focused on redistricting,” state Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, said at a recent tea party meeting as he fielded questions about the demise of some controversial legislation this session. “There is nothing more important — not only to Texas, but literally the nation — than to make sure that we maintain the Texas House … going into redistricting because if you look at the nation — we lose Texas, we lose the nation. And there’s no other place to go.”

[…]

As Republicans have sought to get their own in order for 2020, state and national Democrats have been drawing up preliminary battle plans to take the House. Their path runs through a group of 18 districts — 17 where Republicans won by single digits last year as well as House District 32. That’s where Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, ran unopposed while U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, won by just 5 points.

Of course, Democrats have to simultaneously defend the 12 seats they picked up last year, some of which have already drawn serious GOP opposition.

The path is “tough but possible to flip the chamber,” said Patrick Rodenbush, a spokesman for the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, the group chaired by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. “We feel like there are enough potential targets out there that nine is doable, but it is gonna take a lot of work and resources.”

The NDRC spent $560,000 in Texas last cycle, and Rodenbush called Texas “one of our top priorities for 2020.” It recently hired an Austin-based Democratic consultant, Genevieve Van Cleve, to oversee its advocacy and political efforts here as Texas state director.

Other national groups are zeroing in on Texas this cycle as a state House battleground. They include the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee and Forward Majority, a super PAC that injected $2.2 million into Texas House races in the closing days of the 2018 election.

The state Democratic Party is expanding its campaign and candidate services as part of what will ultimately be a seven-figure effort in House races. Over the past weekend in Austin, the party held a training for 55 people to become campaign managers in state House races.

[…]

Abbott’s political operation plans to go after Democratic freshmen, as do well-funded organizations such as the Associated Republicans of Texas.

“ART is focused on candidate recruitment earlier than ever this cycle,” ART’s president, Jamie McWright, said in a statement. “We are identifying qualified, knowledgeable candidates who are willing to tackle the state’s biggest issues in order to win back the seats Republicans lost in 2018.”

Republicans are particularly focused on the seven seats they lost last cycle that Abbott carried.

You can see the potential targets here. There’s really only one competitive seat in the Senate this cycle, and that’s SD19, which Dems ought to be able to win back. On the House side, the top GOP targets based on the given criteria are going to be HDs 45, 47, 52, 65, 114, 132, and 135. I’ll be surprised if they don’t expand their list beyond that, but those are the seats I’d go after first if I were them. On the Dem side, there are the nine seats Beto carried but that Republicans won, plus however many others where he came close. It’s very likely that a seat no one is worried too much about becomes more competitive than expected, thanks to changing conditions and candidate quality and other unforeseen factors. So far, no one other than Mayor-elect Eric Johnson has announced a departure, which is unusual; normally at this point in time we’ve had a couple of people say they’re not running again. Open seats are more likely to be a problem for Republicans than they will be for Democrats, but Dems don’t want to have to play defense when there are gains to be made.

At this point, the name of the game is one part candidate recruitment and one part raising money, which will be the job of the various PACs until the candidates get settled. In Harris County, we have two good candidates each for the main targets: Akilah Bacy and Josh Wallenstein (who ran for HCDE in 2018 and was the runnerup in the primary to Richard Cantu) in HD138, and Ann Johnson and Ruby Powers in HD134. In Fort Bend, Sarah DeMerchant appears to be running again in HD26, while Eliz Markowitz (candidate for SBOE7 in 2018) is aiming for HD28. We still need (or I need to do a better job searching for) candidates in HDs 29, 85, and 126, for starters. If you’re in one of those competitive Republican-held State Rep districts, find out who is or may be running for the Dems. If you’re in one of those targeted-by-the-GOP districts, be sure to help out your incumbent. Kelly Hancock is absolutely right: This is super-duper important.

The view to the next session

This legislative session was relatively free of drama (you can decide for yourself how substantive it was in other ways), but the forthcoming election season will be anything but, with control of the Legislature and all that means at stake.

Rep. Dennis Bonnen

When Dennis Bonnen returned to the Texas House to pick up the gavel again after joining Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick at the Governor’s Mansion on Thursday to announce major spending deals for improving public education and curbing property tax increases, legislators — Republicans and Democrats — gave him a standing ovation.

In his first session as House speaker, Bonnen, a Republican from Lake Jackson, has brought a hands-on bipartisanship born of the traditions of the House, where he has spent half his life, to help steer the Legislature past the rancor that marked the 2017 sessions and back to the basics of governance.

“My job is to make sure every member has a great session. We deliver successful results, and every member has something they can proudly talk about so they all get reelected. That keeps a Republican majority,” Bonnen told the American-Statesman in a wide-ranging interview Thursday.

And there, with stunning simplicity, is the steady-handed House speaker’s practical plan for maintaining Republican hegemony in Texas amid the tempest-tossed Donald Trump years that cost the GOP 12 House seats in 2016 and imperil the party’s control of the chamber in 2020.

“It’s called the incumbent protection plan,” observed state Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, a Tarrant County Republican who won his fourth term last fall by nearly 40 points. “At the end of the day, tax cuts, more money for schools, nothing big blew up.”

“But then again, it may be out of our hands,” Capriglione said of 2020, when “we are going for a ride on probably the biggest presidential election ever in history. The number of Republicans and Democrats and general election voters who have never voted before is going to be crazy through the roof.”

“Last November was the first sign of that,” he said, with 8.4 million voters in Texas, approaching a presidential turnout. In 2020, he said, “they’re expecting 11.5 million people,” all the more nervous-making for down-ballot state House candidates with the lost lifeline of straight ticket voting in Texas next year.

[…]

The fate of the Texas House is likely to be driven by forces outside Texas.

“I hate it, but all politics is national,” said Brendan Steinhauser, a Republican political consultant in Austin.

“People in the Capitol really think that this session is going to matter at least somewhat in the November 2020 election, but I really think that might be wishful thinking and is very optimistic about the attention span we all have as voters,” Steinhauser said. “I think the whole election is going to be Donald Trump vs. Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden or Kamala Harris, or whoever it is.”

It was all about Trump two years ago and he wasn’t even on the ballot, Steinhauser said.

The 2018 results were bracing. Abbott won reelection by about 13 percentage points over an ill-prepared and scarcely funded candidate, former Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez. But U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz defeated Democrat Beto O’Rourke by only 2.6 points, Patrick, who had set the pace for ideological warfare in the Capitol, won by a chastening margin of less than 5 points, and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton won by less than 4 points.

“The results of 2018 suggest that had it not been for straight ticket voting in reliably red rural counties, we’d have a Democratic attorney general and Democratic lieutenant governor,” said state Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas.

“I think the elections sobered people up to the idea that the state is center right,” and not far right, said state Rep. Poncho Nevárez, D-Eagle Pass, who was named by Bonnen to chair the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee.

Democrats are targeting 17 Republican-held seats in which the incumbents won by less than 10 points last year. They must win nine seats to take control of the House.

First, let me say that Dennis Bonnen was more or less what I expected as Speaker. More Straus than Craddick, more business than drama. I will of course be delighted if Dems win enough seats to make him a one-term Speaker, but given some of the other options that arose after Straus’ retirement announcement, we could have done much worse.

As for 2020, we’ve already talked about a lot of this, though there will be plenty more as we proceed. There are lots of targets for Dems in 2020, plus a few seats they will have to hold. I’m overall pretty optimistic about the latter, so it’s all about what gains can be made. We’re already seeing candidates lining up – I can’t find the post right now, but remember how there was fretting in 2017 about too many people running for Congress and not enough for the Lege – and I expect a full slate. I’ve talked about the need for Dems to get to five million votes statewide, but next to Rep. Capriglione, I’m not thinking big enough. Eleven point five million turnout seems mighty high, but then eight point four million last year would have sounded absurd in the extreme at this point in 2017, or even this point in 2018. I think if we’re approaching that level, Dems are doing fine. Until then, find a candidate for State Rep seeking to flip a red district, and see what you can do to help.