Texas House Speaker under fire for targeting own members

The Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives is under fire from both Democrats and his fellow Republicans after an audio tape released Tuesday shows him urging a conservative activist to challenge members of his own party in primary elections, the latest twist in a scandal that has rocked Lone Star State politics for months. 

The taped recording of a meeting between Speaker Dennis Bonnen (R) and conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan also contains lewd comments about other members of the Texas legislature and a hint of internal Republican polls that show President TrumpDonald John TrumpFive takeaways from the Democratic debate As Buttigieg rises, Biden is still the target Leading Democrats largely pull punches at debate MORE may be a drag on the GOP in the state. 

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The meeting was supposed to be an olive branch between Bonnen and Sullivan, whose conservative group, Empower Texans, has challenged several moderate Republicans in primaries in recent years. 

Instead, it blew up into a potentially damaging scandal after Sullivan alleged Bonnen had offered him a deal — and then revealed that he had surreptitiously recorded the meeting. 

On the tape, Bonnen says he would allow reporters from Texas Scorecard, a conservative outlet run under the Empower Texans umbrella, to access the state House floor in the next legislative session, just minutes after he suggests Sullivan take on moderates in the Republican caucus.

“I mean this in a polite way, if you need some primaries to play in, I will leave and Dustin will tell you some that we’d love it if you fought in, not that you’d need our permission,” Bonnen tells Sullivan, referring to state Rep. Dustin Burrows (R), who was also in the room.

“If I still have the seven to 10 moderate Republicans who don’t want to help on anything, I’m still unable to do what you and I would want done,” Bonnen says. He says Sullivan would “help us out” by “kill[ing] off one or two or three of them.”

Later, he adds: “If we can make this work, I’ll put your guys on the floor next session.”

Bonnen also says he would pull the press credentials of Scott Braddock, the editor of the Texas political publication Quorum Report.

Later, Burrows offers a list of 10 potential state representatives — all Republicans who opposed a bill to ban taxpayer-funded lobbying earlier this year — who might be targeted next year. Burrows does not clearly say that those members should be defeated, though he did say he “would be thrilled” if state Rep. Travis Clardy (R) lost his bid for renomination.

The tape is the subject of an investigation by Texas Rangers, who have been looking into allegations of a potential quid pro quo. Brian Roark, Bonnen’s attorney, told the Austin American-Statesman that Bonnen sat for four hours of interviews with Texas Rangers last month.

In a statement, Bonnen said the tape’s release vindicated him. 

“I have repeatedly called for the recording to be released because it will be immediately clear that no laws were broken. This was nothing more than a political discussion — the problem is that I had it with that guy,” Bonnen said, referring to Sullivan. “My colleagues have always deserved the facts and context this recording provides, and with clear evidence now disproving allegations of criminal wrongdoing, the House can finally move on.” 

But the tape has already carried a political cost. Burrows, who had been chairman of the Texas House Republican Caucus, resigned in August. Conservative activists have called on Bonnen to follow him out the door.

“Bonnen’s Speakership will never be the same. He was lauded for his conduct of the Speakership in his first session, and then this came out. It has already hurt him among Republican members who listened to it and described what they heard,” said Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University. “If he does survive, it’s with significant damage to his reputation. And that damage is entirely legitimate.” 

Earlier this year, Bonnen said he would take steps to punish any fellow Republicans who challenged members of their party in primary election contests, comments that struck conservative activists as hypocritical in light of Sullivan's allegations and the tape that surfaced Tuesday.

“He’s saying that in front of the camera, and then behind the camera he’s scheming, trying to elicit help from a conservative organization to do his dirty work,” said Chris Salcedo, a conservative radio host in Fort Worth who released the audio on his show’s website on Tuesday. “This is just shady all around.” 

The tape also contains Bonnen’s frank warning that Trump is becoming a drag on Republican chances of winning key districts.

“All due respect to Trump, who I love by the way, he’s killing us in urban and suburban districts,” Bonnen says on the tape.

Trump will fly to Dallas on Thursday for a rally, as Texas becomes an unexpected battleground in the 2020 elections. Texas is crucial to any Republican’s path to the White House, and the state House is more narrowly divided than it has been in recent years. Democrats need to gain just nine seats, out of 150, to win back a majority.

On the tape, Bonnen also made several disparaging comments about other legislators. He called one Democratic state representative a “piece of shit,” and said another’s “wife is going to be pissed when she learns he’s gay.” 

Sullivan has been promising to release the tape for months, but he waited until a pivotal moment. The House Republican Caucus will meet Thursday for a retreat, where Bonnen is sure to come under fire.

“It’s going to be up to the Texas legislature now, the Republicans, the majority, to determine whether this man should be the face of their party,” Salcedo said.