Editor's note: If you'd like an email notice whenever we publish Ross Ramsey's column, click here.
A story doesn’t have to be true to be politically damaging, and if Dennis Bonnen didn’t know that a few days ago, he knows it now.
We know that Bonnen, the Republican speaker of the Texas House, met with a hardline conservative political activist named Michael Quinn Sullivan. Sullivan wrote about it on his organization’s website, and Bonnen confirmed the meeting in a letter to Sullivan.
To say the two disagree about what happened in the meeting would be an understatement.
In his writeup, Sullivan said Bonnen invited him to a meeting after the session, and that state Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, was there, too. He said Bonnen offered to give long-denied House media credentials to Sullivan’s Texas Scorecard writers “if we would lay off our criticism of the legislative session, not spend money from our affiliated PACs against certain Republicans, and — most shockingly — go after a list of other Republicans in the 2020 primary elections.”
And he said Bonnen left the room while Burrows, who is the head of the House Republican Caucus, read Sullivan a list of Republican members to target: 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, Tan Parker of Flower Mound and Phil Stephenson of Wharton.
He said he sent them a letter “unequivocally rejecting” the deal and linked to what he identified as Bonnen’s reply, which said Sullivan was mistaken: “No offer was made to you of any kind, and thus, there is nothing for you or anyone associated with you to ‘reject,’” Bonnen wrote.
Keeping score? We have an internet post with Sullivan's side of the story and a letter denying it from Bonnen, who declined to comment Thursday night. There's been radio silence from Burrows.
But that’s just the beginning of this, and in some ways, the least impactful part.
The politics are dangerous for the first-term speaker, no matter which version of the story is right.
Sullivan has been an outspoken critic of the Republican leadership all year, carping about what he saw as a lack of attention to issues he cares about most. Sullivan's Empower Texans also helped fund primary challenges against several House incumbents in past years. It’s fair to say that a number of Republicans have reason not to think kindly of Sullivan, his organizations and his financial patrons as political allies.
They’ll be wanting to know why Bonnen met with him at all, no matter what they were talking about. Up to this point, Bonnen has been outspoken in his defense of the 149 other members of the Texas House.
Bonnen took some hits from fellow Republicans outside the Capitol for declaring earlier this year that he wouldn’t look kindly on anyone in the House — of either party — campaigning against fellow incumbents.
"If you choose to campaign against any of your sitting colleagues, I will weigh in against you," he said at the time. "And if I am fortunate enough to be speaker, you will find yourself not well positioned in the next session."
He started a political action committee called Texas Leads, seeded it with $3 million from his own political account and said its focus will be to reelect Republican House incumbents.
Sullivan is accusing Bonnen of breaking his own call for peace among House members — and breaking it not to knock off Democrats, but to replace some fellow Republicans.
Bonnen has to head that off, to convince his colleagues that his one-for-all, all-for-one talk was a real pledge and not just rhetoric.
He’ll have to convince those 10 members Sullivan listed that he’s not undermining their reelection efforts.
House Democrats, who have probably consumed more than their weight in popcorn watching this intramural Republican spat, are trying to win a House majority in 2020 so they can have some say in drawing new political maps in 2021. They’re nine seats short of a majority now, and a GOP rift could play into their hands.
If the Republicans hold on to their majority, the first vote in the 2021 session will the election of a speaker. Bonnen hopes to win a second term, and after a successful first session, looked like a leader with the wind in his sails.
Now the speaker elected at the beginning of the year finds himself in the kind of storm that could swamp him. Sullivan’s story is that Bonnen isn’t loyal to his own members. Bonnen says that story isn’t true.
What matters now is what the members of the House believe and whether this causes them to doubt Bonnen.
That’s a matter of politics.