Analysis: Texas Democrats sensing a theme in Republican misfortunes

With the speaker of the house and state attorney general under fire, the long-suffering party sees a potentially helpful thread heading into 2020.

Dennis Bonnen presided over his first votes as speaker of the Texas House on Jan. 9.

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Texas Democrats are telling swamp stories.

Hey, it worked for Donald Trump. Describe a capital city controlled by the other party and mired in a culture that can be described as corrupt, inbred and in need of fumigation. Propose yourself, or your allies, as the perfect sanitation crew for the job, and reap the benefits on Election Day.

The state's minority is assembling its argument, pulling together an allegation that the Republican speaker of the House offered a government favor for a political provocateur's campaign help, the long-pending criminal indictment against the state's Republican attorney general, and its long-standing and ever-growing bill of particulars against the GOP's leader in the White House.

Remember that we’re talking about political campaigning. All you require is enough information to present the argument to the public. If they think it’s sufficient, you’re in business, and if they don’t, try something else.

Clearing swamps is a well-established metaphor, and it’s in vogue, too. The president, who included that component into his first campaign, will surely rely on some form of “finish the job we started” in his second.

Democrats will be looking for a counter at the top of the ticket. But in Texas, the argument is flipped.

It’s a Republican government. The incumbent Republicans want their domination of state politics to continue.

Trump attacked the Washington swamp in general, the Democrats in particular.

In Texas, Democrats in 2020 will be looking to attack the Republicans in particular, and the current Republican troubles could give them room to make a swamp of the state capital, for election purposes.

The Republican attorney general remains under criminal indictment in a securities fraud case that has been stuck in a legal traffic jam for four years. Ken Paxton won’t be on the ballot next year, but that doesn’t mean Democrats won’t be talking about him and his legal situation. They’ll pair it with the steady attacks they’ve been mounting against Trump himself, especially if they stick with the swamp theme they’re focused on right now.

Why now? Because of the intramural fight between the speaker of the Texas House, Republican Dennis Bonnen of Angleton and far-right political activist Michael Quinn Sullivan.

The Empower Texans chief met with Bonnen and state Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, in June, after the legislative session. He recorded the meeting and, six weeks later, wrote a blog post claiming Bonnen and Burrows offered House media credentials to Texas Scorecard — another group Sullivan leads — if he would “go after” 10 Republican House incumbents. Bonnen has answered with a denial, an apology and a demand for a copy of Sullivan’s recording. The House General Investigating Committee will start its inquiry Monday. And the Texas Democrats filed a lawsuit seeking, in part, to make the tapes public.

None of that’s great for Bonnen. Allegations of such a quid pro quo might eventually be of interest to law enforcement. It has been a regular part of news reports over the past two weeks, but there’s not any real evidence that the public is paying it much mind. That said, it remains a developing story, generating headlines with every new revelation.

The House is, roughly speaking, in three groups. A handful of members think Bonnen should resign his post. A larger, but still relatively small, group has taken Bonnen’s apology to heart. They’re professing forgiveness, sometimes using remarkably similar language. Most House members — a large majority — are keeping their heads down.

Sullivan isn’t with the Democrats, exactly; in fact, he is the only named defendant in their lawsuit. But the Republican activist and the state’s Democrats are virtual bedfellows — both railing, in their different ways, against alleged foul deeds at the top of the Texas House.

Democrats note that Bonnen had said House incumbents from both parties should avoid campaigning against incumbents in 2020, and now they see the speaker allegedly doing just that. Their lawsuit is sure to keep steady reminders of his troubles coming, as have public accounts from those whom Sullivan has allowed to listen to his recording.

Sullivan has accused Bonnen and Burrows of making an unethical offer to swap floor passes for political hits. In a Friday email to supporters, he wrote about the lawsuit; the money quote was: “We’re going to fight the Democrats, and we’re going to kick their Donkey butts to the judicial curb.”

Good line. But Democrats weren’t the only target. Sullivan himself noted that the lawsuit named Bonnen and Burrows but didn’t actually name them as defendants. That was a setup for this “swamp” line: “I guess that’s just one of the unwritten rules in the clubby crowd of establishment politicians.” Later on, he shamed the state GOP and Republican lawmakers for failing to pick up his cause against the speaker. “Since the Republicans aren’t doing their job to hold bad guys accountable, the Democrats are moving to take advantage of the situation,” he wrote.

Maybe Texas Democratic murmurings about elected Republicans’ troubles won’t develop into a campaign theme. But they’re exploring the swamp, just to see if voters have any interest.