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Analysis: Back on the outs, right where Michael Quinn Sullivan thrives

The conservative Empower Texans leader was out of favor with Republican state leaders at the end of the legislative session. Now he's on the outs with them in a whole new way.

Michael Quinn Sullivan of Empower Texans speaks at a conservative grassroots rally for property tax relief and reform at the…

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It helps to remember that Michael Quinn Sullivan was on the outs with the Texas government’s top leaders when the legislative session ended in May.

The governor, lieutenant governor and speaker reached the end of the 20-week session with a checkmark in every box on their legislative to-do list. If they’d been any happier with the results, they’d have hired a marching band and held a parade.

And Sullivan, head of Empower Texans, was complaining loudly that the state’s Republican leaders had shut out voices like his on their way to a session that focused on school finance and property taxes. To his critical eye, it was a bust, ending with record-setting state spending, with a property tax “fix” that doesn’t significantly cut taxes and with an unfulfilled list of proposals that included a failed ban on government-paid lobbyists.

It turns out that he’s still on the outs, but now he’s more comfortable.

In June, he got into a prolonged skirmish — one that’s still underway — with House Speaker Dennis Bonnen. It started with a meeting with the two and state Rep. Dustin Burrows. They disagree on what happened at the meeting. Sullivan hasn’t made his recording public, although he has played it for a select audience of officeholders and other political people. Now he and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick are hissing at each other on Twitter, in an exchange that started with guns and wound back to the Bonnen thing.

Sullivan has said he hasn’t made the recording public because he thinks it could harm the Republican Party. Patrick tweeted this week that by not releasing the recording, Sullivan is destroying the Republican Party.

Must be some tape, huh?

But this isn’t about what’s on the recording, even though, by most accounts from people who’ve heard it, that rendition of the conversation among Sullivan, Bonnen and Burrows might be enough to interrupt a political career or two.

It’s about political cannibalism — about how a salacious bit of information can feed a party’s backbiters, power-grabbers and influence-peddlers. And it’s especially about competition, and about how the factions in a political situation will try to capitalize on mistakes and errors and weaknesses to put down their enemies and raise themselves up.

Bonnen also wants the recording released to the public, as do a number of other public officials, including Patrick, who put that song to words in a tweet Tuesday.

This round started with Patrick’s call last week for an expansion of background checks to include “stranger to stranger” gun sales between individuals. He would still allow people to sell to family members and friends, but would require background checks before two strangers could close a sale.

Sullivan disagreed on Twitter, in his customary tone: “Whether it is @BetoORourke wanting to outright seize your firearms, or @DanPatrick trying to manage what you do with them, it is sadly evident too many politicians are all too willing to betray our Constitution in the name of their own political power.”

Patrick replied to the Second Amendment bit, and added a zinger: “You know my plan exempts family and friends, so apparently you are fine with selling your guns to total strangers who can’t pass a background check because they could be a violent felon or someone bent on mass violence. BTW, release the tape. You are destroying our party.”

Those opening salvos kept the online marketplace of ideas occupied for a couple of hours.

That’s a peek inside one section of the GOP right now, where the players are debating over whether and how to regulate guns (a new debate for most Republicans, who’ve been loath to give any ground on Second Amendment issues) and, more broadly, on what the state government should be doing.

The folks in management came out of the 2018 elections, with its much-smaller margins between winning Republicans and losing Democrats, bent on “meat and potatoes” or “bread and butter” issues — why all the food references? — and vowing not to fritter away their time with distractions, as they did with the so-called “bathroom bill” in the 2017 session.

The establishment was winning at the end of the session. Sullivan was frustrated and restive. And then Bonnen gave him a foothold, offering in their meeting — according to Sullivan — to give away House media floor passes in return for help beating 10 Republican incumbents in the House. And then Patrick took a small but risky step over the gun line that has divided most Republicans and most Democrats for years.

And Sullivan is once again at cross-purposes with those two — and back in the spotlight after months in the dark.

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