It was the first thing mentioned after they cut the small talk.
"I'm trying to win in 2020," Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen told conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan in a secret recording of their infamous June meeting made public Tuesday.
Over the next hour, the discussion veered from topic to topic, most notably revealing that Bonnen offered media access to Sullivan's group, Empower Texans, while suggesting it target certain GOP members. But never too far from their conversation was the stark acknowledgment that Texas Republicans are in trouble in 2020, particularly in the state House — and President Donald Trump is not helping.
"With all due respect to Trump — who I love, by the way — he's killing us in urban-suburban districts," Bonnen said at one point, suggesting he has seen polling that shows Trump down 15 percentage points in one battleground state House district, while the GOP incumbent is "even."
Speaking later in the recording with just state Rep. Dustin Burrows, then the House Republican Caucus chairman, Sullivan predicted Texas Republicans "are all going to live to regret" eliminating straight-ticket voting, which the Legislature voted to do in 2017 but did not make effective until 2020. Sullivan expressed confidence that Trump will win Texas next year at "back-to-normal levels" but voiced concern that the voters "he pulls out are going to be people who really don't know — or care — what a state representative is."
"It's going to be real easy for that person — again, that person just coming out for Trump — to go, 'I'm done,'" Sullivan said. "That's my fear."
To be sure, Texas GOP leaders have been publicly emphasizing the challenges they face in 2020 and the need to take them seriously. And Bonnen previously told House members that the main reason he took a meeting with Sullivan was to urge party unity in the coming year.
But the frank talk from Bonnen and Sullivan lays bare the anxieties that Texas Republicans would rather keep private as they size up the 2020 landscape, particularly when it comes to the deeply polarizing leader of their party.
The president is due in Dallas on Thursday for a campaign rally, already his second one in the state of the 2020 cycle.
The Republicans' worries about the House majority have heightened importance ahead of the 2021 redistricting process — a point that came into sharp relief as Burrows and Sullivan wrapped up their conversation. 2020, Burrows said, is "kind of the big test."
"A Democrat House will produce a Democrat congressional map," Sullivan replied, "and then that will be the end of the republic."
For Democrats, the recording not only confirmed their optimism about Texas' competitiveness next year but also gave them their best exhibit yet to make the election a referendum on GOP corruption in Austin.
"From the White House to the Texas State Legislature, Texans are tired of backroom deals, cover-ups, and unaccountable politicians who put the pursuit of power over everything," the executive director of the Texas Democratic Party, Manny Garcia, said in a statement. "Texas Democrats are not only fighting to save our state, but to save our entire democracy."
The stakes for Republicans are especially high in the state House, where Democrats are effectively nine seats away from the majority. Earlier this year, Bonnen sought to establish the terms of engagement for the fight for the majority, vowing consequences if members campaigned against one another — a dictate now sharply undermined by his documented colluding with Sullivan.
"Speaker Bonnen spoke disingenuously setting separate rules for Democrats and Republicans in an attempt to undermine one party while supporting the other, all while publicly stating he will not tolerate House members campaigning against one another," state Rep. Ramon Romero Jr., D-Fort Worth, said in a statement after the recording came out. "Throughout this conversation, he was explicitly violating his own warning and reinforcing the public’s belief that politicians cannot be trusted, and the power broking of government occurs in backroom meetings."
The tape also featured Bonnen trashing several Democratic freshmen who flipped Republican seats in 2018, giving them fresh fodder in their 2020 races. At least three of them were quick to capitalize on the spotlight, sending out fundraising emails in the hours after the audio was released.
"The tape detailing the Speaker of the Texas House’s backroom dealings with Empower Texas is out and one thing is clear: Republicans fear me more than any other Democrat," wrote one of the freshmen, Rep. Michelle Beckley of Carrollton.
The Texas House Democratic Campaign Committee also pounced on the recording, saying in a statement that the Texas House has "no room for a Speaker who succumbs to personal attacks and political quid pro quos."
“Call me old fashioned, but I still believe in the Ann Richards rule that the Texas State Capitol is the ‘People’s House,’" said state Rep. Celia Israel, chair of the Texas HDCC. "No politician has the right to sell access to it to carry out their political vendettas."