Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen (R) will not seek reelection next year amid growing calls from within his own party to step down over a taped conversation in which he asked a conservative activist to target fellow Republicans in the 2020 primary election.
At least 43 Texas House Republicans have either called on Bonnen to quit or said they had no confidence in his future leadership.
“After much prayer, consultation, and thoughtful consideration with my family, it is clear that I can no longer seek re-election as State Representative of District 25, and subsequently, as Speaker of the House,” Bonnen said in a statement.
Bonnen was serving his first term as leader of the state House, one of the three most powerful positions in Texas government. He had taken over from Speaker Joe Straus, another Republican who clashed with the more conservative leader of the state Senate, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R), in an increasingly bitter intraparty divide.
Bonnen had a much better relationship with Patrick and Gov. Greg Abbott (R) during his single session leading the state House.
But he flubbed earlier this summer when he asked conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan to target up to 10 state representatives who opposed a bill to ban taxpayer-funded lobbying. In the same meeting, Bonnen made several lewd and disparaging comments about fellow lawmakers.
Sullivan was surreptitiously recording the meeting. For months, rumors of the tape’s contents rocked Austin as calls mounted for Sullivan to release the full audio. Texas Rangers opened an investigation, interviewing Bonnen for four hours about what Sullivan alleged was a quid pro quo offer.
Sullivan released the tape last week, at a moment seemingly designed to build pressure against the speaker. The tape came out just two days before Texas Republicans met in an annual retreat. That meeting gave Republican opponents of Bonnen the chance to coordinate their message and push him out the door.
“When they all got together, they got emboldened and strengthened,” said Corbin Casteel, a longtime Texas Republican operative. “The numbers were just overwhelming.”
The tape’s audio showed Bonnen and another senior member of Texas Republican leadership, state Rep. Dustin Burrows (R), laughing about one member he said was gay, and another whom Bonnen called a “piece of shit.”
Bonnen claimed the tape vindicated him, proving he broke no laws. Rather, he said, his problem had been trusting Sullivan — a longtime rival — in the first place.
But in the week after the tape’s release, Bonnen began bleeding support. Several Texas Republican sources said Bonnen’s position had become untenable after he lost backing from some of the committee chairmen he himself had appointed.
It was not immediately clear who the frontrunners in line to compete for Bonnen’s job would be. Casteel, the Republican strategist, said Republicans would likely seek a steady hand at a tumultuous time, pointing to former House Speaker Tom Craddick, the first Republican to hold the speakership since Reconstruction and a member fo the state House since 1969.
“There’s going to be a calming period. There’s going to be a new speaker elected who’s going to rally everyone around core principles,” Casteel said.
Bonnen’s exit comes at an inconvenient time for Texas Republicans, who are battling to keep control of the state House in the face of a strong challenge from Democrats. Republicans hold 83 of 150 seats in the state House, meaning they can afford to lose no more than eight seats in next year’s midterm elections.
If Democrats are able to win control of the state House for the first time since 2000, they would win a seat at the table for the decennial reapportionment and redistricting process that begins with next year’s Census.
Texas is expected to pick up as many as three seats in Congress, growing its delegation to 39 seats, and Democrats could force a bipartisan map that gives them chances to win many more than the 13 seats they currently hold.