Recently, disgraced former Republican Speaker of the Texas House Dennis Bonnen and former Democrat Representative Mark Strama had the first in a promised series of sit-downs with Spectrum News.

Each discussed leaving the legislature, growing rancor as the establishment loses control of the Texas Republican Party, and the 2024 primary election.

Exiting with a Bang or a Whimper

On the topic of legislative exits, Bonnen recalled how he was forced to resign after being recorded offering a quid pro quo to the publisher of Texas Scorecard following the 2019 legislative session.

During the Spectrum appearance, Bonnen said the recording impacted him profoundly before recasting the fallout as an “opportunity” to move on after 24 years in public office. He served as Speaker of the House for just one term.

Strama’s exit from the legislature was far less contentious, retiring without scandal after serving from 2005 to 2013. The former lawmaker is well known for being the nephew of Richard ‘Dick’ Trabulsi. Both are Democrats, but the latter has profoundly impacted public policy in Texas as a leader of Texans for Lawsuit Reform.

Now, Strama is the Director of the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life at the University of Texas. Bonnen is a lobbyist.

Struggle within the GOP

On simmering animosity within the GOP, both men agreed that the battle has lately escalated. Bonnen outlined the struggle that’s been waged for years, with conservatives working to dislodge politicians and particularly speakers who impede the march of conservatism in Texas.

For his part, Bonnen insisted that current Speaker Dade Phelan has a solid track record as a Republican and that criticism of the Speaker on a wide range of topics is unfair. During the interview, Bonnen said, “What they’ve been doing to Speaker Phelan is unforgivable. They’re just blatantly lying about the man.”

No examples of lying were given, but Bonnen suggested Phelan gets a bad rap on gun rights, saying Texas is the most free state on Second Amendment rights in the nation.

“It’s funny, the politicians who believe Texas is one of the most pro-gun states clearly have no knowledge outside of the state,” said Chris McNutt, president of Texas Gun Rights. He added, “there are always a dozen other states several steps ahead of the Austin RINO establishment who are happy with the status quo.”

The interview wasn’t contentious, even though opposing political parties were represented, and in that way it was reflective of how the Texas House is run, with the majority party ceding power to the minority party. Strama boasted about an op-ed he penned suggesting that D.C. should elect Speakers like Texas does.

Bonnen agreed and was highly dismissive of conservative ire regarding the appointment of Democrats to committee Chairmanships, scoffing that they don’t actually impact policies being passed in the chamber and ultimately signed into law.

Conservative activists have made ending Democrat chairmanships a legislative priority for the GOP and a primary issue this cycle. Gov. Greg Abbott has also used this line of attack during the primary season.

Primary Projections

When the Texas House moved to impeach Attorney General Ken Paxton, a popular statewide elected official, with no evidence of abuse of office, preexisting distrust of the House leadership by conservatives flared. The impeachment gambit ultimately failed when the Texas Senate acquitted Paxton.

Shortly after the botched impeachment, Abbott got a record vote on school choice in the Texas House, which failed for lack of Republican votes. It’s possible that the impeachment and events that transpired in its immediate aftermath hardened these members in their opposition, but these events set the stage for the 2024 primary.

When asked about the upcoming primary election and House members being challenged either by Paxton for their impeachment votes or Abbott for failing to pass school choice, Bonnen offered a valid but non-reply answer.

According to Bonnen, members will win or lose based on the effectiveness of communicating back to their districts. In 2024, this is tough.

Citizens are better informed about the actions of lawmakers, which means lawmakers have to spend even more time and energy maintaining their image with constituents. Given that multiple special sessions were called, this was more complicated than it otherwise would have been in 2023.

Strama agreed with Bonnen and said that the only discernable pattern coming out of the primary election would be which members effectively communicated back to their districts.

Some members gave up before starting reelection bids. These members, like Bonnen, may have been tired of the grind, or they saw darker clouds on the horizon—namely, electoral defeat.

Five members who voted against school choice and for impeachment chose to retire rather than seek reelection. In all five races, every Republican primary candidate has pledged to support school choice in campaign materials or on the trail.

Even though communication with constituents is important, Bonnen and Strama admitted that lawmakers who are out of step with statewide leadership on key issues, face issues raising money.

Bonnen groused that pro-school choice candidates are flush with cash and don’t have to invest time and energy in fundraising. Strama agreed and says that an unnamed rural lawmaker complained to him that he has to scrape together funding against a million-dollar-backed candidate. Typically, establishment incumbents raise money with relative ease from the lobby.

Early voting in the March primary is underway and ends March 1. Election Day is Tuesday, March 5.

Daniel Greer

Daniel Greer is the Director of Innovation for Texas Scorecard.