January 1, 2019

Blue New Year

Republicans Spend 2019 Paving Path for Democrats Comeback in Texas
with Statehouse Shenanigans and Contagious President as Democrat Fuel

MIKE HAILEY

Texas Republicans entered the new year on Wednesday with nothing to celebrate from a political perspective beyond the outcome of a church shooting that claimed the lives of two victims at the final Sunday worship service in 2019.

But GOP loyalists can't expect the heroic ending to the rampage at the West Freeway Church of Christ in White Settlement to translate into any added support at the Texas polls after doing everything in their power to put the Democrats in position to turn the state blue in 2020.

The Democrats will owe a massive debt of gratitude to their partisan rivals if they achieve significant gains next fall in Texas where they haven't done much on their own to earn a return ticket to the pinnacle of power here. Two decades of Republican rule could be on the verge of ending here at the polls in November nonetheless with President Donald Trump leading the ticket as the singular most radioactive force in American political history.

While Trump has escalated the inevitable dramatically in a state that the Democrats have expected to take over eventually, the minority party has had help at the state level as well with the targeting scandal that derailed Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen's first year in the leadership post.

The Republican speaker's collapse after a regular session that he likened to a Super Bowl win has sparked ferocious internal feuding within the majority party ranks amid perceptions of a Bonnen bent on revenge against GOP colleagues who'd abandoned him before he finally tossed in the towel on a scandal survival quest.

Bonnen's monumentally bizarre fall from grace couldn't have come at a worse time for a Texas GOP that's treading water in a state of fragile uncertainty with unity as an all but impossible dream at this point in the Trump era. But the first-term House leader's unraveling has added to the cumulative body of evidence that Democrats will be using to make a case this year against a GOP that Trump has been able to remake in his own image with the Republicans who'd despised him in his back pocket now.

Texas Democrats are ringing in 2020 in striking distance of a House majority in a state that's in play for the first time in two dozen years. A major majority protection effort that Bonnen had been planning to bankroll appears to be sinking in a sea of bad blood that's fueling Democratic visions of a potential double-digit gain on the House battlefield next fall. The Democrats' odds appear to be higher than ever - thanks to Trump and the Republicans - in their quest to take the Texas House back with a net gain of eight or nine seats in the 2020 general election.

No one could have imagined before Trump's emergence as a candidate four years ago that anyone could spark a down-ballot backlash in the nation's most conservative major state the way the president has done here in the last two cycles. The Republicans here seemed to think Trump's relatively poor showings in 2016 in Texas House districts that they controlled and retained was more akin to an aberration that a sign of real trouble to come. But Trump's leviathan shadow proved to be more contagious than his name on the ballot in 2018 when the Democrats rode a blue wave to victories in a dozen House districts that Republicans had occupied.

The Republicans appeared to have learned from the wages of their complacency when Bonnen captured the gavel a year ago at the start of a session that featured unprecedented peace and an agenda that had wide support on both sides of the aisle. But Bonnen recognized that he would be a one-term speaker without a high-level wagon-circling initiative that he'd expected to get in motion with $3 million in seed money.

What the veteran Lake Jackson lawmaker hadn't anticipated was the secret taping of a conversation with a political enemy who claimed that Bonnen had attempted to bribe him with the promise of House press badges in exchange for his help in a primary election scheme aimed at eliminating 10 GOP colleagues. Bonnen managed to offend Trump in the plotting encounter as well when he contended that the president had been killing the Republicans in the suburbs here.

But Bonnen has shown little if any interest in partisan politics as a lame duck leader who will be the speaker for one more year unless he's removed in a potential special session that another mass shooting in Texas could prompt Governor Greg Abbott to call.

Such an event appeared to be in the making earlier this week when a gunman opened fire on the congregation at the West Freeway Church of Christ in the Fort Worth-area suburb of White Settlement before he was shot to death by a volunteer security worker who happens to be a GOP candidate in a nearby county commissioners race.

Mike Hailey's column appears on a regular basis in Capitol Inside

CONSIDER THE SOURCE

Mike Hailey presents state politics with a personal touch. He's the only Texas Capitol journalist who's been to the dark side and back - having worked for two major newspaper bureaus before signing on as press secretary for Bob Bullock - the most powerful and legendary political leader of his time in the state. Hailey's Comment, which is published in Capitol Inside on a regular basis, is a direct reflection of that experience.

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