Financial Fallout from the Bonnen Scandal

Embattled Texas Speaker of the House Dennis Bonnen announced Tuesday morning that he will not seek reelection in 2020. Here’s how that announcement and the related scandal is impacting the money in Texas politics:

What Will Bonnen Do With $3.7 Million?

As of the last campaign finance reports (July 2019), Bonnen had $668,776 cash on hand in his campaign account and $3,002,000 under his control in the Texas Leads PAC.  Bonnen established Texas Leads in late June with the stated purpose of using that money to help reelect incumbent Republicans. In the now-infamous meeting with Michael Quinn Sullivan, Bonnen bragged about that cash and claimed he would only give a “pittance” to the targeted members he wanted Sullivan to “pop.”  

When the next reports are released in early January, it will be interesting to see who Bonnen supported from that account after the initial allegations. Was he trying to curry favor with other representatives in the House to keep them from turning against him? 

Now that Bonnen has announced that he won’t be seeking reelection, what will he do with that money? He can legally choose to hold on to his campaign cash to use for a later run for office, or he can donate it to other candidates and PACs. Although less likely, he can also give the money back to donors, to the Republican party, or to certain charities. 

This situation presents a financial dilemma for the Republicans. While Republican candidates typically rely on the Speaker for his fundraising and fund-sharing capabilities, it is now unlikely that candidates will accept money from Bonnen or Texas Leads. To do so would put them squarely in the crosshairs of any Democratic opponent who wanted to claim they were taking money from a corrupt politician.

Since a new Speaker can only be elected while the House is in session, Bonnen is effectively a lame duck leader until January 2021. Governor Abbott could call a Special Session to allow the House to choose a Speaker more quickly. If Abbott doesn’t, Bonnen is likely to come under pressure to transfer control of Texas Leads to someone else. 

Who Donated to Bonnen During the Controversy?

Campaign contributions to Bonnen’s account were conspicuously missing from the last reports, which were released in mid-July. There was no way that the Speaker of the Texas House was suddenly not taking in money, so it was likely a strategic ploy to delay publicizing his donor list until later in the campaign season. That fact alone would have made Bonnen’s next reports intriguing. Now the numbers will have even more to tell.

When Sullivan first claimed Bonnen had asked him to use Empower Texans to target a list of Republican House reps, Bonnen adamantly denied it. Who donated to Bonnen after Sullivan made his initial allegations? And did anyone financially support him after the audio was released, but before Bonnen announced he wouldn’t seek reelection? In other words, who continued to support Bonnen once the allegations were made ? Who continued to donate once they were confirmed?

How About the Democrats?

The scandal has certainly given Democrats fuel for their fundraising fire. Not surprisingly, Democratic House Reps. Michelle Beckley and Jon Rosenthal, both disparaged by Bonnen on the tape, are using the scandal to raise money.  Likewise, House Rep. Celia Israel, Chairwoman of the Texas House Democrat Campaign Committee, has called the scandal “an opportunity” and described herself as “a woman on a mission” to help Democrats take control of the Texas House. If Democrats are successful in flipping the Texas House in 2020 — and it would only take winning nine more seats — they would control the decennial redistricting process and presumably could gerrymander the map to the benefit of Democrats for the foreseeable future. 

Even before the scandal with Bonnen, Democrats were expected to spend record amounts on Texas elections, which were declared “ground zero” by Nancy Pelosi. With a weakened Republican Speaker and controversy for fodder, Democrat coffers are likely to swell even more.

The Bottom Line:

Bonnen may not be running for reelection in 2020, but he still has power. For now. He remains the Speaker of the Texas House and in control of almost $3.7 million. What will happen with that money? Who’s been propping up Bonnen through the scandal? How will the fallout impact both Democrat and Republican fundraising efforts? You can count on Transparency Texas to bring you those answers and more as soon as new data is released.

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