Retiring Speaker Dennis Bonnen says 'extremists' do not represent Texas Republicans
Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, with Gov. Greg Abbott in the background.

Retiring Speaker Dennis Bonnen says ‘extremists’ do not represent Texas Republicans

Conservative governance, not the loudest voice, is the key to political success for Texas Republicans, the retiring House speaker says.

House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, ending a political career that began when Republicans were still the minority in Texas, says the key to keeping the party in control is to not allow the vocal extremists to take control of its message, much less the reins of state government.

In an interview Friday, three days after the rioters seeking to stop Congress from certifying Democrat Joe Biden’s victory over President Donald Trump stormed and vandalized the nation’s Capitol, Bonnen pushed back with some force that the mob somehow represented Republicans, either in Texas or across the country.

“The leader of the Republican Party in Texas is (Gov.) Greg Abbott, not these characters you see on the fringe,” said Bonnen, R-Angleton, who officially leaves office when the Legislature convenes Tuesday after two years as the House leader and 25 years of service in the lower chamber. 

Bonnen entered politics still in his mid-20s during George W. Bush’s first term as governor. Bush was a Republican but Democrats, then still a tenuous coalition of conservatives from Texas’ urban expanses and progressives from the urban centers, controlled the state House.

Within four years, Republicans would control every statewide elective office. The House would remain Democratic for four years after that. But since then, Democrats have been without power in Austin.

And Texas is also the keystone state in the Republicans’ national battlefield.

Now, as Trump’s presidency nears its end with Wednesday’s mayhem providing its climactic crescendo and with such Texans as U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz leading the effort in Congress to stall Biden’s victory and Attorney General Ken Paxton vocally cheerleading Trump supporters outside, some of the Texas GOP’s behind-the-scenes foot soldiers wonder what its future will be when Trump leaves the stage.

Few Texas Republicans in office dared cross the president over the past four years. Even Cruz, a one-time rival who clashed bitterly with Trump in the 2016 presidential primaries, morphed into his most ardent defender.

But others are now facing a tightrope walk away from Trump without straying too far from Trump supporters.

Some began a low-key breakup with Trump as Wednesday’s vote in Congress drew near. U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, who has been in politics so long he could almost be credited with establishing the establishment wing of the Texas GOP, issued a measured statement early in the week saying there was no evidence to deny Biden the presidency.

Trump, who for much of his life identified himself as a New York Democrat, in a tweet called Cornyn a “RINO,” or Republican in name only.

U.S. Rep. Chip Roy of Austin, a one-time protege of Cruz who also once worked for Paxton and is as conservative as they come, distanced himself in December from fellow Republicans seeking to block the election certification. And before the voting began Roy said he’d buck Trump’s wishes even if it meant “signing my own political death warrant.”

As the violence in Washington was unfolding, Bonnen was quick to condemn it.

“If you approve of, applaud, or encourage the grotesque demonstrations of hate and destruction being inflicted upon the Capitol of the United States America, you don’t deserve to carry the flag and call yourself a patriot,” he said in a statement that the time.

Bonnen, who at 48 says he’s done with electoral politics, said keeping the conservative coalition intact does not mean kowtowing to what he called the “libertarian extremists.” 

“It’s become something of a sideshow distraction with are some in our party who believe governing is not important … who simply want to attack, trash and tear down what is a very conservative and pragmatic successful governing coalition,” Bonnen said, making clear he was not referring to the outgoing president.

“That’s something we’ve been battling for years in the state.”

As the violence in Washington was unfolding, Bonnen was quick to condemn it.

“If you approve of, applaud, or encourage the grotesque demonstrations of hate and destruction being inflicted upon the Capitol of the United States America, you don’t deserve to carry the flag and call yourself a patriot,” he said.

The GOP’s emergence as the state’s dominant governing party first took firm root with Bush as governor in 1994. The brand of Republicans that began the party’s systematic takeover in Texas carried the imprimatur of total respectability. Some, like Rick Perry, were former conservative Democrats left adrift as their old party lurched to the left.

Bonnen said the Republicans who seem to delight in tearing down institutions are “incompatible” with most GOP voters. But he argues that while their voices are loud, their numbers are few. So his advice to his fellow Republicans – and to political reporters – is to pay them little, and less respect.

“Some of these people are just unreasonable and irrational, and you’ll never please them,” he said.

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John C. Moritz covers Texas government and politics for the USA Today Network in Austin. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @JohnnieMo.