by James Henson and Joshua Blank
Amidst the historic national implications of the now all-but-certain impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump, a renewed focus on questions of corruption and abuse of power in the White House threatens Republican Texas incumbents’ near-monoply of the state’s political system.
Even before the re-eruption of impeachment, Republicans already had cause for concern as a result of the percolating scandal involving an early-summer meeting at the Capitol that included House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, then-chairman of the House Republican Caucus Dustin Burrows, and conservative activist and lobbyist Michael Quinn Sullivan. Sullivan has alleged the two state officials offered to give his organization long-sought House media floor passes, and in return asked for his help replacing 10 Republican House incumbents. The last two months were marked by the drip-drip-drip of accounts of the still-undisclosed recording of that meeting, an ongoing investigation by the Texas Rangers of potential legal violations, and the flaring of nasty internecine conflict within the Texas GOP.
Voters don’t necessarily need to be up-to-date on all the details to catch a whiff of something rotten when tales of a secret meeting, a quid pro quo and mutual accusations of lying and bad faith permeate the election discussion —especially if those voters are already picking up similar smells from Washington. Even if an overarching cloud of corruption doesn’t cause conversions, it could depress GOP turnout even as it further energizes Democratic voters.
While the 2020 election was always going to be defined by Trump’s bid for re-election, the dominant themes of more localized races for the state Legislature are still yet to be defined. State Republican leaders hedged against Trump’s unpredictability by focusing on presumably bread-and-butter issues in the 2019 legislative session, an approach clearly informed by their close calls in the 2018 elections, and the anticipation of a turbulent 2020. This was already an iffy bet in the Trump era, and the coincidence of impeachment and the Bonnen-Sullivan affair will only make it more difficult: It offers Democrats the raw material to try to make the GOP synonymous with corruption and abuses of power.
Perhaps. But one would be justified in pointing out that Democrats have tried this tactic in recent elections with scant success. The public tends to remain uninterested and unaware in “scandals” and inside-baseball preoccupations tagged by the political press and #txlege pundits.
For example, asked about a number of scandalous, dubious and/or insidery episodes in the February 2015 University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll, fewer than one in eight repondents said that they had heard “a lot” about oversight issues at the Texas enterprise fund, about contracting issues at the Cancer Prevention Research Institute (CPRIT), about rules changes in the Texas Senate that strengthened Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s influence or about that session’s race for House speaker. More recently, in October 2016, only 15% of Texans said they had heard a lot about Attorney General Ken Paxton’s legal troubles; a few weeks later, Paxton was (narrowly) re-elected.
Despite these precedents, some features of public opinion suggest that today’s insider preoccupations might eventually resonate with the electorate as the 2020 elections develop — especially if talk of political corruption is part of the prevailing national political campaign. While Texas voters are unlikely to know much about the Bonnen affair, many are likely ready to see partisan incumbents at both the state and national levels as part of a culture of corruption — a message that has found recent success on both sides, whether framed in terms of swamp-draining or in paeans to post-partisanship.
The political polarization in the U.S. that makes voters more receptive to these messages is the tendency of partisans to view leaders of the opposition as inherently illegitimate. These intimations of illegitimacy have taken many forms as polarization has intensified, from questions about the legitimacy of George W. Bush’s election to the trope of Barack Obama’s citizenship.
The suspicion of political corruption among members of the other party shows up in polling. In October 2016, a plurality of Republicans (18%) chose political corruption and leadership as the most important problem facing the country, compared to only 6% of Democrats. By February 2017, with the party in the White House flipped, 23% of Democrats said political corruption and leadership was the most important problem, compared to only 5% of Republicans. And in the UT/TT Poll in June 2019, a plurality of Democrats said that political corruption and leadership is the most important problem facing the country. And when asked what is the most important problem facing the state — a Texas dominated by the GOP for over a decade — a plurality or near plurality of Democratic voters have consistently noted political corruption and leadership.
This dynamic presents Republicans with a problem and Democrats with a potential opportunity in an election year where Republicans are the governing party at both the state and national levels. Of course, there is ample chance that Trump and his allies can yet again foil Democratic efforts to undermine him, and leave Texas Democrats unwittingly aiding Republican mobilization in the name of sticking up for the president in the face of what will be presented as an effort to undo the results of the 2016 Election. It’s worked before, in similar circumstances.
But the risk is accompanied by a substantial reward for Democrats testing the limits of a newly competitive political environment locally, and ample evidence of Democratic voters’ desire to thwart Trump. The fact that the Bonnen affair is now the subject of investigation provides incentive for Democratic campaigns to amplify the matter in the 2020 general election. If this tactic hasn’t been particularly successful in previous cycles when the target of corruption was narrowly focused, Trump’s omnipresence in 2020 changes the tactical calculation for both Republicans and Democrats in Texas.
Joshua Blank is the Research director for the Texas Politics Project at University of Texas at Austin.