The election for speaker of the Texas House is more than two months away, but Dennis Bonnen has established himself as the favorite among the seven announced candidates.
“If you gave me even money right now on Dennis Bonnen being elected House speaker I’d take it and run,” said Mark Jones, political science fellow at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University.
Bonnen, 46, the Republican state representative from Angleton, has the necessary conservative and leadership credentials to secure the votes within the Republican Caucus to become the preferred and ultimately successful candidate for speaker, Jones said.
The race, however, is far from over. Jones, who has followed its twists and turns for a year, said there are likely to be at least a few more announcements before the vote for speaker is taken by the entire House on the first day of the next legislative session on Jan. 8.
The outcome of several House races on Nov. 6 could reduce the Republicans’ 95-55 majority and give Democrats a greater say in who leads their chamber. However, Jones and most other political experts in the state think that majority will not drop below 90.
Democrats have been very quiet as seven Republicans and one of their own announced their candidacies. And while hard-line conservative groups complained this week about Republican House members meeting in secret with Bonnen before his announcement, they haven’t coalesced around a candidate.
Bonnen’s candidacy may force out several others. State Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, announced Monday he was dropping out. Zerwas was the first to announce, on Oct. 25, 2017, the day House Speaker Joe Straus said he was not running for reelection.
The remaining speaker candidates, all profiled by The Texas Monitor, are: are Travis Clardy, R-Nacogdoches; Drew Darby, R-San Angelo; Eric Johnson, D-Dallas; Phil King, R-Weatherford; Tan Parker, R-Flower Mound; and Walter “Four” Price IV, R-Amarillo.
Bonnen had been expected to announce his bid for months. But in what Jones called a deft political move, Bonnen stayed quiet, calibrating House Republican enthusiasm as each candidate made his announcement.
“He can effectively be seen as the savior, someone who is willing to do this for the good of his party,” Jones said. “It was a very smart move politically.”
Less than 24 hours after Zerwas made his announcement, Bonnen issued a statement to reporters that “After thoughtful consideration with my family, I have decided to heed the call of many of my colleagues to enter this race.
“My desire, which I believe I share with the vast majority of my colleagues, is that this process come to a conclusion with a House ready to do the people’s business with strength, resolve, and unity in the 86th Legislative Session.”
How many of his colleagues actually were part of that “call” has been subject to speculation. Several media outlets reported that as many as 40 House Republicans had met with Bonnen prior to his announcement.
Neither Bonnen, who did not respond to a request by The Texas Monitor for an interview, nor any of his supposed visitors have confirmed any such meetings.
The only thing surprising about Bonnen’s announcement may have been the timing. Bonnen is beginning his 11th two-year term in the House. For the last three sessions he served as Straus’ appointee as speaker pro tem, leading the House in Straus’ absence.
He has also served as chairman of several key committees including the Ways & Means Committee in the last session.
In the past several sessions Bonnen played an instrumental role in bills representing the House Republican platform. He was the author of a major tax reform bill that died in special session when the two chambers could not agree on the details of giving voters approval power over property tax increases.
He has been criticized by conservative advocacy groups, who battled Straus and his political allies for years. Among them is Empower Texans, which has made electing a much more conservative House speaker a priority for the next session.
On Wednesday Bonnen agreed to pledge his support in the general speaker election to the candidate chosen by the Republican Caucus. Another two dozen House Republicans have not signed their pledges.
However, Empower Texas’s own Fiscal Index ranked Bonnen’s voting record in the last session as more conservative than any other announced speaker candidate.
Bonnen’s fate will not be determined by the most conservative House faction, but the “mushy” or more moderate middle comprising the majority of Republicans in the House, Jones said.
Ideologically, he is conservative enough for most Republican tastes, Jones said. And while his property tax bill was not as conservative as the Senate version, there are plenty of House members who value Bonnen’s record of standing up to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.
“It’s important to Republicans in the House that the speaker represent the institution of the House, to have the House not be an afterthought,” Jones said. “I don’t think anyone is going to see Dennis Bonnen as a lapdog of Dan Patrick.”
Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].