Ryan J. Rusak

Family feuds: Dems fight over pushing left, Texas GOP battle threatens House majority

Republicans and Democrats have nearly a year to go until they can focus on battling each other in the 2020 election.

That apparently means they’ll spend months fighting among themselves first.

Democrats’ long-simmering divide over how far to push to the left on healthcare, immigration and taxes spilled out on national television this week. Two debates featuring 20 of the party’s 742 remaining presidential candidates pitted those pitching a centrist message to maximize the odds of beating Donald Trump against those who believe bold colors are the only way to contrast a garish president.

Without an open presidential contest, national Republicans aren’t quarreling as much. But the Texas contingent is more than making up for it. A constant, if recently quiet, rift in the state House GOP took on a new dimension this week when a far-right activist accused House Speaker Dennis Bonnen of asking him to target certain Republicans for defeat -- and offering a seat in the Texas House press corps as an incentive.

Bonnen denies it. Michael Quinn Sullivan of Empower Texans says he’s got a recording of their meeting, and so far, four GOP House members have said that they’ve heard it and that it backs up Sullivan’s version. All four, it’s worth noting, are either aligned with Sullivan or have a history of opposing Bonnen.

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New House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, strikes the gavel during the first day of the 86th Texas Legislative session, Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019, in Austin. Eric Gay AP

Sullivan could release the tape and clear it up. But he’s a longtime provocateur who probably craves the attention more than any political win. A Bonnen ally, Lubbock Republican Rep. Dustin Burrows, was also in the meeting, but he’s not talking.

NORMAL FIGHTS, BUT STILL A DISTRACTION

In both cases, some of this is perfectly normal squabbling. Anyone with siblings and cousins numbering greater than zero knows that the intensity of family feuds can be inversely proportional to the stakes of the fight. Parties, even in this day of polarization and tribalization, are broad groupings where small differences are swallowed to advance the coalition, but sometimes, those differences erupt.

But the parties have really big fights to prepare for, and the distractions aren’t helpful.

For Democrats, it’s the desire to beat a president they see as the worst ever. And Donald Trump is plenty vulnerable, even with a strong economy at his back.

One way Democrats could blow it, though, it is by making suburban independents choose between a president whose chaos they find tiresome and a nominee who won bidding wars on taxes, handouts and reparations and sees no worthy limits on immigration.

Enough Democrats see this problem growing to raise the level of alarm. They’ve started to realize that the base of the party — which is where the energy and focus come from this early in a campaign cycle — has drifted so far that it’s finding fault with Barack Obama.

You know, the liberal Democrat who was president not even three years ago.

HOUSE CONTROL UP FOR GRABS?

For Texas Republicans, the threat is that their 20-year reign is coming to an end. Democrats here are hopeful that this is their breakthrough year — and that it will manifest as a takeover of the House.

They need to flip only nine seats, and it’s a sign of where momentum lies that they hope to win five of those here in Tarrant County, long renowned as the most reliably red urban county in Texas.

Many Democrats remain cautious, though, knowing the field still tilts to the right in Texas. Unless, that is, Republicans do them a favor by taking themselves down a peg.

By, say, fracturing between conservative and conservativer-than-thou. By having a House speaker preen about unity in public then scheme with a rival to help take down Republican incumbents. By turning primaries into purity fights that ignore how competitive swaths of the state suddenly are.

This time next year, we may look back and laugh at how sclerotic the parties seemed and marvel at how they got it together in time for an epic showdown over Trump.

Or we may see it as the beginning of the end for these tired organizations and their predictable squabbles and the emergence of a very fractured, but very different, kind of politics.

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Ryan J. Rusak is opinion editor of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He grew up in Benbrook and is a TCU graduate. He spent more than 12 years as a political journalist, overseeing coverage of four presidential elections and several sessions of the Texas Legislature. He lives in east Fort Worth.
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