Pro-Bonnen candidate wins Republican caucus election, signaling confidence in embattled speaker

AUSTIN — State Rep. Jim Murphy of Houston, who was considered the favored candidate of embattled House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, was elected vice chair of the House Republican Caucus on Friday night.

Murphy defeated Rep. Andy Murr, a third-term legislator from Junction, in an election that was seen as a referendum on Bonnen, who is embroiled in a scandal over whether he and a top lieutenant targeted fellow Republicans in next year’s primaries.

The caucus announced the election results Friday night but did not release a tally of the votes. The election results came as a surprise to some. On Wednesday, Murr told the political newsletter Quorum Report he had enough votes to secure his election as vice chair.

“We look forward to working with him as the Caucus continues to assist you all in promoting conservative values and addressing the important issues that Texans face,” the caucus said of Murphy in an email announcing the election results.

Shortly after the announcement was made public Friday night, Murphy tweeted: “Thankful to my colleagues for their support and confidence. I look forward to serving each of our [House Republican Caucus] members in this new role.”

Murr could not immediately be reached for comment.

Murphy’s election could be a sign that the turmoil around Bonnen is beginning to settle. Murphy defended Bonnen’s actions publicly saying they were being mischaracterized, while Murr was seen by his supporters as a fresh voice who could join an executive committee filled with Bonnen allies.

Bonnen has been mired in allegations that he and Rep. Dustin Burrows of Lubbock offered conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan a quid pro quo in a June 12 meeting in Bonnen’s state Capitol office. Sullivan alleges that the lawmakers offered writers for his website House media credentials if his affiliated political group, Empower Texans, refrained from criticizing this year’s legislative session and targeted a list of 10 Republican incumbents.

Bonnen has denied those allegations. Burrows has said that the meeting was focused on persuading Sullivan to limit his attacks on Republican incumbents but that he did mention several lawmakers in an “off the cuff” manner that Sullivan could target without repercussion.

The Texas Rangers — the state’s top investigative law enforcement agency — are looking into Sulivan’s allegations, and the political activist has turned over secretly recorded audio of the meeting to investigators. That recording has not been made public, though lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, including Bonnen and Burrows, have called for its release.

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But multiple people who have heard the audio say it confirms Sullivan’s account and were disgruntled with the way Bonnen, Burrows and, eventually, Murphy characterized the meeting with an emphasis on getting Sullivan not to campaign against Republican incumbents.

In particular, some lawmakers who heard the recording were irked by Bonnen’s denial that a list had been provided during the meeting. The Dallas Morning News reported that both Bonnen and Burrows gave Sullivan names of lawmakers to target.

This week, the Texas Tribune reported on a voicemail Bonnen left a Republican lawmaker in July in which he denied Sullivan’s allegations.

“Hopefully, you know better than to believe anything Michael Quinn Sullivan would bother to say. … I did meet with him to tell him he should not campaign against any Republican in the primary — um, obviously the opposite of what he’s trying to present,” Bonnen said in the voicemail.

For weeks, a faction of House Republicans had been clamoring for answers about the allegations that Bonnen and Burrows had targeted their fellow caucus members, including a group of 30 lawmakers who asked the executive committee to hold the vote in person in order to discuss the matter. That request was denied and the discussion was postponed until a previously planned caucus retreat in Austin in October.

Murphy joins the executive committee less than a month before that meeting. His ascendance to the role of vice chair is the latest in a recent shake-up that began when Burrows stepped down as chairman after the allegations. Since then, Fort Worth Rep. Stephanie Klick has taken the helm of the caucus and others have rotated their positions to fill the needs, with Murphy finally filling Klick’s previous role as vice chair.