AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — An alleged hit list of political opponents, a promise of access, heated denials, an audiotape and suspicions of a setup.
Texas Republicans are reeling from an internal scandal that could threaten their long dominance of the state Legislature in the nation's most populous conservative state.
The eruption began a week ago when a hardline conservative activist accused first-term House Speaker Dennis Bonnen of offering legislative media credentials to his website in exchange for helping defeat a group of 10 incumbent Republican House members.
The speaker strongly denied it. The activist said he recorded it. And he's letting some of his political allies listen.
Republicans are feeling whiplashed between believing the speaker they elected or a rabble-rousing activist.
"Somebody's lying," said Cal Jillson, political science professor at Southern Methodist University. "And it threatens the integrity of the Republican majority in the House at a time when there are broad demographic changes in the state and the GOP majority is under pressure."
Republicans have long dominated Texas politics, holding every statewide office since 1998. They gained control of the House for the first time since Reconstruction in 2003 and have held it ever since.
But since reaching a peak of a 101-49 super-majority in 2011, Democrats have tapped into a growing Hispanic population and liberal shifts in suburban areas to shrink that gap to just 16 seats in their quest to turn the state blue. Democrats can grab a majority if they flip nine seats in 2020, just ahead of the critical 2021 legislative session when lawmakers will redraw political voting maps.
"Anything that weakens (Bonnen's) ability to hold a majority is significant," said Texas Republican political consultant Matt Mackowiak. "That does matter."
For years the Democratic Party was so weak in Texas that Republicans mostly fought among themselves. But that luxury has gone as their majority has eroded. The recently-ended legislative session was supposed to strengthen party unity.
Bonnen won high praise from some Republicans for mending broken relationships with Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who often fought with the previous House leadership. Now Bonnen is in a fight for survival.
At the center of the scandal is Michael Quinn Sullivan, head of Empower Texans, a political organization that has been heavily critical of Republicans it deems not conservative enough on spending, gun rights, abortion and other issues. Sullivan raised eyebrows in Texas politics when he revealed that he met privately with the moderate Bonnen in June.
Empower Texans is bankrolled by wealthy West Texas businessman Tim Dunn and is best known for ranking lawmakers on a conservative scorecard and pumping millions into legislative campaigns, often in attempts to oust moderate Republican incumbents.
Bonnen recently promised to protect the House's shrinking GOP majority in 2020 and used $3 million of his own election funds to set up a political action committee to support them. He also warned lawmakers they'd be punished if they campaigned against each other.
But then Sullivan publicly detailed an alleged offer from the speaker: Help defeat a list of 10 incumbent Republicans, some moderate, some conservative and Bonnen would ensure Sullivan's group would get media access to the House chamber. Empower Texans has been granted Senate media credentials, but not in the House.
Bonnen confirmed that he met with Sullivan in an effort to make peace with the combative group but denied in a letter to lawmakers that he offered him a deal.
"Let me be clear," Bonnen wrote. "At no point in our conversation was Sullivan provided with a list of target members."
Sullivan announced Wednesday he had audiotape. And he began letting some House Republicans listen.
Republican Rep. Travis Clardy, who ran against Bonnen for speaker, told The Dallas Morning News the recording backs up Sullivan's claim of a political hit list, which included Clardy's name.
"It was repugnant," Clardy, a four-term lawmaker, told the newspaper. "This is the most disappointing thing that I've ever seen."
Mackowiak said the drama is damaging for the party.
"Sullivan set a trap and the speaker walked right in," Mackowiak said. "If the recording confirms Sullivan's side of it, it's a problem for the speaker. There's a lot of confusion, frustration and a decent amount of anger."
Bonnen has demanded Sullivan release the entire recording. Writing on his blog, Sullivan said he's considering releasing some or all of the recording. He did not immediately respond to a request from The Associated Press to listen to it.
"This was a private recording for my own protection. I never intended to release the recording to the public because I believe it may damage innocent bystanders, most notably the Republican Party of Texas and Republican politicians (including those with whom I disagree on matters of policy or philosophy)," Sullivan wrote.
The Texas Republican Party didn't immediately respond to a request for comment. Chairman James Dickey said this week the party is "focused on winning in 2020."