Patrick and Sullivan

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, left, and Empower Texans CEO Michael Quinn Sullivan.

AUSTIN — Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Michael Quinn Sullivan, a hardline conservative activist long aligned with the head of the Texas Senate, publicly accused each other of "destroying" the Republican Party on Tuesday — seeming to further a rift that has emerged between the two longtime conservative allies.

The dust-up on Twitter started over gun rights, specifically Patrick's recent support of requiring background checks for private person-to-person gun sales — an idea Sullivan opposes. But the most aggressive sparring came over a recording Sullivan secretly made of House Speaker Dennis Bonnen during a June 12 meeting at the Capitol. Sullivan has said he caught Bonnen and one of the speaker's top allies on tape asking Sullivan to target 10 GOP lawmakers in the 2020 primaries, but Sullivan hasn't made the recording public.

“BTW, release the tape,” Patrick tweeted at Sullivan. "You are destroying our party."

To be clear, Bonnen and state Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, have forcefully pushed back against Sullivan's allegations. And both, along with Patrick and other Republicans and Democrats, have also called on Sullivan to release his recording of the meeting. Sullivan has so far declined to do so, though he has allowed certain Republicans to listen to the roughly hourlong audio privately.

Responding to Patrick, Sullivan tweeted that the lieutenant governor hadn’t yet listened to the audio — and suggested that Patrick may be “too scared to make a moral judgment without a poll.”

“What’s actually destroying the GOP is moral cowardice in which elected officials are unwilling to address the unethical behavior of other politicians,” Sullivan tweeted.

Patrick’s tweet Tuesday is the latest — and perhaps most straightforward — public acknowledgment that Sullivan’s allegations have agitated Texas Republicans ahead of what’s expected to be a competitive 2020 election cycle for the party. It also perhaps marks the largest departure between Patrick and Sullivan, who have long been aligned on issues.

Over the past five years, Patrick has received over $850,000 from Empower Texans' political action committee, which has been one of the most well funded and influential in the state. That included a single $350,000 donation — the largest of Patrick's career — in May 2014, when the Houston Republican first ran for lieutenant governor.

But Empower Texans has started to express public frustration with Patrick over the past year. During the 2019 legislative session, Patrick sided with Bonnen and Gov. Greg Abbott in pushing a bread-and-butter agenda that included items such as property tax and school finance reform. Sullivan and his group, along with other hardline conservative activists, began sounding the alarm, frustrated over the lack of movement on other priorities championed by his group and the state party.

The Legislature gaveled out at the end of May with GOP state leaders claiming victory on the priorities they had passed, but with irritated activists chalking up the past five months to a "purple" session.

That gap widened over the summer, when, after two deadly mass shootings in the state, Patrick voiced support for requiring background checks for stranger-to-stranger gun sales. That stance set off a feud with the National Rifle Association and drew criticism from Sullivan and other activists.

"Whether it is @BetoORourke wanting to outright seize your firearms, or @DanPatrick trying to manage what you do with them, it is sadly evident too many politicians are all too willing to betray our Constitution in the name of their own political power," Sullivan tweeted Tuesday, which set off the back-and-forth between him and Patrick.

"You know my plan exempts family and friends," Patrick tweeted back, "so apparently you are fine with selling your guns to total strangers who can't pass a background check because they could be a violent felon or someone bent on mass violence."

Patrick then mentioned Sullivan's secret audio recording of the June 12 meeting.

"I recorded that meeting," Sullivan replied, "to protect myself from dirty politics, not to entertain the public. @RepDennisBonnen then lied, numerous times. I then gave #GOP leaders every opportunity to resolve the problem Bonnen created."

"Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick to Empower Texans' Michael Quinn Sullivan: “You are destroying our party”" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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