Sen. John Cornyn has built a successful career surfing the fickle tides of the far right nutjob fringe. That’s a remarkable challenge for a polished, well-educated, relatively sane guy who has seen a lot of the world. Cornyn’s talents were on display this fall as he used some savvy politicking to dodge a Cruz-style primary challenge from the right.
Fundamentalist icon David Barton and Texas’ dumbest Congressman Louis Gohmert both backed away from Tea Party efforts to draft them into a primary against Cornyn. The way looked clear for the senator to keep his substantial campaign war chest and focus his efforts next year on the GOP’s wider national efforts to retake the Senate.
Then Steve Stockman showed up. Again.
Stockman is the perfect symbol of the mess Republicans have built for themselves. His challenge to Cornyn is unlikely to succeed, but just by showing up, off-script, off-message, and off his meds, Stockman will put GOP dysfunction in the national spotlight at the worst possible time.
The story of how Stockman arrived in this position is part of the wider story of the Republican Party’s decline. Understanding The Stockman Effect helps explain the existential challenge facing the party and the internal fight necessary to save it.
The Stockman Effect is the veneer of credibility and the outsized influenced acquired by the bizarre cast of characters who rocketed suddenly and surprisingly into office in the ’94 wave election. Many of them found themselves transformed from local religious weirdo to “The Honorable Local Religious Weirdo” literally overnight thanks to the unexpected national Republican victory in the ’94 mid-terms. Their elevation skewed the balance of local Republican politics away from its traditional commercial focus toward conspiracy, religious paranoia and racism in ways that the party has still not successfully addressed.
I watched this happen in real time.
In 1995, I was a young law intern at the Harris County DA’s office in Houston. I earned an assignment in a District Court presided over by one of the surprise victors in the ’94 election. Judge Ernest T. Looney was an entertaining spectacle (not using real name – he’s dead, so he can’t defend himself).
Almost anyone who was serious about serving their community as an elected public official in Houston in 1994 campaigned for the Democratic nomination. Since the passage of the Civil Rights Acts in the mid-60’s, more and more Texans had been voting for Republicans for federal offices, but the grassroots infrastructure had been slow to catch up to the top-of-the ballot trend.
Exceptions, like the iconic Republican Judge Ted Poe, had earned their position through appointments by Republican Governor Bill Clements. Republican primaries for down-ballot offices were a magnet for local weirdoes who no one took seriously because they couldn’t possibly win.
Even prior to the Great Dixiecratic Wave there were some Republicans in Houston. The leadership tier was dominated by pragmatic commercial interests. Many of them, like the Bushes, were imported Yankees bringing a variety of Hamiltonian Republicanism otherwise unknown in the South. They were augmented by a thin layer of strident anti-Communists and religious fundamentalists. The party had a meaningful presence, but they had a very weak grassroots infrastructure.
Through the ‘70’s and ‘80’s the traditional Republicans were gradually augmented by a new influx of Dixiecrat refugees who bore little in common with the business class Republican establishment. There was constant tension which peaked during the first Bush Administration. In 1992, fundamentalist activist Steven Hotze organized local religious extremists and took control of the Harris County Republican Party in an ugly standoff, permanently relegating the business wing of the local party to subservient status. Still, no one saw ’94 coming.
Like Steve Stockman, Ernest T. Looney was a default candidate in a race no one was taking seriously. Looney ran unopposed in the Republican Primary in 1994 for an office few people wanted and hardly anyone cared about.
Thanks to national forces that had nothing to do with their specific races, Steve Stockman, Ernest T. Looney, and innumerable other “Republican” default candidates in 1994 found themselves elected to office. This power shift meant that crude local sideshow acts like Terry Lowry and Gary Pollan became kingmakers that no one could afford to ignore.
Judge Looney’s courtroom was a raucous and entertaining disaster. Looney interrupted trials with barely coherent rants against the District Attorney, the ATF, and whatever other public figures or current events had attracted his wandering attention. He was unpredictable and untroubled by the needless constraints of legal precedent. Judge Looney and many of the other surprise local winners in ‘94 delivered a little slice of havoc to public service in Harris County.
Similar to Judge Looney, Stockman was a product of the GOP’s emerging mimeograph-newsletter wing, a conspiracy nut with close ties to the militia movement who had not long before been homeless and living in his car. Like Judge Looney, Stockman would be tossed out of office once serious local figures realized that they could run successfully as Republicans.
Stockman did not, however, go away. His lingering impact on the Republican Party forms the basis of The Stockman Effect. When a local weirdo acquires the ability to sign his paranoid newsletter as a former officeholder, he acquires a new sheen, a new set of connections, and a heightened ability to steer local politics.
Stockman’s chief of staff became the Executive Director of the Texas Republican Party. His wife would be a national convention delegate. And across the South wacky figures like Stockman and Judge Looney would take on new credibility as current or former elected officials tipped the balance of power further and further away from the party’s sober traditionalists. Stockman lingered around the GOP right wing like the last guy at the bar until the Tea Party gave him his opportunity to ride back to Washington as a Congressman in 2012.
Though Cornyn’s poll numbers are very weak for an incumbent, it is unlikely that Stockman will do to Cornyn what Cruz did to David Dewhurst. Cruz may be a modern day Confederate, but he’s also a politically calculating Ivy Leaguer who knows which fork to use.
Stockman, on the other hand, is a walking disaster. He has earned his place in the political world as an opportunist with a talent for the political grift who is probably incapable of managing the most basic mechanics of a campaign on that scale. Stockman makes Ted Cruz look like a credible leadership figure.
The Stockman Effect means that Cornyn and the national GOP will continue to be pushed toward the most ludicrous extremes by cartoon characters who gained their power from the institutional, grassroots weaknesses of the Republican Party. Until serious figures in the GOP gin up the courage to deal with the rot in the party, The Stockman Effect will continue to erode the party’s effectiveness and complicate efforts to maintain national relevance.