On November 8, 1994 I woke up to a shock. My persistently undefeatable Congressman, Jack Brooks, had been swept away. A New Deal leftist who sat atop a typical southern union/populist Democratic machine; we had come to see the old man as a force that could only be removed by the hand of God. Turns out we were right.
Brooks was solidly out of touch with the shifting mood of his district, but he had a powerful machine at his disposal. He had already fended off two credible, well-supported efforts to unseat him with a strong GOP candidate. The Party had given up.
Brooks’ GOP opponent in ’94, Steve Stockman, was what I will politely refer to as a “default candidate” – some guy who signed up to run. That was the year the national tide finally shifted. On November 7, God called Jack Brooks home – to Port Arthur, along with a raft of Democratic candidates up and down the ballot, all over the South.
The rightward surge was unforgiving and mostly indiscriminate. From the local level on up, this wave swept away an arthritic and corrupt political machine that had stifled real political choice in the South since the end of Reconstruction. For Southerners, it was like their own Berlin Wall had come down. But this would be a brief victory. The GOP wasn’t ready for this windfall and it would create some strange dynamics that are still with us.
Stockman, a born-again Christian who not long before had been living in his car, was a vocal supporter of the militia movement until Timothy McVeigh made that instantaneously uncool. He wasted no time tackling the vital problems of Washington by co-sponsoring a bill to investigate the authors of the Kinsey Reports. He was unceremoniously voted out at the next election, but he didn’t go away.
Though his single term in office was unremarkable his impact lingers. Across the South nutjobs of all varieties found themselves briefly in elected office. As the public sobered up they lost their seats, but they didn’t just go home. Draped in legitimacy as a former Congressman, District Judge, or County Commissioner and empowered by new connections, they found places for themselves all up and down the mostly vacant frontier of the Republican Party structure in the South.
Stockman’s chief of staff became the Executive Director of the Texas Republican Party. His wife has been a delegate to the Republican National Convention. Stockman has hosted his own radio show, consulted for other candidates, and continues to be associated with a political entity called the Presidential Trust.
The unintended impact of the ’94 election was to bring into positions of minor, but meaningful local power a small army of nutjobs. There were relatively few credible candidates for local office on the GOP ballot in the South in ’94, and a disturbing number of them were downright nutty. Though the craziest of the deadwood swept in by the great flood of ’94 would gradually be removed from office, many of them came to rest inside the Party’s power structure where they continue to clog the gears today.
The Stockman Effect would place ridiculous characters into positions of genuine power and influence throughout the Republican Party for a generation. Barry Goldwater’s old gripe about the party being taken over by “a bunch of kooks” would become a political fact that the country is still struggling to overcome.
Of course, the swing toward nutjob politics didn’t start in ’94. Reagan had used a version of the Nutjob Gambit to rally an extreme wing of fundamentalists as early as 1980. But he treated them like cannon fodder. The ’94 election was when they first tasted real power. Their influence has replaced the old right, left, moderate competition inside the Party with a sane vs. lunatic vs. “I hear the voice of God” spectrum that has rendered “right and left” utterly meaningless.
McCain’s candidacy offered hope for a power shift inside the Party that could have begun to mitigate the Stockman Effect. His failure has left the GOP at the mercy of its darkest impulses.
The Party will recover because it must. People who value reason over passion, truth over fantasy, reality over propaganda, in other words – responsible adults – will at some point regain some influence. But in the meantime the country is paying a price. One day we will have to clean up the wreckage, but for now the injuries continue to pile up.
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