WASHINGTON — On July 31, 2012, a little-known state attorney in black ostrich-skin boots named Ted Cruz shocked the Lone Star State’s political establishment when, facing incredible odds, he defeated popular Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in the Republican primary race for Senate.
Within a year, Cruz would be a household name across the country and considered a possible candidate for the presidency. With another congressional election season approaching in November, Cruz’s story has inspired a new crop of little-known candidates who want to replicate his success. While Cruz may be the least popular man in the Senate, his popularity soars outside the Beltway, where he has become a model for a new generation of long shots.
Rob Maness, a retired Air Force colonel based in Madisonville, La., is one of them. Maness is one of four declared Republican candidates now vying for a chance to unseat vulnerable Democrat Sen. Mary Landrieu in Louisiana. He's raised almost a half a million dollars in his quest to assert himself as the hard-right tea party alternative to Republican front-runner House Rep. Bill Cassidy. Recent state polls put Maness in the single digits when pitted against Landrieu and Cassidy, but in the example of Cruz and other successful tea party insurgents who seemingly came out of nowhere to seize their party’s senate nomination, Maness sees a path to victory.
Maness embraces Cruz’s hard line on federal spending bills. He believes there’s “no need to raise the debt ceiling” under any circumstances. He opposes the Affordable Care Act and Obama’s 2014 strategy of using executive action to get around a deadlocked Congress, saying, “I’m with Sen. Cruz on that. It’s completely lawless.”
Both men went to Harvard — Cruz to Harvard Law and Maness to the Kennedy School of Government. Maness even wears black ostrich-skin cowboy boots, just like Cruz’s. And he decries political ambition. “Actually, I don’t want to be a senator,” he told me when we met for coffee recently near Capitol Hill.
Like most insurgents, he faces an uphill battle. Cassidy has already raised 10 times more than Maness in a race that could cost as much as $10 million to win, but Maness has the backing of the Senate Conservatives Fund, a group that bankrolls tea party candidates who lack the blessing of the party establishment. The group has given him more than $360,000 so far.
The Senate Conservatives Fund has endorsed five tea party candidates who are running against fellow Republicans: In addition to Maness, they are Milton Wolf in Kansas, Matt Bevin in Kentucky, Chris McDaniel in Mississippi and Ben Sasse in Nebraska. While the group’s support isn’t an automatic kingmaker, it does make it more difficult for incumbents to focus on their Democratic challengers.
Maness has yet to prove himself as a candidate who can dazzle conservative audiences in the same way Cruz did last year. His opponents cast him as less a Cruz mini-me than a more polished version of tea party-backed Texas Reps. Louie Gohmert or Steve Stockman, who has won Internet fame for outlandish comments made during his primary campaign against Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn.
While Maness is not as brazen as Stockman, who mysteriously vanished for several weeks last month and who has called for the impeachment of President Barack Obama, Maness’ own tactics can be raw. His website features a not-so-subtle graphic calling Cassidy a “Mary” — an obvious attempt to tie him to Mary Landrieu, but also a suggestion that he’s not a real man. (Both Maness and Stockman rely on the same political consulting firm, Political Media, to aid their campaigns in outreach and website design.)
Maness told me he considers Stockman “courageous,” but that he doesn’t plan to emulate his style in the Louisiana campaign.
“He’s a little unorthodox for a lot of people’s tastes, but you know what? Unorthodox times call for unorthodox measures,” Maness said. “I’m probably going to use different language and I might use a different approach, but I’m just as aggressive as that.”
Maness has no political record to suggest how aggressive he might be in Congress, but his career outside of politics is sure to draw positive attention. He served 32 years in the Air Force, rising to colonel before retiring in 2011 when he wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. (She has since recovered.) He has five children, including one in the Army National Guard Guard and another in the Navy who started boot camp just days before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Maness himself was deployed on multiple tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan during his career before and after 9/11, and was working in the Pentagon when a hijacked airliner struck the western side of the building, killing 125 of his colleagues.
“From a personal perspective, it was one of the days when I felt most disappointed in my profession,” he recalled about that day. “I’m sitting in the world’s premier armed forces headquarters and we come to the realization that we’re not having a series of unfortunate accidents. That we’re actually being attacked and we don’t know who it is.”
Since that time, the federal government has struggled to find a balance between protecting American lives from more attacks and preserving liberties enshrined in the Constitution. The scope of the United State’s surveillance since 9/11 was recently made public by documents leaked by Edward Snowden, which raises difficult questions for aspiring lawmakers who cast themselves as strict “constitutionalists” like Maness.
Maness said the Patriot Act was “a necessary evil at the time,” but that over time, its reach should have been reduced. Since 9/11, the government’s surveillance efforts have gone “out of control,” he said. The information-gathering exposed by Edward Snowden, he said, is “a direct violation of our Constitution and Bill of Rights.”
Snowden "needs to stand trial so we can find out if we have an inadequate whistle-blower system in the classified world. Because that’s what he says drove him outside of the system. And I suspect he may be right from the whistle-blower process,” Maness said.
In his race for Senate this year, Maness must aim his attacks simultaneously at Cassidy and Landrieu, an effort that will take tremendous resources if he wants to make an impact in November. (The Senate Conservatives Fund has a history of pouring money into campaigns late in the game, although it won’t say how much it plans to spend in Louisiana.) So long as his money holds up, Maness will continue to hit Cassidy from the right and work to brand himself as a conservative candidate with more allegiance to principle than compromise. On Tuesday, he continued that effort by declaring that he would not vote to reinstate Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell as the party’s Senate leader.
And Maness still has time to make a splash — more time than most other insurgent candidates launching primary challenges against established Republicans. Louisiana relies on a little-used electoral system known as a “jungle primary,” in which candidates from all parties get lopped onto a single ballot in November. If no candidate wins a simple majority, the two top vote-getters engage in a runoff.
His largest hurdle could be name identification. Because his military career kept him on the road for more than 30 years, Maness was unable to put down firm roots in any one place. He lived in Louisiana for eight years during that time, and returned to the state in 2011 after 18 months stationed in New Mexico.
Despite his low early numbers, candidates like Maness have a tendency to make Republicans nervous. Longtime GOP operatives still have nightmares from 2010 and 2012 when untested tea party-backed Senate candidates like Nevada’s Sharron Angle, Delaware’s Christine O'Donnell and Indiana’s Richard Mourdock became party nominees and went on to lose their races.
Republicans see 2014 as a prime opportunity to return the Senate to Republican hands, and those responsible for doing so are under immense pressure to keep candidates with the best chance of winning in the race. In Louisiana right now, Republicans are putting their money on Cassidy, not Maness, to execute the mission.
Even a Maness general election victory would prove to be a headache for Republicans: It would put another stubborn conservative in ostrich-skin boots in the Senate, a future many Republicans would be happy to avoid.