It makes people nervous when they find out you’re writing something complimentary — even in a sideways fashion — about Michael Quinn Sullivan.
A measure of his popularity: His opponents refer to him by his initials. They call him “Mucus.”
But with relatively limited resources, the conservative activist has rented space in the heads of some of the state’s top Republican officials.
He came of political age in 2010, when fiscal conservatives — some of them affiliated with the Tea Party movement— overwhelmed established mainstream Republicans.
In Texas, when all was said and done, there were 101 Republicans in the State House, using the same district maps that two years earlier had produced only 76 wins.
It wasn’t necessarily attributable to Sullivan and others like him, but they kept the trophies. That’s political doctrine: Shoot at everything that moves; claim everything that drops.
They took credit, deserved or not. In fact, they lost some races where they had worked really hard. State Rep. Vicki Truitt, R-Southlake, found herself in a re-election primary with three other Republicans in 2010. Sullivan launched a round of robocalls — those automated phone calls that tell you what a so-and-so you have representing you in the Legislature — attacking Truitt. Social media was in the toolkit, too.
Truitt was livid. She told a reporter at the time that news media attention on the race was Sullivan’s fault and boosted his efforts to knock her off. Truitt won without a runoff.
Her victory wasn’t necessarily the lesson learned, however. The gasoline tax issue Sullivan had emphasized in that race — whether Truitt had broken conservative orthodoxy by supporting local-option fuel taxes in areas that needed new or better roads — became another thread in the anti-tax fabric that now blankets the Legislature.
Sometimes “they’ll come after you for that” is louder in a politician’s ear than “but you’ll win anyhow, so ignore them.”
Empower Texans and Texans for Fiscal Responsibility — the storefronts where Sullivan does business — have more clout than their size suggests.
It’s a relatively small operation, especially when you consider the other political institutions in the field: doctors, lawyers, real estate, insurance, finance, builders, tech, agriculture and all of their trade groups and lobbyists and political action committees.
Sullivan’s a pipsqueak.
So why is he so successful?
He would tell you it’s the message. People want an efficient and inexpensive government that can justify its programs and their costs.
That’s part of a wave, though. Other groups with similar messages have been less successful. The Tea Party is in that group, for instance.
Sullivan’s trick is in the delivery — a modern version of a familiar model. Remember the consumer groups of the 1970s and 1980s? In Texas civics, those were the voices regularly heard on issues like insurance rates, utility rates, hearings on whether and where nuclear reactors should be built, and often on environmental issues.
A couple of them were arms of big national organizations, like Consumers Union and Public Citizen. But there were also many smaller storefronts whose organizations consisted of a couple of activists, a letterhead and a fax machine.
Those consumer groups weren’t effective because of their size, or because they represented a lot of people or because they were the kinds of people who contributed much to political candidates. It’s because they were loud and offered a running counterpoint to what industry people were saying on the issues of the day.
Sullivan uses different methods. E-mails and Tweets and Facebook posts, robocalls and such have replaced fax machines. He’s more directly involved in campaigns than some of those earlier groups. Empower Texans has a small PAC. It gets more mileage out of its megaphone than out of that account, though: It’s more common to see a Republican candidate with the group’s endorsement than with its checks.
And Sullivan has a mouth on him. In a government town where most lobbyists and government players like to keep their heads down and avoid confrontation, he’s always willing to speak up, even when it means confronting powerful people in high offices.
You don’t have to agree with him — lots of people don’t — to see the effectiveness of what he’s doing.
He’s getting their attention.