Like all great modern American sagas, Dustin Stockton’s started with a Google query.
"How to start a political action committee," he typed into the search engine.
The year was 2008. The U.S. economy was collapsing. And Stockton, 25, had been laid off from his job driving forklifts at a warehouse during the graveyard shift.
After watching Congress dither before bailing out the banks that had just caused the value of his house to plummet, Stockton got angry and decided to do something crazy: oust Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) from Congress.
Five years later, Harry Reid is still around. But so is Stockton: He is the chief strategist for Western Representation PAC and, until a week ago, for TheTeaParty.net, a group with an email list nearly 200,000 strong. His PAC and TheTeaParty.net Leadership Fund pulled in more than $2 million combined in the 2012 election cycle.
He has just put out a self-published book, Community Organizer: A Tea Party Story, describing how he went from playing competitive poker to barnstorming across the country with the Tea Party Express.
There might not be a better way of understanding the fortunes—and misfortunes—of the Tea Party than through the unlikely political career of Dustin Stockton.
I caught up with him this year at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). The real "coalition building" at CPAC goes on at the after-parties and in the hotel suites. Sure, you could rent a table for $5,000 and hand out literature. Or you can do the smart thing and buy a bar’s worth of booze.
When I walked into Stockton’s suite at the Gaylord Hotel on a Saturday afternoon, after two full days of CPAC bacchanalia, everyone looked haggard.
"Good call on getting a smoking room," I said.
"Well, technically it’s not."
Stockton likes to keep it casual with jeans and sneakers, in sharp contrast to the CPAC Men’s Wearhouse crowd. He’s tall with a scruffy brown beard and a pack of Winstons always on his person, and looks like a mashup of Tom Brady (Patriot) and Seann William Scott (Stifler).
Over the first two days of the convention, a who’s-who of conservative insiders joined the festivities at Stockton’s suite: Jimmy LaSalvia, the president of GOProud; a senior staffer for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.); Cam Edwards, the host of NRA Radio News; Will Upton, the state affairs manager of Americans for Tax Reform; several former Newt Gingrich staffers; and a staffer for Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.).
That last one is funny because Stockton is plotting to run a primary challenger against Graham in 2014.
"Lindsey Graham is going down," Stockton said.
He’s also plotting to flip the seat of retiring Sen. Carl Levin (D., Mich.). Stockton is a busy man.
"I hate school," Stockton said. "I hate the institution of education. It’s really kind of amazing I graduated high school." Only the debate team held his interest.
After graduating high school, Stockton moved to Eugene, Ore., for four or five years, dabbling in enough classes at the local community college to stay debate eligible. Mostly, though, he played competitive poker.
He moved back to the Reno area after he married and started having kids.
Stockton said the crossover between the poker table and politics "is really kind of disgusting."
"The thing I always loved about poker is, in most of life, ruthlessness is frowned upon," Stockton said. "At a poker table it’s the opposite. The guy with the most strategy and the most ruthlessness is rewarded with all the money. It’s a pretty good gig. Politics is similar in that the more you set up your play, the more you’re rewarded."
Part of the reason Stockton travelled to CPAC this year was to convince big-time donors he has the table strategy to win. The money his organization has raised from small donors is enough to play in House races, but it’s chump change compared with the hundreds of millions thrown around by the game’s big players.
Stockton says the difference between he and Karl Rove is that Rove-aligned groups dumped $400 million in the 2012 election and have little to show for it.
"I’m willing to guarantee my winning percentage would be above Karl Rove’s 2 percent in 2012," Stockton said, laughing. "I’ll go out on a limb and say that."
Stockton has little good to say of the political class.
"There’s a handful of consultants who are good, but most of the poker games I’ve played in D.C., pros would pay to get access to," he said. "These guys have a bunch of money, and they’re as crappy at poker as they are at politics. It’s a beautiful thing."
In 2009, in his leisure time, Stockton began reading the Federal Election Committee’s (FEC) 100-page guide to non-connected committees.
"I see it as a fight between the old establishment and regular people," Stockton said. "The establishment takes advantage of all these douchebag rules and ridiculous polices the FEC puts out, so why shouldn’t I?"
The Western Representation PAC filed its statement of organization with the FEC that May. Stockton’s dad was, and still is, the treasurer.
The going was slow at first. Stockton traveled to a nascent Tea Party rally in Sacramento and handed out 500 pamphlets for his PAC. The result: about 15 page-views of its website.
Only two people outside of Stockton’s family attended one of his first fundraisers at a pizza parlor.
It wasn’t until he read Game Change, an account of the 2008 campaign, that Stockton began learning how to leverage social media into political action. He created a "Campaign Against Harry Reid" Facebook page.
He also started filming local events hosted by the Tea Party Express, one of the biggest Tea Party groups, and emailed organizers to let them know he would help any way he could.
A few days before the Tea Party Express launched a national tour, Stockton was invited to join.
"Harry Reid was a prime target, and we had spent a lot of time in Nevada," said Sal Russo, the cofounder and chief strategist of the Tea Party Express. "We just kept running into him at things, and he kept offering to help. We got comfortable working with him, so we asked him to come along."
Stockton figured it might lead to a paying gig. If it didn’t, he planned to get out of politics. Truck driving was always an option.
Before he departed on the 2010 Tea Party Express, Stockton's mom gave him the following advice: "Eat salads and keep your nose clean."
On the way to the Tea Party, Stockton and his dad hit up a $65 buy-in, no-limit poker tournament at the Sahara in Vegas. They split the winner’s spoils, around a couple thousand bucks.
It just seemed to be the way things were breaking that year. Older video game aficionados may recall Game Genie, the Nintendo accessory that promised players the ability to "go to any level, jump higher, stay bigger, live forever."
The unofficial motto on the bus: "Game Genie."
By 2010, Stockton and his fellow organizers had reason to feel like they were playing with the cheat codes. Tea Party candidates were upsetting races all across the country.
But there was a hitch. Her name was Sharron Angle.
Tea Party Express organizers had decided to throw their weight behind the former state legislator "in a Red Bull-fueled haze," according to Stockton’s book.
And Angle had a media problem. The problem: She hated the media.
When Angle won the GOP primary after staging an improbable comeback from a 40 percent deficit (thanks in part to roughly half a million dollars in Tea Party groups’ support), Stockton went to the victory party in Vegas.
"I show up to the RNC party in Vegas wearing my cowboy boots and my cowboy hat, and I’m ready for a serious party," Stockton said.
The media also couldn’t wait to interview the GOP’s new Senate candidate for Nevada.
Angle got up on stage and gave a regular stump speech, not a victory speech, and was promptly whisked up to her hotel suite by security. She gave no interviews.
"Oh, this is bad," Stockton recalls thinking. "This is less than good."
Stockton and his fellow organizers went upstairs and offered to set up Angle with an exclusive interview with Fox News’ Carl Cameron.
"Yeah, so we don’t know if we can trust Fox News," Angle’s communications staffer told them.
"We kept expecting they were going to spend all their money at the end of the race," Stockton said. "Well, it turns out all the political consulting wolves she got fed to were literally just keeping all the money they were hoarding."
He said getting behind Sharron Angle was "the worst political decision of my life."
But there was little time to mope. The Tea Party Express tour was in full swing. Other primaries beckoned.
The Tea Party Express turned its attention to Joe Miller, who was running a primary challenge against Sen. Lisa Murkowski in Alaska.
Problem was, Alaska is huge and sparsely populated, making a traditional tour unfeasible. So the Tea Party Express booked cabins on cruise ship tours.
"We couldn't get a bus up there, because it was too far to drive," Russo said. "I think it was [Tea Party Express coordinator] Joe Werzbicki that came up with the idea. All the places we wanted to go besides Fairbanks were on the cruise ship line, and it was actually cheaper than car rentals or flights."
Stockton and about five other Tea Party Express staffers spent nine weeks total on cruise ships, setting up rallies at stops in Sitka, Ketchikan, and other ports of call.
"We kept expecting the media to put it together, but no one figured it out until after the election, when we leaked it," Stockton said.
Working from a cruise ship has its dangers. After enjoying a 2 for 1 cocktail special, Stockton sat down in the ship’s salon and asked the hairdresser to give him a "cul-de-sac," shaving the top of his head so he looked like a monk.
It was pretty funny, until Stockton realized he'd have to shave his head before an upcoming press conference. Perhaps not the best optics for a movement the media already accused of racism.
Nevertheless, Miller beat Murkowski in the primary, forcing her to run an embarrassing but successful write-in campaign.
After the 2010 cycle, Stockton left the Tea Party Express to join TheTeaParty.net and refocus his efforts on his PAC.
As soon as Stockton arrived at the Washington Free Beacon office for a sit-down interview, he hopped on the phone with radio host Martha Zoller in Georgia.
Zoller ran for a House seat in 2010 with Tea Party endorsements, but lost in the primary to a former GOP representative. Over the phone, Stockton moved from talking point to talking point with ease, discussing CPAC and what he’d been hearing on "the Hill."
The former forklift driver sounds Beltway-bred now.
"Changing the game means little when the game is over and there is serious work to be done," Stockton writes in one of the earlier chapters of his book.
It’s a tidy summation of where the Tea Party now finds itself. The Game Genie days are over.
Slate’s Dave Weigel reported recently that the congressional Tea Party Caucus hasn’t been active since July 2012. The caucus, once 60 strong, lost 10 of its members in the 2012 cycle, including high-profile names like Allen West, whom TheTeaParty.net and Western Representation PAC spent $51,500 supporting.
"2012 was tough," Stockton said. "We really are custom-built for midterms. The presidential campaign sucks all the oxygen, media coverage and money out of the room."
It wasn’t so bad for Stockton personally, though. During the 2012 GOP presidential primary he found campaign work with Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, and Newt Gingrich.
"People wonder what happened," Stockton said. "The best of us went in and started taking shit over."
Others say the Tea Party was never about the structure anyway.
"The Tea Party is by no means dead," Joe Miller said in an interview with the Free Beacon. "The Tea Party by definition is not these organizations. It’s a grassroots response to the growth of the federal government."
The recent gun debate has fired up some of that old energy, activists said. TheTeaParty.net recently helped organized a nation-wide "day of resistance" in February to oppose calls by Democrats for stricter gun laws.
According to Stockton, there were 137 rallies in 39 states, more than 100,000 people in attendance, with three weeks of planning.
Liberals pooh-poohed the rallies.
Same as it ever was.
Stockton split from TheTeaParty.net about a week ago and is now focusing on his own PAC and projects.
He launched Liberty Pulse, a site where he plans to use his Capitol Hill connections to foster public discussion of libertarian policy. He’s also working on a crowd-funding site, which he describes as similar to a political Kickstarter.
Over the next four years, he wants to refine his data organization and target supporters by location and issues. His organizations are building up local leaders who ran for city council seats in 2010 and 2012 for future elections.
In addition to Graham and Levin’s seat, Stockton wants to target Sen. Mark Begich (D., Alaska), the only Democrat elected to federal office in Alaska.
"I know this is hard to believe," Stockton told me. "But we’re looking to get back on the cruise ship and back to Alaska." And this time, he won't have to search Google for answers.