In his lengthy political career, Charles Eugene “Chip” Roy has rarely been one of Texas’s loudest or showiest examples of That Guy—see: Louie Gohmert, Briscoe Cain, Steve Stockman. He prefers to pick his battles, a trait that has given him more influence and staying power than some of his more stunt-prone contemporaries. This week, he has picked one of his biggest battles in years, as he serves as the most prominent Texan in the crew of congresspeople who began the ongoing ritual humiliation and sacrifice of would-be House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. Roy and a small group of like-minded warriors for freedom have effectively vetoed the nomination of the representative from Bakersfield, California, whom they view as a weak-kneed “Republican in Name Only,” for an incredible eight rounds of voting.
Typically, Texas politicians who fall in the That Guy category rail against the system and the establishment, which they say is a threat to the Texas values that many That Guys have dedicated their lives to defending. Roy, who was born inside the D.C. swamp in Bethesda, Maryland, and raised in Virginia, does precisely this, but he is a prominent member of a subcategory of That Guys who are also consummate insiders. He is a miniature of his longtime mentor and ally Ted Cruz: a veteran political operative from out of state, bound for the upper class, who rode to office on the back of a folksy populist persona and a nickname. They’re even both now experimenting with facial hair.
I. Early life and education
Roy was raised an hour outside of D.C. and graduated from the University of Virginia. He spent a few years in finance before winding his way to the University of Texas School of Law. Once here, he caught on with John Cornyn’s 2002 Senate campaign, perhaps in hopes it would send him back to the Beltway. He credits his decision to turn his life to politics to the 9/11 attacks, yet another thing for which America can blame Mohamed Atta (along with making Ted Cruz decide to stop listening to classic rock).
II. Early career
Roy marinated on Cornyn’s staff in the Senate for most of the rest of the decade. Then, following a brief stint as an assistant U.S. attorney, he became a one-man think tank, ghostwriting then-governor Rick Perry’s 2010 book Fed Up! A slim 220 pages, Roy’s opus championed a greatest hits of then-popular ideas among the tea party movement, including that Social Security was probably unconstitutional and that the Seventeenth Amendment, allowing for the popular election of senators, had been a big mistake. Roy probably expected the book to herald Perry’s ascent to the presidency, after which Roy could surely count on a juicy White House job.
That didn’t happen, but when the Lord closes one door, he opens another. Perry was an imperfect messenger for the tea party’s agenda, but Cruz was a great one. When Cruz, who had become familiar with Roy during his days as Texas solicitor general, entered the Senate in 2013, Roy became his chief of staff. Having spent much of the last decade working for a senator, Roy knew how to break things, so he did. He helped design one of the boldest gambits ever offered by a newly elected senator: forcing a shutdown of the federal government and attempting to keep it shut until Congress defunded Obamacare.
This plan had no chance of success, and it irritated other Republicans deeply. In Roy’s telling, it only failed to usher in the defunding of the Affordable Care Act because wishy-washy “hand-wringers” in the Senate weren’t willing enough to shoot the hostage and stand firm until Democrats caved. But while the ploy wasn’t successful, it did put Cruz’s name on the map—and, beside his appellation, Roy’s. A few years later, Roy was set to help run Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaign. But then he bucked his boss, resigning from Cruz’s staff in what both men describe as a mostly amicable breakup over tactics and strategy.
In 2015, Roy continued his Forrest Gump–like run through the back rooms of Texas political notables, serving as assistant attorney general to the newly elected Ken Paxton. Paxton, whose long tenure in office has been overshadowed by ethical improprieties, indictments, and allegations large and small, has never had the best reputation as a hard worker or thinker, so Roy quickly became subject to the perception that he was, in effect, the real AG. Paxton didn’t like that. The two squabbled for credit: in one bizarre incident, Paxton put into state record that his plane ticket to D.C. to argue in front of the Supreme Court cost less taxpayer money than Roy’s. Paxton soon fired Roy, while keeping him on the payroll. Continuing to pull state money, the small-government crusader Roy went back to work for a pro-Cruz political action committee.
III. U.S. House
In 2018, Roy once again made a bid to return, like a salmon, to the place upstream where he was spawned: the Beltway. This time as a congressman. Running for an open seat in a safe Republican district west of Austin, Roy, who had Cruz’s endorsement, made his way through an eighteen-way GOP primary with relative ease. (Support from the Club for Growth, a prominent right-wing PAC, and the campaign arm of the House Freedom Caucus, also helped.) Campaign coverage likened him to a mini-Cruz, but in truth, the two men had diverging trajectories. Cruz, chastened by his failure to secure the only job he ever really wanted in 2016, often looked like a beaten puppy those days, playing his greatest hits for tips at Mar-a-Lago. Roy made peace with Cruz’s captor, Donald Trump, but he was as much of an iconoclast as ever. Upon assuming office, the freshman congressman suggested that he was a conservative version of Democratic representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
In Congress, Roy has continued his strong independent streak, earning the title of “obstructionist,” which is a congressional euphemism for “one who doesn’t obey.” He is not afraid to annoy his like-minded colleagues, and he occasionally takes strong stands that have even committed Roy-haters tipping their caps—just before doing something they find totally deplorable. In 2019, he voiced his unhappiness about some anodyne debate over spending bills by launching a motion to adjourn—causing members of Congress to run to the floor from whatever they had been doing to vote it down and keep the House in session, a big etiquette breach that earned him animosity from party mates. He has also shown a willingness to turn on old allies. When Paxton was accused by seven members of his senior staff of accepting a bribe in 2020, Roy called for him to resign, which most Republicans in Austin weren’t willing to do. (Paxton denied the accusation.)
When it comes to Roy’s personal politics, or ideology, there’s no compromise. In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Roy called for the U.S. to reach “herd immunity” as quickly as possible—by mass infection—and not wait for a vaccine, which would have minimized economic disruption but resulted in a huge number of additional deaths. In 2022, he was one of three members of Congress to vote against a bill making lynching a federal hate crime. (The bill, he said, only served “to advance a woke agenda.”) The next month, in a congressional hearing about violence targeting Asian Americans after a spree shooting in Atlanta, Roy hijacked proceedings with a bizarre tangent about the threat of “Chicoms,” Cold War slang for the Chinese communist party, and endorsed the legitimacy of lynching as a tool to get “the bad guys.”
But where he’s proved most iconoclastic is on Trump. In the aftermath of the 2020 presidential campaign, the congressman initially encouraged Trump’s chief of staff to produce “evidence” that the election had been stolen, then ultimately condemned those, including Cruz, who called to halt the certification of the election. Roy even called Trump’s behavior leading to the riots at the Capitol impeachable—but, in the kind of maddening twist to which he has become so accustomed, did not vote to impeach.
In short, most of what you may have found irritating or arrogant or moronic or laudable or heroic about Cruz’s first brilliant term in Congress happened when Roy was his chief of staff. And while Cruz slowly faded into the background, Roy became a congressman so he could assume the obstructionist mantle. He’s just as outspoken and infuriating as ever—but unlike the Louie Gohmerts of the world, he cares more about influencing the process than yelling. He’s a rock-ribbed ideologue but not a partisan, which makes him an unusual figure in D.C. So, naturally, he has become one of the loudest figures currently impaling Kevin McCarthy on a big ceremonial spike.
IV. Speaker of the House vote
Roy has not led the coup against McCarthy per se, but he’s naturally been in the mix. He has demanded concessions and promises, including an end to U.S. aid to Ukraine and a new way of doing business from McCarthy, to end the imbroglio. Roy told radio host Mark Davis on Wednesday morning that McCarthy didn’t have the guts to truly break the “swamp cartel.” He wants a leader who will take a brick bat to the White House, like Cruz tried to do in 2013. Who is Roy’s sicario? On Wednesday, he nominated for Speaker congressman Byron Donalds, arguing that the Floridian had “moved past adversity” and had “devoted his life to advancing the cause for his family and this country.”
As Roy maneuvered Tuesday, Justin Amash, the painfully earnest Republican former congressman from Michigan who has put himself forward for Speaker, tweeted that Roy, with his new Van Dyke facial hair, looked like the “mirror universe version” of the man Amash served with a few years before. But Roy hasn’t changed, of course. He’s been That Guy all along.