There’s the A-Team. There’s the Dream Team. There’s America’s Team. And then there’s the curious lineup of grifters, crackpots, and opportunists that Christian Collins assembled on Saturday at Grace Church in the Woodlands, the wealthy enclave north of Houston, to support his bid for Congress. Call it the Scheme Team.
Collins, a political operative who worked on Senator Ted Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaign, is running to represent Texas’s Eighth Congressional District, which stretches from the Houston suburbs north to the Davy Crockett National Forest, just outside Lufkin. He faces ten opponents in the GOP primary to replace retiring Republican congressman Kevin Brady in a deep red district, and in the Woodlands he was relying on a team of ready-made Trumpian stars to make the case for him at a three-and-a-half-hour megachurch rally.
Among them were Mike Lindell, the manic pillow magnate who has spent the past year attempting to prove that Chinese hackers stole the 2020 presidential election from Donald Trump; Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, the CrossFit enthusiast and onetime QAnon supporter who blamed Jewish-funded space lasers for starting a California wildfire; Congressman Madison Cawthorn, the fresh-faced 26-year-old credibly accused by multiple college classmates of harassment (Cawthorn denies the accusations); and Rogan O’Handley, an entertainment lawyer turned podcaster who broadcasts under the nom de pod of DC Draino.
Collins’s race has divided prominent Republicans. His supporters in the open primary include Cruz and much of the tea-party-aligned Congressional Freedom Caucus, while Rick Perry, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, Congressman Dan Crenshaw, and the U.S. House Republican leadership have lined up behind Morgan Luttrell, a retired Navy SEAL and former special adviser in Perry’s Department of Energy. Although there isn’t polling on the race, Collins and Luttrell appear to be the strongest candidates. (Neither Brady nor Trump has endorsed anyone in the race.) With no candidate likely to win an absolute majority, the primary appears to be heading toward a runoff.
Brady, the thirteen-term congressman whom Collins is seeking to replace, made his reputation as chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, successfully shepherding Trump’s massive 2017 tax cut through the House. But no one at Grace Church was particularly interested in making a case for Collins based on his ability to effectively legislate. Greene, the undisputed star of the event, structured her speech as a stand-up comedy set, complete with setups, punch lines, and callbacks to previous jokes.
She delighted the crowd with such bon mots as calling the nation’s capital the “District of Communism” and referring to Nancy Pelosi as “Speaker Mask Face.” Drawing on an online conspiracy theory, she asserted that Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau, another bête noire for the Grace Church crowd, was the son of Fidel Castro—“only a little more feminine looking.” Greene and other speakers invited the audience to participate by booing favorite heels such as Anthony Fauci and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, chanting “Lock Her Up!” about Hillary Clinton, and shouting “RINO” (Republican in Name Only) at mentions of George W. Bush and John McCain.
As the hours passed and one speaker after another paraded onstage—there were thirteen in all, including Grace Church senior pastor Steve Riggle—the rally began to feel like an open mic night. Even by the through-the-looking-glass standard of the event, Lindell’s half-hour rant about election fraud was particularly unmoored from reality. Without once mentioning Collins’s name, Lindell indulged in a stream-of-consciousness monologue about the various conspiracy theories he claimed to have uncovered. “China has attacked us through the machines,” he declared at one point. “It was a cyberattack of epic proportions.” He then complained that Fox News no longer allows him on air. “Our biggest enemy is the media right now, and it’s not the bad media, it’s Fox.”
Lindell went so far over his allotted time that the next speaker, Cawthorn, was forced to come onstage to ask when he would finish. (It took another ten minutes, but Lindell did eventually wrap up.) Cawthorn proved significantly more polished than Lindell, but ultimately just as untethered from reality. “We’re going to launch a formal investigation into Anthony Fauci to see what actual funding he provided under his leadership to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, in China,” the freshman congressman promised, to applause. “Why did he lie to Congress, and why the hell isn’t he in jail right now?”
When they focused on the actual race, the speakers at the Woodlands rally attempted to portray Collins as the insurgent and Luttrell as the establishment candidate—despite the fact that both are first-time candidates, and share virtually all the same policy positions. Several attacked Luttrell for the sin of being friends with congressman and fellow Navy SEAL Adam Kinzinger, an outspoken Trump critic and a member of the House select committee investigating the January 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. At a February candidate forum, Collins called Kinzinger “a traitor to our country” for serving on the committee. Luttrell agreed that the committee was “bad for the Republican Party” but refused to renounce his friendship with Kinzinger. “I don’t agree with anything Adam says politically anymore, but the man is not a traitor to his country,” Luttrell protested. “He fought in a war for his country.”
The speakers at Grace Church showered scorn on Luttrell’s supporters—particularly Crenshaw, another retired SEAL who represents an adjacent, heavily gerrymandered district stretching across portions of Montgomery and Harris counties. The rising Republican star was slammed for refusing to say the 2020 election was stolen and for calling some Freedom Caucus members grifters and performance artists.
Greene, in particular, appeared to take Crenshaw’s quip about Republicans being divided between “legislators” and “performance artists” personally. “We sure do not like people calling themselves a conservative, but all they really are is a performance artist themselves,” Greene said to rapturous applause. Yet the rest of Greene’s talk seemed to confirm Crenshaw’s point. Greene boasted about having her committee assignments taken away by the Republican leadership, and called the work of actually legislating “completely pointless” since Democrats control the House. (“They don’t do much legislative work in Washington,” Southern Methodist University political scientist Cal Jillson said of the Freedom Caucus, “so they spend all their time trying to get booked on Fox News and the various podcasts.”)
Compared with his more flamboyant guests, Collins seemed downright milquetoast. Wearing a crisp dress shirt, a blazer, and an Apple watch, the youthfully handsome congressional candidate recited conservative boilerplate on abortion, election security, guns, and immigration. He did stake out some Overton Window–shifting positions, such as advocating that Fauci be jailed and eliminating mail-in voting, and much of the red meat he threw to the ravenous crowd—deporting all undocumented immigrants, putting a total moratorium on legal immigration—was predictably rancid. But try as he might, Collins simply couldn’t mimic the antic energy of Greene, Lindell, or Ted Cruz’s father Rafael, who was attending in the senator’s (unexplained) absence.
“This race is about the people versus the Washington establishment,” Collins told the crowd, sounding very much like a Washington establishment politician compared with his peers. He tried peppering his address with right-wing buzzwords (“globalists,” “the uniparty,” “George Soros,” “big tech”) as if checking them off a list. None of it sounded very natural or convincing.
By the time Collins wrapped up the marathon rally by leading the audience in prayer, it had become apparent why Trump hasn’t endorsed him yet. To succeed in Trump’s Republican Party, you need more than good looks, Fox News–ready soundbites, and impeccably right-wing positions. You need the sense of theatricality that sent Lindell on a year-long crusade to expose rigged voting machines and impelled Greene to incur nearly $100,000 in fines for refusing to wear a mask on the House floor. For all his earnest effort, Collins just couldn’t pull it off.