Michael Cloud prides himself on being one of the most pro-Trump members of Congress. Representing a mostly rural district that stretches from Corpus Christi to the outer Houston suburbs—and includes a gangly appendage of land reaching northwest toward Austin—Cloud was one of the 126 Republican U.S. representatives to sign an amicus brief in support of Texas attorney general Ken Paxton’s quixotic lawsuit seeking to overturn the 2020 presidential election. After the January 6 insurrection, during which Capitol Police guarded Cloud as he fled the House chamber, the Texan was one of just 21 representatives to vote against awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to those same police officers.
In return for his fealty, Cloud, a small-business owner from Victoria who was first elected to Congress in 2018, has received a coveted endorsement from the former president. “Michael is a strong supporter of our America First agenda, and has my Complete and Total Endorsement!” Trump announced in December.
But for former Jackson County sheriff A.J. Louderback, Cloud just isn’t Trumpy enough. Louderback, who retired last month after serving five terms as sheriff of the southeast Texas county, argues that Cloud hasn’t shown sufficient zeal in fighting the Biden administration, particularly on border policy. “We have have been inundated with chaos from the administration, and I just haven’t seen much representation at the local level,” Louderback recently told me. Louderback appears to be the only former Texas sheriff running for Congress other than Troy Nehls, who represents a suburban district southwest of Houston. But he’s one of countless Republican primary challengers across the state and country trying to out-Trump an incumbent—even if that incumbent happens to bear Trump’s endorsement.
Louderback is a longtime anti-immigration activist. He founded and serves as president of the hardline Texas Regional Sheriff’s Alliance, a group of eighteen Gulf Coast sheriffs who share resources and lobby the Legislature on their core issues of expanding gun rights and “securing our local borders.” (The group includes no sheriffs from actual border counties.) Louderback has spoken at events organized by the Center for Immigration Studies and the Federation for American Immigration Reform, both of which the Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled extremist hate groups. He’s called for arming schoolteachers and administrators (with “the proper training”) to protect students from mass shooters.
In addition to Louderback, Cloud faces three other Republican challengers: Chris Mapp, a self-employed businessman from Port O’Connor who lost to Cloud in the 2018 GOP primary; Andrew Alvarez, a Victoria auto dealer consultant; and oil and gas consultant Eric Mireles. There hasn’t been any polling, but Louderback is generally considered the strongest challenger. Over the past few years, the sheriff has become a familiar face on cable news as a self-proclaimed immigration expert, his rugged visage and cowboy hat lending gravitas to familiar anti-immigrant rhetoric. In the past year he has appeared at least ten times on Fox News, three times on Fox Business, and three times on Newsmax.
Jackson County is a small, rural community of around 15,000 people on Matagorda Bay, nearly 250 miles from the border. But you wouldn’t know that from Louderback’s media appearances railing about the drugs and violence supposedly wracking South Texas. “Do we talk about the level of fear here in Texas and across the United States as an open-border policy expands here?” he asked a sympathetic Fox and Friends host last May. “Do we talk about the cartel expansion—the strength and the power they now exhibit here in the United States? All of these things seem to be completely ignored.” (Perhaps because he isn’t from the border, Louderback seems unaware that South Texas is one of the safest regions of the country; research consistently shows that undocumented immigrants commit crimes at lower rates than native-born Americans.)
Louderback addressed about forty supporters at a campaign meet-and-greet January 6 at Drifter’s Hall, a cavernous live music venue in Port Lavaca. Wearing a stiff rolled-brim hat, boots, and a blue blazer, the former sheriff looked straight out of central casting. His weatherbeaten face seemed to bespeak an intimate familiarity with the dark side of human nature. “Human trafficking is off the charts,” he warned his audience. “You know about the narcotics, you know about the other things, you know about the chaos—all brought about by Biden administration policies.” One of the attendees, homemaker Katy Kurth, told me, “I don’t let my daughters go gas up at night because a group of illegals might come by.”
Because he and Cloud share virtually all the same positions, Louderback has been forced to highlight their different personalities. While Cloud presents as an amiable, go-along-to-get-along type, Louderback brings the kind of apocalyptic soundbites that are reminiscent of Senator Ted Cruz—and beloved by right-wing media. In October, Louderback appeared live on the Fox Business channel from Del Rio, on the Mexican border—about a five-hour drive from Jackson County. “Chaos has descended upon the United States in the form of no-enforcement policies here,” Louderback proclaimed. “It’s tragic. I lack the vocabulary to express what this administration has done to America, and to Texas.”
Louderback played up his combative persona in Port Lavaca.“If you want a fighter, I’m your guy,” he promised. First-term U.S. representatives wield little power; if he’s elected, most of Louderback’s fighting will likely take place over the airwaves rather than in Congress. But in a Republican party still dominated by Donald Trump, perhaps another cable news brawler is what primary voters want—even if Trump himself endorsed the other guy.
Throughout his presidency Trump basked in the support he received from right-wing sheriffs, inviting dozens to the White House for consultations and photo ops, including Louderback on at many occasions. For Trump, sheriffs seem to embody old-fashioned macho values and the kind of swaggering virility he admires. Louderback was happy to play up to this stereotype at the Port Lavaca event, mocking people who drive electric cars and bragging about growing up shooting guns.
Louderback was speaking on the one-year anniversary of the January 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, an occasion he chose not to commemorate. Instead he focused on January 20, the day of Biden’s inauguration. “We had a very secure border under President Trump,” he said. “We lost that four hours after President Biden took office”—an apparent reference to Biden’s Inauguration Day order halting construction of Trump’s border wall. Only during the Q&A after Louderback’s stump speech did the insurrection come up. The first speaker was maritime engineer Raymond Buckner, a Louderback supporter who had helped organize the meet-and-greet. “As far as the January 6 situation, I don’t believe that was perpetrated by loyal Republicans,” Buckner said, as Louderback nodded approvingly. “I believe what we saw on TV was perpetrated by some hired guns.”
Later in the evening, I asked Louderback who he thought was responsible for the attack. “I believe there were some plants there in that group,” he said, adding that he was suspicious of the circumstances surrounding the shooting of Trump supporter Ashli Babbitt by a Capitol Police officer as she tried to break into the speaker’s lobby. Louderback argued that many of the attackers had legitimate grievances about the 2020 presidential election. “You actually had good Americans who were very upset. There were a series of things they were upset about. Some attacked the police, and I’m a law and order guy, so that needed to be handled. But I do not agree that this was some sort of insurrection or other kind of issue.”
When I asked Louderback who won the election, he said he didn’t know. “I think there were a lot of irregularities about the election that concerned me. Each of those needs to be investigated so that we can move on.” (There were numerous such investigations, including by Trump’s attorney general Bill Barr. None found evidence of widespread voter fraud.) He added that the Capitol siege paled in comparison with the damage caused by civil rights protesters following the May 2020 murder of George Floyd. “We had millions of dollars’ worth of property damage, multiple lives lost, looting and burning all across the nation,” he told me, his voice rising in indignation. “Absolutely nothing was done, and there was very little coverage by the national news media.”
Louderback was echoing familiar Republican talking points: minimizing January 6, gently reproving the attacks on police, then quickly pivoting to Black Lives Matter. But it was jarring to hear a candidate who trumpets his forty-plus years as a peace officer—during his Port Lavaca speech, Louderback recalled lobbying state lawmakers against “legislative assaults on law enforcement”—pass so lightly over a massive, coordinated attack on fellow officers.
In a phone interview with Texas Monthly four days after the Louderback campaign event, Cloud made many of the same arguments about the Capitol riot. Like Louderback, Cloud believes there were “anomalies” in the 2020 election and that January 6 wasn’t an insurrection. He voted against awarding the gold medal to the Capitol Police, he said, because the resolution included a reference to the Capitol as the “temple of democracy,” a phrase he considered sacrilegious. “It’s this Marxist movement that tries to replace God with government,” he explained. “We tried to get a change so that I could support [the resolution], but that unfortunately was not able to happen.”
I asked Louderback if he was disappointed not to get Trump’s endorsement. After all, he had visited the Trump White House and includes photos of himself with the former president in his campaign materials. “No, because I understand,” he said. “It’s something I can’t talk about. I have access, and I know what happened.” Lacking the former president’s imprimatur, Louderback is counting on southeast Texas Republicans to decide for themselves which candidate hews closest to Trump in policy and style. “[Cloud and I] have a difference of opinion on the style of representation, and what representation means,” Louderback told me. “I probably will be more aggressive.”
This story has been updated to clarify Katy Kurth’s quote.