Steve Stockman is a clever troll. The Republican Congressman from Texas gives his donors Obama barf bags (tagline: socialism makes me sick!), says his favorite gun lubricant is “liberal tears” and hawks bumper stickers that suggest the solution to abortion is distributing firearms to babies. A two-term backbencher with no legislative accomplishments, he is known mostly for outrageous tweets.
So when Stockman announced in December that he would give up his House seat to challenge John Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, he seemed like a long shot. Now he is more like a laughingstock. Stockman trailed by more than 40 points in a recent poll and reported just $32,000 on hand, compared with Cornyn’s $6.9 million. He hasn’t campaigned much, but it wasn’t because of his day job, where he missed 17 consecutive House votes in January. A Texas campaign headquarters was condemned for safety violations. Stockman’s bid has been “one of the most bizarre, least professional, most unserious campaigns I have ever witnessed,” says Matt Mackowiak, a Texas-based Republican consultant.
That may be exactly as planned. For a particular breed of protest candidate, campaigns are no longer just a means to an end. A shrewd provocateur can use the platform to win the same notoriety as an elected official–and without the drudgery of cold calls, meet and greets, and committee work.
Losing can have its rewards. In 2012, Herman Cain’s hapless presidential bid boosted book sales and built an email list from which he continues to profit. Newt Gingrich parlayed his into a gig at CNN. Then there’s Donald Trump, whose serial flirtations with public office can always be counted on to goose ratings of The Apprentice.
Stockman, who filed for the Senate race just ahead of the deadline, vows to offer a conservative alternative to Cornyn. In Texas, some have a different theory. Stockman is saddled with $163,000 in prior campaign debt. His mysterious run, says Mackowiak, “was never intended to be anything more than a debt-retirement project.” Instead of trolling his enemies, this time he may be targeting fans.
This appears in the February 10, 2014 issue of TIME.