When Rick Perry finally announced his presidential run last weekend, he headed to a conference hosted by Red State, a conservative blog network helmed by Erick Erickson. Erickson and Red State have become a proxy for the conservative Republican base, and launching a White House bid with Erickson's explicit backing helped Perry jump to the front of the pack in one poll of likely Republican voters. And his influence doesn't just flow downstream: Republican lawmakers who so stubbornly refused to compromise during the debt-ceiling debate had Red State's readers in mind, or at least that's the way Erickson tells it. "Had there not been people like me and others holding feet to the fire, we wouldn't have gotten as much as we got," he said in a phone interview.
Erickson has positioned himself as an intermediary who can connect politicians with an army of fired-up faithful — even if some of them frighten him sometimes. "I could put up a post saying I was going to the bathroom, and there'd be five comments telling me to watch out for the Jews while I'm there," he said. And he has clearly taken on a certain swagger about the calls he gets from politicians seeking his favor.
During the debt-ceiling debate Erickson wrote a post framing himself as the House Republicans' unyielding, unforgiving confessor:
“In the past 48 hours I have had call after call after call from members of the United States Congress. They’ve read what I’ve written.They agree. But they feel the hour is short and the end is nigh.So some are calling looking for alternatives. Some are calling looking for energy. Many are calling looking for absolution. And so I address them and put it here so you can see my advice. I can give no absolution for what you may be about to do. I can offer no alternatives.”
Today's Red State has the heft of Daily Kos in its Joe Lieberman–destroying prime. One key difference, as Ben Adler pointed out in The Nation, is that bloggers on the left "weren’t getting calls from Democrats in Congress begging them for dispensation to vote for a bill that is terrible for Democratic priorities." In 2011, the liberal grassroots feels even more alienated from elected Democrats. It's not that lawmakers aren't calling; it often feels like they're not even listening.
"I was surprised by a lot of people on the left who reacted like they don't get phone calls like that," Erickson said.
Erickson — a lawyer by training, who was brought up in Louisiana and Dubai — is an unlikely 36-year-old macher. He did a brief stint on his local city council and managed a few campaigns, but his real political starting point came in 2004, when he became involved in blogging. His vitriol against Harriet Myers's nomination put him on the map as an unbending, indignant voice of the conservative grassroots.
The blog arguably "arrived," though, in 2010: Erickson is credited with making Marco Rubio a national star on the right, and he also played a crucial role in Nikki Haley's election. ("Nikki and I are personal friends," he told me. "I talked to her just today while I was changing a diaper.") Erickson's rise tracks pretty closely with that of the tea party — Red State's stars are tea-party stars, and the candidates Erickson says he likes for 2012 — Perry, Bachmann — are the ones pushing the GOP field away from the center. Erickson says he'll ultimately back whomever the party selects, but he's also not likely to stop pushing the nominee as far right as he can.
Erickson runs his online, radio, and TV operations out of his living room. When he appears on CNN — where he was hired as a contributor last year, to great dismay from liberals who noted that he had referred to former Supreme Court Justice David Souter as a "goat-fucking child molester" — you can occasionally see his unglamorous drapes in the background.
Established Republicans in Washington don't seem wild about his influence. Tea-party-affiliated Representative Joe Walsh is the only House Republican who has copped publicly to asking Erickson for advice, and Erickson told me he felt bad about the grilling several tea-party freshmen got from reporters over whether they look to him as a consigliere. One anonymous Hill staffer tried to downplay Erickson's importance, saying his influence would be greater if "he was a little more strategic."
But the results of Erickson's strategy thus far are hard to fault: He's positioned himself at the porous border between politics, media, and advocacy, which seems to be more permeable the farther you go on the right. The D.C. establishment might be leery, but at CNN his outsider status is exactly what got him a seat at the table. The danger is that Erickson's ambitions to burnish his brand could run the risk of diluting the very thing that has set him apart. "I have a horrible dream that someday I'll wake up and be part of the establishment," he said.
This post has been updated.