State Sen. Robert Nichols (R-Jacksonville) isn’t exactly a communist. Taciturn and serious, he’s represented his East Texas district since 2007. As head of the Senate Committee on Transportation, he’s pursued modest policy proposals and generally eschewed five-year plans. An analysis by Mark P. Jones of Rice University pegged Nichols as the sixth most conservative senator of the 83rd legislative session, with only tea partiers like Dan Patrick and Donna Campbell to his right. So, naturally, some people think he’s a pinko. In the last few weeks, an attack site surfaced targeting Nichols. The senator, it turns out, is “one of the more liberal Republicans in Texas,” a tyrant’s friend who “has overseen unprecedented growth in government” and “has opposed conservatives for many years.” He’s empowered government bureaucrats and zealously protected shady slush funds. It looks like the kind of site that’s employed in campaigns, but the campaign season is over. Nichols was unopposed in his primary race, and effectively unopposed in the general election, where he won more than 90 percent of the vote. The domain name—robertnicholsrecord.com—was bought on January 21, more than a week after the start of the session. There’s nothing on the site to identify its author, and the information that might normally be used to identify the domain name’s owner has been scrubbed, leaving the site effectively anonymous. Nichols’ office says they don’t know for sure who is responsible. But it seems likely that the site comes from the Tim Dunn/Michael Quinn Sullivan messaging network. There’s the emphasis on higher education policy. But more tellingly, there’s the invocation of a 2013 Wall Street Journal op-ed, “Texas Goes Sacramento,” which Dunn’s groups love. And they have a motive to attack Nichols—he co-authored Senate Bill 346 last session, a bill that would require disclosure of so-called “dark money” expenditures. The bill, which easily passed both chambers but was vetoed by Gov. Perry, was widely understood to be targeting Michael Quinn Sullivan’s groups in particular. Still, why? What use is the site to anyone? That’s harder to determine, and it seems like a pretty poor use of Dunn’s money. It’s probably best understood as a shot across Nichols’ bow, coming as it does at the start of a session in which Nichols, through his leadership of Senate Transportation, will have an outsized footprint on policy. But hardly anyone has seen it. It stayed off social media altogether until it was tweeted out by Dwayne Stovall, last year’s hapless primary challenger to John Cornyn, last weekend. Movement conservatives had an amazing amount of success at launching primary challengers to Senate Republicans they deemed too moderate last cycle. For one, they knocked off incumbent Bob Deuell and replaced him with Bob Hall, a guy with a troubled past who’s been wandering around the Capitol the last few weeks talking about the United Nations, EMPs, and “the War of Northern Aggression.” But the campaign to subvert Nichols is another thing altogether—it’s actually kind of surreal. If he’s a liberal, who’s left? “If the person or organization that created this website would like to identify themselves, we would be happy to sit down and discuss the issues and concerns they have,” Nichols told the Observer in a statement. “I stand by my record of representing East Texas values and do not hide from it. That’s unlike the people or organization who created this website, who can’t even put their name on it, because they know they are distorting the truth and trying to mislead my constituents.” If creating anonymous attack sites to bully legislators who are your allies on most issues and hiding your identity while doing it sounds like a slightly seedy way to do politics, remember that Sullivan’s Empower Texans decided to use a song about a stalker and sexual predator to characterize their legislative agenda this cycle: http://youtu.be/lnDRaEaKXOo
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Christopher Hooks is a freelance journalist in Austin.