WOODVILLE, Texas — Brian Babin, the small-town dentist poised to take over Steve Stockman's House seat in November, may be a political unknown in Washington — but don't try peddling that line to folks here.
Everybody in the vast, mostly rural 36th in southeast Texas, it seems, knows "Doc Babin."
During an interview with CQ Roll Call recently at a diner in his hometown, the 66-year-old Republican was greeted with hugs and handshakes from almost everyone in the lunch crowd, including a star-struck waitress who said she's been a fan — "He's great!" — of the longtime local dentist since she was a little girl.
Babin, dressed casually in jeans and a checked shirt, worked the room like he was the mayor (which, of course, is one of the many posts he's held in this community of 2,586).
"After all these years, I feel like I know every Republican in five counties — and most Democrats, too, for that matter," Babin said, grinning.
Those connections, built up over decades — he's also been a city councilman, a school board member, chamber of commerce director, state historical commission member and a representative on the area water authority — made him a formidable contender when Stockman announced last year he would forgo another term in the House to mount what turned out to be an ill-fated challenge to Sen. John Cornyn.
But it was Babin's work since the 1980s helping to build the Texas Republican machine that pushed him over the top in a crowded GOP primary and the following runoff earlier this year.
In an overwhelmingly Republican district, Babin and Houston banker Ben Streusand emerged from a 12-candidate GOP scrum in March that included several other southeast Texas mayors, a retired Army colonel and Doug Centilli, former chief of staff for Texas Rep. Kevin Brady.
A few weeks later, Babin won the runoff, 58 percent to 42 percent, against Streusand.
Streusand doesn't actually live in the district — a fact that hurt the tea party firebrand in a corner of the state with a history of sending colorful characters — Stockman, Jack Brooks, Charlie Wilson — to Washington.
In his campaign, Streusand called himself the "true conservative" in the race, and touted his tea party endorsements. Babin countered with his own tea party connections: He helped found and is a member of the local Tyler County Patriots.
But while tea party credentials are crucial in today's Texas GOP, Babin's victory in the May runoff was decades in the making: The small-town dentist's roots in the party run as deep as they can get.
"You have to remember, when he first got here in the late '70s, it wasn't so easy to have a business and be a Republican," said Jim Powers, editor of the Tyler County Booster. "These days, it's hard to find a Democrat."
In the 1980s, Babin ran regional Texas operations for the Reagan/Bush campaigns, worked to put a Republican in the governor's mansion in Austin and helped turn once solid-blue Texas a deep shade of red.
By the mid-1990s, the Air Force veteran and father of five had his eye on Washington. But after coming up short on U.S. House bids in 1996 and 1998, he put congressional aspirations on hold to focus on work and family.
Babin, now a grandfather of nine, said the explosive growth of federal spending in recent years convinced him he couldn't stay on the sidelines.
"In 1996 we had a $5.4 trillion debt and I thought that was overwhelming. Now we're looking at in excess of seventeen ... trillion ... dollars," he said, drawing out the last three words for emphasis. "We are mortgaging the future of this next generation."
That next generation — especially the members who are part of his immediate circle — played a big part in convincing Babin to run.
One of his closest political advisers is Marit Babin Stout, his oldest daughter. She's a Houston attorney who had a stint in the early 2000s in Washington as a press staffer at the National Republican Congressional Committee.
And one of his sons, retired Navy Lt. Cmdr. Brian Leif Babin, was a big draw on the campaign trail — the ex-SEAL was awarded a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and the Purple Heart for service in Iraq's Anbar province in 2006. The war hero, who has worked as a contributor to The Wall Street Journal and to Fox News, is married to Fox News anchor Jenna Lee.
Another son, Lucas, is an actor and model who has appeared on MTV and on HBO's "Sex and the City."
Babin said he wouldn't have considered taking on the challenge of Washington without his wife and children on board.
Like most fathers, Babin couldn't help beaming as he points to his five children, their spouses and his grandchildren in a group photo he shared with CQ Roll Call as sandwiches arrived at the table.
"Marit has all this political experience and she has been a tremendous help with her advice and her contacts," he said. "And my son Leif, he's got all these New York contacts, the SEAL contacts — I was endorsed by Marcus Luttrell, of 'Lone Survivor,' who has been a great help to our campaign."
Babin doesn't call himself a tea party Republican — "I believe with all my heart in less government, lower taxes and more individual responsibility and more economic freedom, and you can put whatever label you want to on it" — but he's likely to fit in comfortably with the Ted Cruz wing in the House that has occasionally been a thorn in the side of Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio.
He's for repealing the Affordable Care Act, says he'd have a hard time voting for any increase in the debt ceiling, and on immigration, says there's no room for what he calls "amnesty."
"We have to be a nation of laws," he said. "I don't want to sound like I'm not a compassionate guy, because I am .. but it is not the American taxpayers' responsibility to take in everybody from all over the world. We cannot do that, not with our situation with our debt and with the recession."
On Nov. 4, Babin faces Democrat Michael Cole, a school teacher from Orange running a shoestring campaign — federal filings show he's spent little more than $10,000 compared with Babin's more than $500,000 so far — as well as a couple of Libertarians and a Green Party candidate. It's rated a Safe Republican contest by The Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call.
Related stories: Members in Waiting: 20 Candidates Headed to DC Roll Call Election Map: Race Ratings for Every Seat Cornyn Wins GOP Nomination in Texas Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.