By Patrick Svitek, The Texas Tribune
“How a Plano toy inventor helped push U.S. Rep. Van Taylor out of office” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
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It was not long after Van Taylor was elected to Congress in 2018 that he started hearing from Josh Malone, an inventor from Plano.
Malone’s claim to fame is Bunch O Balloons, a product that allows dozens of self-tying water balloons to be filled at once. His invention brought him tremendous success, while exposing problems with the U.S. patent system that can be stifling to upstarts like himself who had to wage costly court battles to defend their ideas. In search of a legislative remedy, Malone pressed his case in meetings and calls with Taylor and his staff, but he said the congressman was noncommittal and kept “kicking the can.”
Malone’s frustrations came to a head during an October 2021 meeting with Taylor at his Capitol Hill office. It would be their last, and Malone said one of the last things he told Taylor there was a warning.
“If you’re not gonna do the right thing,” Malone said, “I’ll elect someone who will.”
Those words turned out to be prescient. Seven months later, Taylor, a two-term Plano Republican, is on his way out of Congress after a swift and dizzying downfall.
On its face, Taylor failed to win his primary outright after weathering months of attacks from fellow Republicans over his vote for a commission to investigate the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol, and in the closing weeks, a super PAC came out of nowhere to press the offensive to the tune of over $400,000. The final blow came two days before the primary when it was reported that Taylor had an extramarital affair.
Hours after being pushed into that runoff — where his infidelity would have been an unavoidable issue — he announced he was ending his reelection campaign.
Perhaps no person is more responsible for the runoff than Malone. Recognizing that his patent reform crusade lacked resonance with primary voters, Malone bankrolled the super PAC and took a personal interest in defeating Taylor. He estimated he put up over half of the 300 anti-Taylor road signs that the super PAC placed throughout the district.
Taylor was the only Republican congressional incumbent in Texas to be forced into a runoff. Neither his campaign nor his office responded to requests for comment for this story.
The Harvard-educated Iraq veteran and former state lawmaker easily ascended to Congress in 2018 and successfully fended off national Democrats as they tried to flip the seat two years later. But his 3rd Congressional District in the Dallas suburbs was made redder in redistricting last year, creating fertile territory for primary challengers.
Still, very few could have seen coming the events that culminated in Taylor’s downfall. Malone played a key role, but so did Taylor McCray — a volunteer for one of Taylor’s primary challengers, Suzanne Harp — who hustled in the final days of the primary to track down a woman who claimed to have had an affair with Taylor.
“It was kind of just the nail in his coffin,” McCray said.
Now, the runner-up in the primary, former Collin County Judge Keith Self, is the likely next congressman — and he happens to share Malone’s views on the patent system.
Patent law fight
In 2006, Malone quit his job at Texas Instruments to focus full time on inventing, draining his family’s finances as he spent years casting about for a game-changing innovation. He was about to give up when he had a breakthrough, tapping into a frustration he felt as a kid — and later with his own kids: the arduous process of filling up water balloons one at a time. So he came up with Bunch O Balloons.
But after Malone put his product on Kickstarter to raise seed money, the company behind the ubiquitous “As Seen On TV” logo — Telebrands — ripped off the idea and rushed out its own version, he said. Telebrands had convinced the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to revoke Malone’s patent, he said, under a “patent invalidation tribunal” that was created by the 2011 America Invents Act.
What followed was a yearslong legal battle over Malone’s idea. His licensing partner, the toy company Zuru, provided the initial funding and then Malone used revenue from sales of Bunch O Balloons.
The legal fight was all-consuming. Malone had grown up in Texas, studied engineering at Colorado School of Mines and lived in the Plano area since the mid-1990s. But in 2019, he moved his family to Northern Virginia to be closer to the litigation — and Congress.
That year, a federal judge in Tyler ordered Telebrands and retailers to pay nearly $31 million to Malone and Zuru. Malone got his patent back along the way.
He was grateful he had the resources to wage such a crusade, but he also knew every inventor was not as fortunate. And so he started lobbying Congress to reform the patent system, setting his sights on the 2011 America Invents Act. He lobbied for legislation by U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky. — a fellow inventor — that would roll back parts of the 2011 law, proposing a patent system “as the Constitution of the United States originally envisioned it.”
Malone had not always paid close attention to politics, tuning out as a young adult because he found it “hopeless.” He considers himself a libertarian, and his campaign contribution history backs that up — he gave to Ron Paul’s 2012 presidential campaign, for example. But he has also given to more mainstream conservative Republicans, even Taylor in his 2020 campaign. (Malone does not remember the $250 donation but said it would not have surprised him if he was willing to give Taylor a chance at first.)
But as Taylor prepared to ask voters for another term two years later, Malone was clearly thinking differently about the incumbent. He was not getting anywhere with Taylor, and he felt especially aggrieved after U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, partnered last fall with U.S. Sen Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont — an author of the 2011 law — on a new patent bill that Malone said would have “[made] everything worse.”
Malone and other Texas inventors mobilized against the Cornyn-Leahy proposal, writing a letter of opposition that Malone said Taylor had in hand during their unproductive final meeting in October 2021. Taylor disputed some of the assertions in the letter and continued to come off as wishy-washy on patent reform, Malone said.
“It just hit me, like, what is this guy doing here?” Malone said. Whether it was Cornyn or Taylor, he added, “They’re not taking us seriously, so we gotta go get involved and elect people who will.”
Back home, Taylor was facing the prospect of a competitive primary, fueled by his vote for the Jan. 6 commission. He was one of a small minority of Republicans who voted for the independent, bipartisan commission, and while it never became law, Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi later formed a special Jan. 6 committee that became anathema to Trump-aligned Republicans.
By the December filing deadline, Taylor had drawn four primary challengers, most prominently Self and Harp, a Dallas businesswoman whose son is chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn, the controversial Trump acolyte from North Carolina.
Taylor took the primary threat seriously, picking up his fundraising and securing key conservative endorsements like U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz’s. Self and Harp kept hammering Taylor, but they were vastly underfunded and endorsements were hard to come by. Even though Taylor had crossed Trump by voting for the Jan. 6 commission, the former president was not showing any outward interest in getting involved.
In late January, signs started popping up in the district that said “Van Taylor Betrayed Us.” They directed people to a website, RINOReckoning.org, that laid out the case against Taylor, calling him “another swamp creature.” The website said it was paid for by Defeating Communism PAC, which started in 2019 and had done little fundraising last year, instantly raising the question of where it had suddenly gotten a potential infusion of money.
Media inquiries with the group led to Paul Morinville, a Georgetown man who was serving as RINO Reckoning’s executive director — and also had a history of frustrations with patent law. He said in a February interview that RINO Reckoning was strictly an anti-Taylor effort and not working on behalf of any particular challenger. He declined to comment on who was funding it but made one thing clear: They were not playing around. He said they were “saturating” the district, not only putting up the signs but also buying billboards and airing radio and TV ads.
“Every primary voter in this district is gonna know that Van Taylor betrayed us,” Morinville said at the time.
As early voting got underway in mid-February, it remained a mystery who was truly behind RINO Reckoning because it had not filed a pre-primary campaign finance report that would have at least shown its donors through Feb. 9.
Regardless, Taylor and allied groups were clearly getting worried. Notably, the top super PAC aligned with House GOP leadership — the Congressional Leadership Fund — spent $150,000 on a late ad buy for Taylor, an unusual foray into an incumbent primary for CLF.
Defeating Communism PAC did not disclose its expenditures in the primary until the weekend before the primary. The total: $436,000, a hefty sum to unload in a congressional primary in a little over a month.
Then came the affair story.
McCray, the volunteer for Harp’s campaign, said a woman named Tania Joya messaged Harp on Facebook in the closing days of the primary, sharing purported evidence of her affair with Taylor. Joya seemed motivated by the family-man image that Taylor was projecting in his reelection campaign.
McCray said Joya’s message was strikingly similar to a rumor she heard about Taylor earlier in the campaign, and so she sprung into action, working to track down Joya. McCray had been working around conservative politics for a number of years but was also trying to break into journalism. It all culminated on Feb. 25, McCray said, when she interviewed Joya at her home in Plano.
Joya, a reformed jihadist from Plano, reportedly met Taylor through her anti-extremism work after she returned from Syria.
After their meeting, McCray scrambled to find a media outlet that would run the story before the imminent election. She said she sent all the information she had gathered, including a recording of the interview, to an operative working with RINO Reckoning, Justin Greiss, who passed it along to the far-right National File, which published a story about the affair on the Sunday before the election.
At the same time, McCray said she was talking to a reporter with another conservative news site, Breitbart, and they posted a story on the affair the next day.
Harp did not respond to requests for comment.
With hours left until the polls opened, Taylor’s campaign was silent on the reports. A spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on the Breitbart article.
Malone said he had no role in the story and was blindsided by it. He said he was out putting up road signs when he learned about it and “didn’t think it was credible — thought it was absurd.”
Election night was a rollercoaster. Taylor’s vote share hovered for hours around the 50% mark that he needed to avoid a runoff, but when the dust settled early the next morning, he was at 48.8%, some 700 votes short of winning outright, and Self was in second place, poised to be his runoff opponent.
Some votes were still being counted, but it looked likely Taylor was headed to a runoff in which he would not be able to ignore the affair story.
The afternoon, Taylor confronted that reality, sending an email to his supporters admitting to an affair “about a year ago” and announcing he was ending his reelection campaign. He would remove his name from the runoff ballot, effectively making Self the Republican nominee for the 3rd District — and its next representative, given that it was drawn to favor the GOP in November.
McCray said she understood people had reason to be skeptical of the affair story given its timing, but she thought voters needed to know and considered it a “national security issue” due to Joya’s past jihadist ties. McCray also said she considers herself a conservative and did not think her side holds itself accountable enough.
McCray said she “never thought” Taylor would have abandoned his reelection campaign.
“I personally don’t believe he would’ve done it had he won outright,” she said.
That’s up for debate, but one thing is clear: Taylor had been on track to win the primary outright before the stories came out, capturing 52% of the early vote. He carried election day ballots with only 45%.
As the dust settled on the primary, it still was not reported to the Federal Election Commission who funded the anti-Taylor program.
After The Texas Tribune inquired, the group filed the pre-primary report, showing Malone as its only significant donor, giving $250,000 as of Feb. 9. He said he ended up investing “almost twice as much” by the time of the March 1 primary.
Malone had wanted to start his own super PAC to defeat Taylor, but he ended up determining it was more efficient to use the existing group, Defeating Communism PAC, which had ties to libertarian circles. The strategist who worked with the group on Taylor’s primary was Cliff Maloney, the former president of Young Americans for Liberty, a national libertarian youth group.
Malone acknowledged it would not have made political sense to campaign against Taylor on patent issues. But he said he views those issues as similar to the ones that actually came up in the primary because they all fit into a narrative that Taylor “sold out to corporate interests and the establishment.”
“Josh Malone did what a lot of funders usually refuse to do,” Maloney said. “Instead of getting wonky — he didn’t go into the district and talk about patent reform — he talked about the key issues that we knew would impact Van Taylor with his primary voters.”
Maloney did not comment on RINO Reckoning’s role in the affair story other than to say, “National File broke the story.”
Maloney provided polling data that showed Taylor was well on his way to winning the primary outright before RINO Reckoning started in late January, with a projected vote share of 66% when undecided voters and his two minor opponents were set aside. His share dropped 7 points two weeks later, and it ticked back up to 61% a week before the primary, as outside groups like CLF were airing last-minute ads to try to rescue him.
Malone never endorsed any of Taylor’s primary opponents, though FEC records show he gave a maximum donation to Self, and Malone’s wife gave the same amount to Harp. Malone said they were both “worthy” challengers who “took some time to study” the patent issues that are important to him.
Self declined to comment for this story, but during the primary, he posted a statement on his website that aligned tightly with Malone’s crusade on patent policy. In the statement, Self criticized the America Invents Act of 2011 and pledged to sponsor Massie’s legislation.
Toward the end of the primary, Self took to Facebook to share a blog post by Malone that outlined his motivations for working to defeat Taylor. Self called it a “personal story that directly impacts my race to restore the conservative legacy to Congressional District 3.”
Malone said he believes Self is “ready to do the right thing.”
“Plus, if he doesn’t,” Malone said, “we’ll run him out of office.”
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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/04/12/van-taylor-texas-josh-malone/.
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