A Texas-Sized Primary Challenge, Or Much Ado About Nothing?
The second ranking Republican in the Senate, Texas Senator John Cornyn, has come under a lot of critiicism from the Tea Party wing of the GOP over the past several years. In 2010, when he headed the National Republican Senatorial Committee, he openly backed mainstream candidates like then Florida Governor Charlie Crist over Tea Party favored candidates like Marco Rubio, for example. In more recent years, he’s joined Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as a frequent target of attack for alleged ideological impurity and willingness to compromise, most recently when, like many long serving Republican Senators, he did not back the “Defund Obamacare” scheme that was being pushed by Senator Ted Cruz, Senate Conservatives Fund, Freedomworks, and other outside groups. Despite that, though, it was beginning to look as though Cornyn would actually make it through 2014 without a serious primary challenger. That all changed last night as the filing deadline for a primary challenge ticked down to zero and Congressman Steve Stockman, who had just returned to Congress this year after a nearly 20 year absence, announced his intention to challenge Cornyn for the nomination:
Firebrand Texas Republican Rep. Steve Stockman on Monday mounted a surprise primary challenge to Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), setting the stage for the latest potentially explosive battle between a tea party darling and an incumbent firmly backed by the GOP establishment.
Stockman, a far-right conservative who has called for the president’s impeachment, filed for the seat minutes before the 6 p.m. local deadline, confirmed Spencer Yeldell, a spokesman for the Republican Party of Texas. Cornyn, whose $7 million cash-on-hand far outstrips Stockman’s $32,000, is still the heavy favorite, but the latter’s entry into the race could force the incumbent senator to tack farther right as he tries to win over a corner of the party that has recently been skeptical of him.
Stockman’s move shocked Texas political observers: Cornyn had looked poised for an easy March 4 primary contest, where he was set to square off with several candidates with little name recognition. Just 20 minutes before the filing deadline, Texas GOP chair Steve Munisteri told POLITICO that he was “not expecting any recognizable names or people with substantial resources running aside from the senator.”
But Stockman is a highly recognizable name in some circles, and he looks to be a game-changer. The 57-year-old made waves earlier this year when he returned to the House — where he previously served from 1995-1997 — with his calls to impeach President Barack Obama. And he’s not been shy about his other deeply conservative, and sometimes controversial, views on issues ranging from gun rights to immigration. He has also likened Obama to Saddam Hussein and urged America to withdraw from the United Nations.
Stockman’s move came after several Tea Party favorites, including Congressman Louie Gohmert decided to take a pass on challenging Cornyn, who has been re-elected to the Senate by wide margins each time he has stood for election and who has also built up one of the largest campaign war chests of any Senate Republican running in 2014 outside of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. According to the most recent reports, Cornyn has some $7,000,000 cash on hand while Stockman has a mere $32,000 in his campaign coffers while simultaneously owing some $163,000 and suffering from numerous campaign finance problems and reports of irregularities.
On some level, a challenge from the right against Cornyn seems quite odd. As Matthew DesOrmeaux at United Liberty notes, Cornyn rates at or near the 90 to 100% level on the ratings compiled by every conservative organization out there, and has widely been seen as one of the most conservative member of the Senate for quite some time, or at least until this latest crop of “conservative” Senators led by Ted Cruz and others came along. At the same time, though, some recent polling of the political environment down in Texas seems to indicate that Texas Republicans would like to see “someone more conservative” replace Cornyn in the Senate, although the same poll shows Cornyn leading Stockman by a fairly sizable margin. Finally, although Stockman remains relatively unknown nationally outside of the Twitter outbursts for which he has gotten much media coverage, he’s fairly well known among Texas Republicans, especially the Tea Party wing of that party. Given the fact that he will be the only serious challenger to Cornyn, that alone is likely to help him in the months that come.
Not surprisingly, many national political observers are foreseeing an epic battle, but there are several factors about this race that makes it doubtful that Stockman is going to be as strong a challenger as many expect him to be. For one thing, Stockman’s announcement comes fairly late in the game. Where Ted Cruz announced what many considered even up to the last minute a long shot bid to win the GOP nomination for the chance to replace Kay Bailey Hutchinson in the 2012 elections more than a year before the primary, Stockman is making his announcement less than three months before the March 4, 2014 primary date, giving him little time to overcome not only any remaining name recognition issues but also the vast fundraising gap between him and Cornyn. No doubt, Stockman is hoping on support from outside groups to make up for that gap, but so far at least, it isn’t at all clear that they are going to rally to his side. Senate Conservatives Fund, for example, welcomed him to the race last night but declined to go so far as to endorse him or say that they would be getting involved in the race in his favor. Another group that has provided crucial to Tea Party candidates in the past, The Club For Growth, announced this morning that they would not be opposing Cornyn in the primary battle, a huge setback for Stockman. Freedomworks and other Tea Party groups have yet to chime in on the race, but one gets the impression that they will stay out of the race unless they think he has a realistic shot of taking down a Senator who, while imperfect in their eyes, can hardly be described as a “Republican In Name Only.” Cornyn, meanwhile, can likely count on the support of more mainstream conservative groups that have begun asserting themselves in Republican politics since the shutdown fiasco in addition to his own already vast war chest, which he can no doubt easily expand upon.
So, rather than setting off a Texas-sized Tea Party v. Establishment battle that it may sound like, this could end up being about as exciting as watch tumbleweed blow across the plains of West Texas. Stay tuned.