Steve Stockman’s surprise Senate campaign almost seems like a “Colbert Report” send-up of the Tea Party. The unconventionally two-term Republican congressman from Texas—he was elected once in 1994 and again in 2012—is challenging Sen. John Cornyn in the GOP primary.
“If liberal John Cornyn loves being a senator he can move to Massachusetts,” Stockman said in a statement using the phrase “liberal John Cornyn”—lifetime American Conservative Union rating 93—27 times.
“I’m sick and tired of being bayoneted in the back by someone in my own foxhole,” Stockman wrote in his declaration of candidacy. “When freedom is threatened Texans have always mounted up and ridden to the sound of the guns.” Though he did assure them, “I’m not asking you to take a bullet or face actual bayonets.”
Conservatives don’t seem to be lining up to take figurative ones on Stockman’s behalf either. “While Congressman Stockman has a pro-economic growth record, so does Senator Cornyn, as witnessed by his 87% lifetime Club for Growth score,” said Club for Growth President Chris Chocola in a statement. “Our PAC evaluates three factors when looking at races that involve incumbents: 1) the strength of the incumbent’s record; 2) the degree of difference between the incumbent and the challenger on economic issues; and 3) the viability of the challenger. None of those factors weigh against Senator Cornyn, so we do not expect to be involved in the Texas Senate race.”
Others on the right weren’t as gentle. National Review was scathing in its coverage, pointing to Stockman’s $163,000 in campaign debt and quoting local Tea Party leaders who don’t care much for the congressman. Breitbart.com has published one story questioning Stockman’s ethics and another about his staff being exempt from Obamacare.
So is Stockman a joke? That seems to be the consensus view. But it’s worth noting that Stockman is organizing his campaign around two themes associated with Texas’s ubiquitous junior senator, Ted Cruz.
Like Cruz, Stockman is saying that it isn’t good enough to compile high ratings from conservative groups. A Republican senator from a red state should be willing to rock the boat. While Cornyn is a normal mainstream Beltway conservative, Stockman is a populist and constitutionalist. This distinction didn’t just help Cruz; it’s a big reason Utah’s Mike Lee is now in the Senate rather than Robert Bennett.
More importantly, Stockman is running hard against Cornyn for not sticking with all the particulars of Cruz’s defund Obamacare strategy. “Liberal John Cornyn betrayed Ted Cruz by abandoning Republicans during the Obamacare filibuster,” Stockman thundered. “Liberal John Cornyn betrayed Ted Cruz, and you, by voting to fund Obamacare.”
For his part, Cornyn maintains he did what Cruz and House Republicans asked him to do: he voted for a continuing resolution to defund Obamacare, adding, “I don’t understand how I can otherwise vote on a matter that I want to see passed.” Cruz and, by extension, Stockman counter that only filibuster would have prevented the Democrats from stripping the defund language from the resolution.
It’s a deeply technical argument on which to base a primary campaign. But it’s the issue fueling Matt Bevin’s challenge to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. With the benefit of running in Cruz’s home state, Stockman can hope it helps him in his race against McConnell’s number two.
The differences between Stockman and Cruz are important, however. Cruz didn’t run against an incumbent. He was well-funded. He was well-respected by movement conservatives and the consensus candidate of the outside organizations that support primary challenges from the right. He laid the groundwork for a campaign long before 2012.
Stockman has to bump off an incumbent with less time, less money, and less conservative support to counteract the party backing his opponent enjoys. He is armed only with his true-blue red-state politics (he’s the only candidate in the race who has called for impeaching the president and pulling out of the United Nations), a penchant for publicity stunts (such as inviting conservative rocker Ted Nugent to the State of the Union), and his very underrated aide Donny Ferguson.
Even in the Tea Party era, Stockman’s candidacy seems like a bridge too far, especially since many Republicans have tired of intraparty spats and want to get back to beating the Democrats. But Steve Stockman will burn that bridge when he gets to it.
W. James Antle III is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?