Stockman's strategy against Cornyn: Fling ‘liberal’ label liberally
By TODD J. GILLMAN
Updated: 11 December 2013 12:24 AM
WASHINGTON — Rep. Steve Stockman’s plan to topple Sen. John Cornyn became clear Tuesday: scream “liberal” over and over and plead for a flood of donations he’ll need to build a Texas-size operation from scratch in 90 days.
“John Cornyn wakes up every morning and works to make the Senate a more liberal place,” Stockman, R-Friendswood, asserted in a fundraising appeal hours after he filed a stunning last-minute challenge in the March 4 primary. “The last thing you need is a Republican bayonet in your back.”
But Cornyn, by any objective measure, isn’t a liberal, even if he’s less confrontational than tea party activists might like and hasn’t always sided with their darling, Sen. Ted Cruz, on tactics. And unlike Stockman, he’s run statewide. He’s undefeated in bids for Supreme Court justice, attorney general and Senate.
“There are six or seven of us in the race. We’ll see who gets traction and who doesn’t,” Cornyn said at the Senate, where he serves as deputy GOP leader. “I look forward to the primary.”
Some tea party activists have grumbled for months that he deserves a challenge, especially from someone as feisty and politically gifted as Cruz.
Stockman is no Cruz.
He’s short on time to mount a successful insurgency in a state as vast as Texas. His antics over the years make him vulnerable to charges he’s a fringe candidate. And Cornyn has plenty of friends and won’t go quietly.
Here's a look at the five key dynamics in the primary:1. It’s no Cruz contest
If Stockman or others hoping to topple Cornyn look to the Cruz-Dewhurst contest as a template, they will be disappointed.
Cruz easily painted Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst as a member of the “establishment.”
Cornyn led the GOP’s Senate campaign machine for four years. He watched unprepared colleagues succumb to tea party challengers. He’s been girding for that possibility since Cruz joined the Senate, projecting a much harder edge.
“Until recently no one questioned his conservative credentials. ... He’s a formidable candidate,” said Texas GOP chairman Steve Munisteri.
The conservative Heritage Action for America gives Stockman a 90 percent rating and Cornyn an 86 percent. Both are well above the GOP average — making it hard for the “liberal” allegation to stick.
Cruz was a brilliant lawyer with “an impeccable résumé,” said Mark Jones, Rice University’s political science department chairman. “Stockman has a very sketchy and tattered past. His finances are a disaster.”2. Tea party factor
Stockman’s announcement excited grass-roots activists. But key endorsements didn’t roll in.
Club for Growth, Cruz’s top financial backer in last year’s primary upset over Dewhurst, vowed neutrality on Tuesday — a big blow to Stockman.
“While Congressman Stockman has a pro-economic growth record, so does Senator Cornyn,” Club president Chris Chocola said.
Comparing their records, and assessing Stockman’s viability, he added, “None of those factors weigh against Senator Cornyn.”
JoAnn Fleming, Tyler-based executive director of Grassroots America, a national tea party group, had encouraged Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Tyler, and conservative historian David Barton to run, and wasn’t sure if Stockman will ignite tea partiers.
“I would never characterize John Cornyn as a wild-eyed liberal. He clearly is not,” she said, cautioning Stockman not to engage in such “over the top” rhetoric.
Still, she said, Cornyn’s stance on the bank bailout, the fight to repeal Obamacare and other key issues puts tea partiers in play.
Cornyn has sought to improve his outreach, hiring a campaign manager who worked at FreedomWorks.
The group’s activist network played a key role in the Cruz-Dewhurst fight, but it may stay neutral in this race.
Stockman’s decision came as a surprise, and FreedomWorks leaders say they need to vet him before deciding. But, said Dean Clancy, FreedomWorks’ vice president of public policy, “There’s no scenario in which we endorse the incumbent.”3. Time is short
Stockman has won two U.S. House races as an underdog. In 1992, he toppled powerful Democrat Jack Brooks. He has a decent network among conservative activists in Texas, especially gun rights supporters.
But he’s badly short on time.
When Cruz beat Dewhurst, he had spent 18 months on the stump. And he raised $9 million, enough for anyone to get out his message.
“Generally speaking, if you're going to challenge somebody, it takes more than three months,” said Dallas Rep. Pete Sessions, a member of the House GOP leadership, adding that Stockman is still learning the ropes in the House. “Senator Cornyn understands his state really well, and has a done a very good job.”
Early voting starts just 69 days from Wednesday.4. Money talks
Cornyn has $7 million stockpiled. And he’ll be able to raise plenty more to define Stockman in corners of the state where no one’s heard of him.
Stockman starts with just $32,027 in his campaign account.
“His most formidable challenge is going to be to put together a statewide organization in what is really a two-month race,” Munisteri said.5. Stockman’s antics
Stockman could be his own worst enemy.
He has repeatedly failed to file mandatory ethics disclosures and shielded details about his business dealings and income. He’s been fined for violating campaign laws and defaulted on a student loan.
In his comeback bid last year, he plastered the district with signs that read “Reelect Congressman Stockman” even though voters had tossed him from office after one term 15 years earlier.
Before he found Jesus and Young Republican activism, he spent many a weekend in jail, according to a 1996 Texas Monthly profile. One time, a girlfriend hid Valium in his underwear, which led to a felony charge.
He accused Bill Clinton of staging the Branch Davidian siege at Waco as a pretext to confiscate guns.
After the Newtown, Conn., school massacre last year, he proposed repeal of gun-free school zones and raffled off an assault rifle.
Stockman is “a major nuisance for John Cornyn,” said Jones, but “he’s not a credible threat.”
Staff writer Nick Swartsell contributed to this report.
Follow Todd J. Gillman on Twitter at @toddgillmanFiling extended for Stockman’s seat
Candidates for Rep. Steve Stockman’s Houston-area district have until next Monday to file. Stockman made an 11th-hour switch to the U.S. Senate race. Under state election code, GOP officials extended the deadline. Six Republicans filed for what is now an open seat by the original deadline Monday night.