http://www.dallasnews.com/news/politics/headlines/20140302-cornyn-sessions-appear-to-thwart-tea-party-foes.ece?nclick_check=1Cornyn, Sessions appear to thwart tea party foes
By TODD J. GILLMAN
Email Published: March 2, 2014 11:56 PM Updated: March 3, 2014 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON — Tuesday’s primaries will pit the tea party’s ardor for change against the staying power of two GOP leaders in Congress, Sen. John Cornyn and Dallas Rep. Pete Sessions.
Both are deeply conservative. Both face challengers who complain that when it comes to fighting Democrats, the incumbents are more bluster than action.
Both are counting on voters to shun poorly organized, underfunded rivals, despite qualms they may have over federal spending, Obamacare’s survival, and the fact that they aren’t as feisty as Sen. Ted Cruz — the benchmark for tea party activists.
“Everybody I know thinks Cornyn is a strong favorite,” said Texas GOP chairman Steve Munisteri, who is remaining neutral. “It’s not enough to say you’re tea party — or, for that matter, to say you’re not tea party — to get elected.”
Tea party leaders hoped last year that a candidate would emerge with enough sizzle and resources to topple Cornyn, the No. 2 Senate Republican. That never materialized.
Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of Tea Party Patriots, said activists aren’t happy with Cornyn or Sessions, who is seeking a 10th House term.
“We’re $17 trillion in debt. They voted for that,” she said. “They promise to do things, and when they don’t keep their promises, people want to hold them accountable.”
The challengers have gotten limited traction, though.
For Cornyn critics, the latest and perhaps biggest outrage came in mid-February when he and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., helped Democrats quash a filibuster from Cruz that would have blocked a vote to raise the federal debt ceiling.
Cornyn called it a matter of both practical politics and good government.
“The alternative was another government shutdown, and I didn’t think that was a good idea,” he said.
Some tea partiers encouraged Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Tyler, to challenge Cornyn. He decided not to but said Thursday that “whatever happens is not necessarily a test of tea party strength. It’s just a test of, in those particular races, what do people want?”
He wasn’t exactly brimming with praise for Cornyn.
“Whether it’s voting for cloture that allows a bill that people think is bad to come to the floor — you’ll have to talk to them,” Gohmert said, referring to the recent debt ceiling vote.
Cornyn faces seven challengers. He said his goal is to win the primary without a runoff, “and I think that we’ll achieve that goal.”
He’s sought to reassure tea partiers and defuse some of their annoyance with him for refusing to join Cruz’s crusade to shut down the government last fall over Obamacare.
“They believe in the same principles that I believe in. But sometimes our tactics differ. If we’re going to save the country, if we’re going to change the direction of the country, we have to win in November, not just in March,” he said.
His best-known challenger — and the only one who has run statewide or even for Congress — is Rep. Steve Stockman, R-Clear Lake. Like others in the field, Stockman sought the tea party mantle.
But he’s run a bizarre campaign that has exasperated even tea party groups.
He’s labeled Cornyn a liberal backstabber — though by some rankings, the senator is more conservative than Stockman. He’s campaigned publicly only once and has refused to speak with Texas news outlets.
He disappeared for weeks at a time, with aides refusing to explain his absence.
He denied well-documented assertions that he had once been arrested for illegal possession of Valium — even though he’d spoken openly of the arrest in 1995, during his first stint in Congress.
Fake newspapers laced with anti-Cornyn invective have turned up, linked to a longtime Stockman supporter.
Last week, a group of tea party activists denounced Stockman, chiding him for ethical lapses and lack of candor.
“Texans have witnessed what might be the laziest statewide campaign to date,” wrote the group, led by JoAnn Fleming of Tyler, executive director of Grassroots America and chair of the Texas Legislature’s TEA Party Caucus advisory committee. “You apparently believe you don’t have to answer to anybody.”
Fleming and her allies threw their support to Dwayne Stovall, a Cleveland business owner who serves on a local school board. He’s been winning good reviews from clusters of tea party members around the state but has raised only $63,000 — a rounding error compared with Cornyn’s $8.4 million.
As Munisteri put it, passion isn’t enough in a state as vast as Texas, where a candidate with limited resources is like a tree falling in the forest.
“You have to know how to run a campaign. You have to know how to raise money. You have to have a good campaign team,” he said.
The Sessions race has some parallels to Cornyn’s primary.
Sessions is chairman of the powerful Rules Committee, which helps control the flow and content of legislation before it reaches the full House. He’s a close ally of Speaker John Boehner, has spent 17 years in Congress, the last five in GOP leadership.
Sessions ran the party’s House campaign arm for four years, overseeing the big wins in 2010 and 2012.
Garland tea party leader Katrina Pierson is trying to oust him, with support from FreedomWorks and big-name figures in the movement, such as Sarah Palin. Cruz himself has heaped praise on her, while stopping just short of an endorsement. Pierson was a top volunteer and surrogate on his Senate campaign. And his father, Rafael Cruz, has campaigned for her.
Martin, the Tea Party Patriots leader, called her “a patriot through and through.”
But Pierson has struggled to make inroads.
Like the Cornyn challengers, she has found that the tea party mantle doesn’t guarantee a groundswell of excitement. She’s raised one-tenth of Session’s $1.5 million warchest.
Pierson asserts that Sessions has been more eager to do Boehner’s bidding than to follow the wishes of constituents. She calls him soft on spending and says he should have fought harder against the Affordable Care Act.
Instead, House leaders initially resisted Cruz’s threat to derail a budget deal unless Democrats agreed to defund Obamacare — the demand that led to a government shutdown last fall.
Sessions, like Cornyn, dismisses such complaints as a disagreement over tactics.