Tea Party challengers fizzle in Texas

Greg Nash

Nearly two years after Ted Cruz's come-from-behind primary victory, Tea Party challengers are fizzling in Texas. 

Defeating the former Senate and House GOP campaign committee heads would be a top trophy for conservative insurgents. But with just over two weeks until Election Day, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas) are both heavy favorites against their primary opponents. 

Texas Republicans laugh that gadfly Rep. Steve Stockman's (R-Texas) challenge to Cornyn has been a comedy of errors. Tea Party leader Katrina Pierson (R) has failed to gain any real traction against Sessions as she’s struggled with fundraising and name recognition.

Both veteran lawmakers have run strong campaigns, raised huge sums of money and have given conservatives few reasons to reject them. Cornyn, the Senate minority whip and former chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, has raised nearly $10 million for the race. Sessions, the Rules Committee chairman and former head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, raised $1.3 million for his campaign.

Texas Republicans say the only incumbent member of the delegation with a real race on his hands is Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Texas) — and that’s being driven by Hall’s age, not ideology.

Cornyn’s and Sessions’s challengers have articulated few credible reasons to oust them and haven’t raised enough money to even mount serious campaigns. Early voting starts on Tuesday, and the primary is on March 5.

“Everyone knows Stockman is a crazy person and that's why none of the national conservative groups are supporting him,” said one national conservative strategist. 

Every Tea Party candidate — especially those in Texas —wants to be the second coming of Cruz. But neither Stockman not Pierson has been able to do what Cruz accomplished: Raise millions of dollars, attract the support of the coalition of deep-pocketed national groups that can help fuel an insurgent challenger, and give conservatives a reason why a better-known and better-funded opponent shouldn’t win the race.  

“You don't just snap your fingers and create viability by saying 'I love Ted Cruz and I'm a Tea Party member.' Running a viable campaign takes time and effort,” said the strategist.

Cruz defeated Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst (R) by working for months to build a statewide campaign structure, raising huge sums of money and winning the endorsements of groups including the Club for Growth, FreedomWorks and The Senate Conservatives Fund.

Cruz also benefitted from a later primary forced by a court battle over the state’s congressional maps, and having other challengers in the race to help keep Dewhurst under the 50 percent threshold and force a runoff. 

Stockman announced his campaign at the eleventh hour, just as Texas’s campaign filing deadline closed on December 9. Already saddled with $160,000 in debt from his previous run and facing questions about whether he violated campaign finance law, he raised just $37,000 in his first month as a candidate in a state where it costs millions to run just a single week of ads. 

The freshman congressman disappeared from the campaign trail for weeks to go on an international trip with other lawmakers, missing dozens of votes as well as opportunities to campaign back in the state.

He failed to win endorsement from any of the conservative groups who helped propel Cruz, and campaign has been ridiculed by observers across the political spectrum for its ineptitude. Stockman has been most successful at drawing earned media with his controversial tweets — most recently a mock Valentine’s card saying Cornyn “is cheating on you with Obamacare.”

“He's not credible. At the end of the day that's the problem. Ted Cruz is credible. Mike Lee is credible. Steve Stockman's not,” said Texas-based GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak. “You can't run a statewide race in three months, you just can't do it, and he's gone about the entire campaign so unintelligently that it's kind of offensive.” 

Cornyn has given Stockman little to attack him on, though some conservatives grumbled when he split from Cruz on the push to defund ObamaCare that led to a federal government shutdown. He also angered a few by voting with Democrats on a procedural motion earlier this week that cleared the way for them to raise the debt ceiling, but the fact he did so shows how little he’s worried about Stockman. 

The two-term senator has a conservative pedigree overall, however — he has an 87 percent lifetime rating on The Club for Growth’s scorecard, and his vote this week was evidence that he’s not afraid of Stockman picking apart his voting record.

As laughable as Stockman’s challenge may have been, Cornyn took the threat seriously nonetheless and is using huge warchest to take to the air to tout his record. To run his campaign he hired brought in Brendan Steinhauser, who’d run FreedomWorks’ grassroots field program and has close ties with the state’s GOP activists. He also locked in support from the National Rifle Association and the National Right to Life PAC.

“Sen. Cornyn is proud of his strong conservative record, and appreciates all the support he’s gotten from folks across Texas on the campaign trail,” said Cornyn campaign spokesman Drew Brandewie. 

Pierson has run a more professional campaign than Stockman, but it may still not be enough. The local Tea Party leader secured endorsements from FreedomWorks and Tea Party Express as well as from Cruz’s father, Rafael Cruz, and conservative blogger Michelle Malkin. But she raised just $40,000 in her last fundraising quarter, leaving her with no chance to run television ads in the expensive Dallas-area district.

Sessions has also amassed a solidly conservative voting record over the years. Even FreedomWorks gives him an 81 percent lifetime score. And in his ads he reminded voters he was one of the architects behind the GOP’s 2010 takeover of Congress. 

“We're talking about Pete's history of conservative leadership in D.C.,” said Sessions campaign spokesman Bruce Harvey.

Pierson slams Session as a “big government, big spending career politician” and “a big backer of Boehner's failed leadership.” She says her weak fundraising won’t stop her from winning her race.

“We have the district. We're not really worried about how much money he spends on TV — we're ahead of him with yard signs, volunteers,” she told The Hill. “You don't have to match these guys dollar for dollar or even ten to one.”

Ultimately, observers confidently predict both Pierson and Stockman too will fall far short of their goals, and are unlikely to force runoffs with the lawmakers.

“There's still an overwhelming desire by Republicans to elect credible people who can actually govern. Sen. Cornyn has demonstrated that throughout his career. Stockman is just not credible and he has absolutely no business running for the United States Senate,” said Texas-based GOP strategist Scott Howell. 

“It's the same with Pete Sessions — he's in leadership and has done a great job,” Howell continued. “[Voters] are smart, they have brains, they can read and they can see, and if you can't give a compelling reason why the other guy should be thrown out he's not going to be. You can't just say you're a Tea Party candidate and expect to win.”