Lawmakers on Tuesday predicted Sen. John CornynJohn CornynDemocrats up ante in risky debt ceiling fight Senate parliamentarian nixes Democrats' immigration plan Democrats make case to Senate parliamentarian for 8 million green cards MORE would easily defeat Rep. Steve StockmanStephen (Steve) Ernest StockmanPardon talk intensifies as Trump approaches final 24 hours in office GOP senator on Trump pardons: 'It is legal, it is constitutional, but I think it's a misuse of the power' Nothing becomes Donald Trump's presidency like his leaving it MORE in next year’s Republican primary in Texas.
In a surprise move, Stockman on Monday night filed his paperwork to run against the Senate minority whip just minutes before the state’s deadline. The congressman has little statewide name recognition, no money and lacks support from any of the national conservative groups that often fuel Tea Party challenges.
Cornyn is not beloved by Tea Party activists in his state. A few groups attempted to recruit other candidates to run against him, and polls show he could be vulnerable to a right-wing challenge. But he has nearly $7 million cash on hand in a state where it costs as much as $1.5 million a week for a statewide television ad buy. Stockman has just $32,000 in the bank — and carries more than $160,000 in debt.
Cornyn downplayed the importance of Stockman’s entrance in the race on Tuesday.
“Everybody’s focused on the most recent entrant, but I think there’s six other people in the race,” he said. “I don’t think he’s particularly well-known across the state of Texas. It’s a big state. I’m not going to focus on any particular candidate, I’m going to pay all of them equal attention.”
Stockman is seeking to replicate Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-Texas) come-from-behind primary victory in 2012, when he defeated well-funded and well-known Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst (R) to claim the GOP nomination. In his announcement for the race Monday night, Stockman attacked Cornyn for disagreeing with Cruz’s push to defund ObamaCare, which led to October’s government shutdown.
“You and I are in a foxhole fighting to save this constitutional Republic, but liberal John Cornyn is bayoneting us in the back. Liberal John Cornyn betrayed Ted Cruz and worked with Harry Reid to fund ObamaCare,” he said in a statement.
Cruz spent more than a year campaigning against Dewhurst, raised millions of dollars and had the support of national groups, including the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks. Stockman will have to raise his profile and big money fast — the primary is in early March, and at this point in the campaign, Cruz already had millions stockpiled for the battle ahead.
Cornyn has long been preparing for a primary. His campaign manager is former FreedomWorks grassroots director Brendan Steinhauser, who helped Cruz’s campaign and has close ties with Texas Tea Party activists, and has had bigger fundraising totals than many other senators facing reelection.
“Sen. Cruz was unique in many ways because of his talents and the quality of race he ran and the timing. I think one race does not a trend set, but obviously there are lessons to be learned from that. And believe me, I’ve learned them,” Cornyn told reporters.
The Club for Growth, citing Cornyn’s strong 87 percent lifetime rating on their scorecard, said Tuesday they would not get involved in the race, meaning the most deep-pocketed conservative group won’t be involved. FreedomWorks and the Senate Conservatives Fund haven’t ruled out taking sides and have been critical of Cornyn. Yet, FreedomWorks was caught off guard by Stockman’s announcement.
“Stockman’s entrance in the race is as big a surprise to us as it is to you. I don’t think anyone saw this coming. We didn’t have a chance to vet the congressman. He didn’t contact us before he entered the race, and because of how surprised we are, we haven’t had a chance to vet him like we do with a lot of candidates,” said FreedomWorks Government Affairs Manager Easton Randall, who runs the group’s candidate-vetting process. “Sen. Cornyn doesn’t deserve a free pass to return to the U.S. Senate. … We are ruling nothing out at this moment.”
Meanwhile, the Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday endorsed Cornyn.
Stockman is facing questions relating to campaign finances, including failures to disclose a series of business affiliations earlier this year, and recently fired two staffers who improperly contributed to his campaign.
During his first stint in Congress, one term from 1995-1996, he blamed the Clinton administration for “executing” people at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. This year, he called for President Obama’s impeachment, voted against Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) for Speaker and brought controversial rocker Ted Nugent as his guest to the State of the Union speech.
“He’s an unpredictable, unusual elected official,” said Texas-based GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak.
“Whatever criticism Ted Cruz has taken, everyone will tell you he’s a very intelligent guy. Steve Stockman might be witty or have a clever one-liner, but he’s no Ted Cruz,” said GOP strategist Scott Howell, who is also based in Texas. “I don’t think he has a snowball’s chance in hell. I just don’t think he’s credible.”
Stockman’s office did not respond to requests for comment, and he did not attend a Tuesday hearing for the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He did register votes on the House floor.
Some of Stockman’s fellow House Republicans said they believe Cornyn is in a strong position for reelection.
“He has a loyal following, but I don’t see Cornyn losing. Cornyn has done a great job for us,” said Rep. Kenny Marchant (R-Texas), who called both legislators friends. “I don’t really understand exactly what Steve did.”
Others said Stockman’s late announcement would hurt him.
“Steve is going to have to learn his way around, and we’ll see what happens, but John Cornyn has understood his role for a long time as senator of Texas, and I think he’ll do just fine,” said Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas). “Generally speaking, if you’re going to challenge someone, it takes more than three months — that’s the hard part.”
Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas) endorsed Cornyn over Stockman in an interview with The Hill.
A GOP lawmaker who requested anonymity said Stockman has a chance if he could somehow make it to a runoff: “If one of [the candidates taking on Cornyn] can get in the runoff, they will win the runoff. Because in Texas, the most perceived conservative Tea-Party candidate wins the run-off.”
The lawmaker noted that he privately backs Cornyn.
It wasn’t all bad news for Stockman on Tuesday. He picked up the support of a Republican member, albeit from California.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, listed as a past/present endorsement of Stockman, expressed disappointment that he won’t continue working with his close friend in the House.
Asked if he officially backs Stockman for the Senate run, Rohrabacher said, “I just heard the news a few hours ago, but I imagine I will be.”