For months, Tea Party conservatives in Texas have been praying for a challenge to incumbent Senator John Cornyn, who they think of as a moderate. As the filing deadline of 6 p.m. Central Time on Monday approached, no credible candidate had stepped up.
Then, minutes before 6 o’clock, the Tea Party got their wish. Representative Steve Stockman surprised nearly everyone by submitting his paperwork and announcing he would take on Cornyn in the 2014 primary.
The race between a Tea Party darling and an establishment-backed incumbent promises to be one of the most explosive contests next year in a number of similarly high profile GOP races in which Republicans battle for the soul of their party.
Stockman is just one of 435 members of the House and one of 36 from the state of Texas, but he always seems to find his way into the spotlight. When he reached Capitol Hill in January of this year, for example, he immediately made waves by threatening to impeach President Obama over his executive actions to curb gun violence in the wake of the slaughter of schoolchildren at Newtown.
Democrats are over the moon about Stockman’s candidacy. “It’s going to be hard for regular Texans who don’t normally tune in to primaries to avoid the conclusion that the Texas Republican Party has gone so far to the right that they might fall into the Atlantic Ocean,” said Jason Stanford, an Austin-based Democratic strategist.
Whether or not Stockman beats Cornyn, Democrats believe he will help tarnish the Republican brand among moderates and help the longshot prospects of the Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis, who mounted a strong and nationally noticed defense of abortion rights in the Texas legislature earlier this year.
Stockman may be a freshman lawmaker, but this isn’t his first go-round in Congress. He served a brief yet memorable stint in the House from 1995-1997 in which he earned a national reputation in just two short years. For example, Stockman published an article in Guns & Ammo magazine claiming that the 1993 raid on the Branch Davidian compound outside Waco, Texas had been planned by President Clinton to push his gun control agenda.
"Waco was supposed to be a way for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) and the Clinton Administration to prove the need for a ban on so-called 'assault weapons,'" Stockman wrote. “So an incident had to be encouraged to happen.” Published shortly after the Oklahoma City bombing, Stockman later said he regretted the timing of the article but would not row back from the thrust of his remarks.
Another time, Stockman surprised his colleagues by calling for an investigation into the half-century-old Kinsey Reports on sexual behavior after viewing a video by the conservative Christian Family Research Council. Stockman said that all sex education in America was based on Kinsey’s research and must be stopped.
“Our children are taught that the problem with sex is not that it is wrong to engage in homosexual, bestial, underage, or premarital sex, but that it is wrong to do so without protection,” he warned.
Stockman’s antics have earned him both praise and scorn. Tea Party activist Jenny Beth Martin, president of the Tea Party Patriots, told World Net Daily, the conservative outlet that broke the story of Stockman’s surprise run, that the Congressman “has proven himself to be a fighter for freedom who votes in the House of Representatives based on constitutional principles. We need more senators who will do the same.”
Others see him differently. “I believed in 1994 that Stockman was a nut,” Bruce Drury, a political science professor at Lamar University in Beaumont, told the Houston Chronicle earlier this year. “I think that is still the case.”
Stockman has a history of violating campaign finance law, most recently firing two staffers last month for violating the Federal Election Commission’s rule prohibiting lawmakers’ employees from donating to their campaigns. But his troubles date back to his first run.
“Stockman also faced ethical misconduct charges that amounted to one almost every two months,” a Texas Monthly profile of the congressman found in 1996. “His actions weren’t venal as much as they were careless, the actions of someone who just couldn’t be bothered with rules.”
But Stockman also has a history of shady campaign techniques, which is why no one thinks the Texas primary contest will be a gentlemanly affair. Stockman has a habit, for example, of printing campaign literature disguised as a newspaper. In April of this year, the general counsel at the Federal Election Commission recommended action be taken against Stockman for failing to disclose that two "newspapers," the Southeast Texas Courier and Times Free Press, were campaign advertising. As the Houston Chronicle reported, the FEC action was voted down on a party-line vote.
In 2000, Representative John Culberson, R-Texas, then a candidate in Texas’s 7th Congressional District, went to court alleging that Stockman was behind a fly-posting campaign that untruthfully claimed Culberson was a tax-dodger and had been disbarred. The FEC ultimately dropped the case before the question of Stockman’s involvement was resolved.
John Cornyn spent the last two election cycles as chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the party organization dedicated to defending Republican Senate seats, watching fellow colleagues succumb to upstart candidates like Stockman, and he does not want to become a victim of one of them.
Despite one of the most conservative records in the Senate, Tea Party activists in Texas have been gunning for someone to go up against Cornyn, particularly after the senator took his name off of a letter this summer threatening to shut down the government over Obamacare. The junior Senator from Texas, Ted Cruz, signed the letter.
In November, the left-leaning Public Policy Polling found that 33 percent of Republican primary voters wanted to see Cornyn on the ballot versus 49 percent who would prefer a more conservative candidate to Cornyn. Another 18 percent was undecided.
Even with a conservative base of support, Stockman’s biggest obstacle is money. With the March primary less than four months away, the congressman will have to raise and spend a massive amount of money, and Texas is a big and expensive state to run in. Stockman currently has $32,000 in his House campaign account; Cornyn, meanwhile, has a $7 million war chest ready to go.
A big indicator of whether Stockman’s campaign will be a serious challenge to Cornyn is whether outside spending groups come to Stockman’s aid. So far, the Club for Growth, one of the same groups that helped outsider Ted Cruz beat the GOP establishment favorite in 2012, has indicated it will not get involved this time.
Whether Stockman wins or loses this coming March, if history is any indication, the race will draw all eyes to the Lone Star State.
“It’s a good reminder of why Texas politics is more fun than the circus,” Stanford said.