The Republican Primary to End All Republican Primaries

Texas Senator John Cornyn's challenge from Steve Stockman, a militia-loving birther congressman, could be the ultimate expression of Tea Party nihilism.
Joshua Roberts/Reuters

John Cornyn, the senior senator from Texas, is nobody's idea of a liberal. He once compared gay marriage to the "union of man and box turtle." He has a solid 'A' rating from the National Rifle Association. He has opposed both of President Obama's Supreme Court nominees and briefly threatened to block the nomination of Hillary Clinton for secretary of state. He is considered one of the oil industry's most reliable votes in Congress and once suggested there might be a connection between murders of judges and public anger at liberal judicial activism. When most of the Texas GOP establishment lined up behind David Dewhurst in his Senate primary against a newcomer named Ted Cruz, Cornyn remained pointedly neutral. Last year, National Journal rated him the second most conservative senator.

None of this, naturally, has exempted Cornyn from the skeptical glare of his party's right wing. Cornyn has served in Senate Republican leadership since 2007, first as conference vice chairman, then as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, responsible for getting more Republicans elected to the Senate. Serving in leadership is something only Washington Insiders do, and therefore not to be trusted. Over the summer, Cornyn initially joined Cruz's call to defund Obamacare, but he took his name off the effort when it began to look like a recipe for shutting down the government. Tea Party groups immediately branded him a turncoat. In this image from a September fundraising email from the Tea Party group FreedomWorks, Cornyn is at bottom right, looking plaintive:

Cornyn is up for reelection next year, and on Monday—the Texas filing deadline—he got a last-minute primary challenger in Steve Stockman, a newly elected member of Congress who prides himself on reactionary outrageousness. Stockman has been calling for Obama's impeachment since shortly after taking office in January and has pushed legislation to investigate Obama's birthplace. He brought Ted Nugent as his date to the State of the Union and raffled an AR-15 for the Fourth of July. When a rodeo clown in Missouri drew controversy for wearing an Obama mask during a bull-baiting routine, Stockman promptly issued a press release inviting him to Texas: "Liberals want to bronco bust dissent," Stockman declared.

This is actually Stockman's second tour in Congress. His first stint came in 1994, when he was swept in with the Newt Gingrich wave—though once in Congress, he deemed Gingrich insufficiently conservative. The Stockman of the '90s styled himself an ally of the then-flourishing militia movement, winning in an upset by accusing a veteran Democratic congressman of supporting the federal raid on the Branch Davidian cult compound in Waco. Stockman later argued that the Waco raid was a government setup designed to create public sympathy for an assault-weapons ban. "These men, women and children were burned to death because they owned guns that the government did not wish them to have," he wrote, in an essay coincidentally published in Guns & Ammo magazine immediately after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. In 1996, he was defeated by a Democrat.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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