Republican Primary Season Opens in Texas

Right-wing challenger Steve Stockman failed to score a blow against establishment Senator John Cornyn. Does that mean the Tea Party is waning?
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Republican Senator John Cornyn, left, survived a right-wing primary challenge, no thanks to his buddy Ted Cruz. (Associated Press)

When Texas Representative Steve Stockman announced he would run for the U.S. Senate, back in December, pundits girded for a doozy of a fight. The senator who Stockman was challenging in the Republican primary, John Cornyn, had a Tea Party target on his back for his lack of enthusiasm for last fall's government shutdown and for failing to embrace the Tea Party as head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee back in 2010. Stockman's public persona has long been more Internet troll than public servant—he had campaign bumper stickers that read, "If babies had guns they wouldn't be aborted"; recently, his spokesman responded to Karl Rove's support for Cornyn by observing, "Karl Rove looks like an elderly baby." Yet, as a two-term member of Congress, Stockman was more qualified on paper than the Tea Party Senate nominees of yore (remember semi-professional Bill Maher guest Christine O'Donnell?). 

In the past, these ingredients—a right-wing gadfly without portfolio plus an incumbent who toed the Washington line—were all that was needed for an incumbent-rousting Tea Party win. But that's not how the Texas primary went down. Stockman ran a bizarre campaign, barely raising money or making public appearances. His strategy seemed to consist of his weird tweets and a bunch of possibly illegal newspaper-style campaign mailers. It was enough to make one wonder if perhaps his whole "political" "career" was an Andy Kaufman-style performance-art piece, a meditation on the nature of representation and the ontology of assault rifles. Cornyn, meanwhile, tacked hard to the right, straining to emulate his junior partner in the Texas delegation, Senator Ted Cruz, winner of the hardest-fought Tea Party-vs.-Establishment battle of 2012. (Cruz, despite being an official of the senatorial committee, refused to endorse Cornyn.) 

Most national and Texas Tea Party groups steered clear of Stockman's off-the-rails crazy train. And on Tuesday night, in the first installment of 2014's Republican-on-Republican series, Cornyn trounced him. Cornyn took almost 60 percent of the vote to Stockman's less than 20 percent.

Given the dynamics of the Cornyn contest, it's a mistake to read it as a simple parable of the GOP establishment notching a victory over the ornery Tea Party. Instead, it's a story about how the Tea Party got smart and learned to pick its battles. Just two weeks ago, Erick Erickson, the editor of the prominent conservative blog RedState, was calling Cornyn a "coward." But on Tuesday, Erickson tweeted his approval of Cornyn's win: "Well, conservatives dodged a bullet in Texas," he wrote. "Some Senators are not worth primarying." Four years after the Tea Party began staging primary upsets seemingly indiscriminately, this recognition represents a major change.

And right-wing fervor is far from dead in Texas, as the results further down the ballot showed. Sure, the Tea Party-backed challenge to incumbent Representative Pete Sessions failed by a 2-to-1 margin. But the incumbent lieutenant governor, David Dewhurst, was running a distant second to a conservative talk-show host, Dan Patrick. Poor David Dewhurst: Two years ago, he was the odds-on favorite to be Texas's next U.S. senator. Then he got knocked out by a political newcomer named Ted Cruz, and now he's fighting just to keep his current second-fiddle job. In a recent debate, all four lieutenant-governor candidates opposed legalizing undocumented immigrants, endorsed the teaching of creationism in public schools, and decried a judge's recent decision to take a brain-dead pregnant woman off life support. Since neither candidate got 50 percent of the vote, Patrick and Dewhurst will meet again in a May runoff.

In the Republican primary for agriculture commissioner, the candidate endorsed by the Texas Farm Bureau and baseball legend Nolan Ryan was polling dead last of four candidates, while a former state legislator under ethics investigation who'd claimed the Tea Party mantle took the top spot. (This is an especially interesting result if you've followed the declining clout of agricultural interests in the GOP, as I have.) That race, too, will be decided in a runoff.

Meanwhile, 90-year-old Representative Ralph Hall, the oldest sitting member in House history, was forced into a runoff by a challenger who argued it was time for new blood but did not call himself a Tea Partier. Hall, a former Democrat, recently declared himself "healthy as a radish" and once told Mitt Romney he liked Mormons because they "give me those airplane bottles of booze when we’re on a flight." George P. Bush, the fourth-generation heir to the Bush political dynasty (he's George W.'s nephew and Jeb's son), is poised to claim his first elected office after decisively winning his primary for the powerful statewide post of land commissioner. And both parties' gubernatorial candidates, Democrat Wendy Davis and Republican Greg Abbott, sailed through their lightly contested primaries.

Given the turmoil that has roiled the Republican Party in recent years, primary season is of major importance as an indicator of which party faction has the upper hand. There's reason to believe the GOP rank and file's ardor has cooled for Tea Party-style incumbent-hunts, especially the kind that lose general elections. Stockman's flameout shows that the movement is now sophisticated enough to critically evaluate the candidates who seek to bear its standard, and reject the ones who are egregiously loony. But upcoming primaries in states like North Carolina, Nebraska, and Kentucky will better test whether the Tea Party still has the juice to surprise the Republican establishment. 

A national GOP strategist who works with conservative candidates predicted to me that 2014 will yet turn out to be a banner year for the Tea Party: In Nebraska, he predicted a victory for Ben Sasse, who claims the most Tea Party support. Kentucky, where Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell faces a challenge from the right, "is going to be closer than people think." In Mississippi, Tea Party challenger Chris "McDaniel is going to win. And I will be very interested in what $500,000 of negative ads does to Pat Roberts," the Kansas senator trying to protect his right flank from a radiologist distantly related to President Obama.

All these results, if they come to pass, would show a Tea Party as vibrant and hungry as it was 2010—contrary to the "Tea Party loses in Texas" headlines that were ubiquitous Tuesday. "And the establishment and the press," the strategist added, "will be shocked every step of the way."

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

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