John Cornyn was so close. The Texas senior senator and Republican whip waltzed into the final day of applications for the Lone Star State primary with nary a credible opponent in sight.
But then, in a surprise move, a member of Texas's congressional delegation, Steve Stockman, filed paperwork late Monday to challenge the two-term incumbent. Instead of skating by his primary with barely a challenge, Cornyn now faces the unwelcome task of defending his right flank in a primary sure to garner national attention -- one that could serve as the latest referendum in the ongoing tea party versus establishment battle.
The news was first reported by World Net Daily.
But first, Stockman – who filed his candidacy on the last day his paperwork was due -- will have to prove he is an adequate candidate, and early indications suggest that's not guaranteed. He had only $32,000 on hand to end September, Federal Election Commission reports show, and was $163,000 in debt. Those are paltry sums anywhere; in the nation's second largest state (that has 23 media markets), they make a campaign all but impossible. Making matters harder for Stockman is Texas's relatively early primary, on March 4, meaning he has a scant four months to raise enough money for a credible challenge.
Cornyn, meanwhile, will have no such problems: He already has nearly $6 million in the bank.
In an interview with WND, Stockman said he decided to run against Cornyn because he said that the senior Texas senator betrayed Ted Cruz – a hero to conservative activists and Cornyn's Lone Star State colleague in the Senate. The animus apparently stems from his vote in October to end the federal government shutdown and extend the debt ceiling.
"We are extremely disappointed in the way he treated his fellow congressmen and broke the 11th commandment and undermined (Sen.) Ted Cruz's fight to stop Obamacare," he told the news Web site.
Later, he added: "I don't know that I can beat him, but I am sure going to try," he said, adding that he thinks he has a shot because, "In Texas, conservative policies win over stabbing fellow Republican in the back."
Pointing to Cruz as the impetus for his campaign, of course, gives the firebrand significant leverage over his campaign. If Cruz offered support to Cornyn, who has courted his colleague assiduously this congressional term, that could stop the Texas congressman's effort before it gets started.
But Cruz has said he will stay out of primaries. And some of his allies have already suggested they plan to back Stockman's fledgling effort. "We haven't decided yet whether we will endorse Steve Stockman, but we're glad he is running," said Matt Hoskins, executive director of the Senate Conservatives Fund, a group that has run afoul of the GOP establishment. "Texas deserves two conservative fighters in the Senate, not just one. John Cornyn has voted to increase the debt, raise taxes, bail out Wall Street banks, and fund Obamacare. He's part of the problem in Washington and voters deserve an alternative."
The anti-tax group Club for Growth, which in the past has shown real muscle in intra-GOP fights, didn't immediately return requests for comment.
In a statement, Cornyn's campaign manager touted the senator's conservative credentials.
"Endorsed by Texas Right to Life and ranked as the 2nd most conservative Senator in America, Senator Cornyn looks forward to discussing his conservative record with Texans," said Cornyn Campaign Manager Brendan Steinhauser.
The GOP's political establishment in Washington, meanwhile, rallied behind Cornyn.
"John Cornyn is one of the most conservative Members in the Senate and strong leader for the state of Texas," said Brad Dayspring, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, a group Cornyn chaired last year. "We are proud to support Senator Cornyn and while this primary challenge is quite the head scratcher, it will be defeated."
Stockman has already had one of Washington's most eclectic careers. First elected in 1994 (he had run twice previously), he served only one term before losing re-election. He emerged sixteen years later, in 2012, to win a 12-person GOP primary in the state's 36th Congressional District. Regardless of how he performs in his Senate run, he will have served two non-consecutive single terms in the House – Texas GOP officials said he withdrew his application to run in his district.
The congressman is known more for his incendiary press releases and irreverent tweets than his legislative prowess. The Texan, who was elected in 2012 but also served a term in the 1990s, is the definition of a congressional back-bencher. He is neither friendly with leadership nor part of the tight-knit group of House conservatives who regularly attempt to dictate the House GOP's ideological agenda.
Stockman's only hope might be holding Cornyn under 50 percent of the vote in March, which would necessitate a two-man runoff. Six other people, Cornyn included, are seeking the party's nomination, although none of them were considered credible before Monday.
That's how the then-underdog Cruz defeated establishment favorite David Dewhurst last year, and some conservatives will no doubt jump at the comparison between the two men. But Cruz, an Ivy League-graduate, was also the state's former solicitor general and a well-known commodity among many Washington conservatives. Stockman is none of those things.
Stockman is the latest conservative challenger to an incumbent Republican senator. Sens. Mitch McConnell, Lamar Alexander, and Michael Enzi and Lindsey Graham all face challenges – although it's not clear if any of them are in serious danger of losing their seat. The most competitive primary might belong to Thad Cochran, of Mississippi, whose unexpected decision to seek a seventh term in office set up a lively battle with state Sen. Chris McDaniel.
Tim Alberta contributed to this report.