It's no secret that we haven't considered Rep. Steve Stockman (R) to be a serious threat to Sen. John Cornyn (R) in their March 4 Lone Star State Senate primary. The reasons are as much structural as they are Texas-specific: For all the ink spilled over congressional primaries (and Texas, specifically, on A1 of the Washington Post this past Sunday), scholarship shows they aren't more common (or more successful) now than in recent decades. And Stockman doesn't fit the profile of a successful challenger.
-- Recent developments -- an anti-Stockman TV ad launched this week by a pro-Cornyn super PAC and a new TV ad out Friday from Cornyn's camp -- would seem to indicate that the incumbent is taking the threat more seriously. But with just 7 weeks until the primary, these moves seem more due diligence than panic button. Team Cornyn has been preparing for a primary challenger (one more credible than Stockman) for two years, as evidenced by his nearly-$7 million bank account at the end of the third quarter. And without a serious Democrat in the race, not spending in the primary would be malpractice.
-- Clark University professor Robert Boatright examined the past 40 years of congressional primaries in his 2013 book "Getting Primaried: The Changing Politics of Congressional Primary Challenges," finding that they aren't more common now; their frequency waxes and wanes with overall political polarization. There's more outside money than ever boosting primary challengers, but that cuts both ways: Incumbent-aligned super PACs are popping up, too, like the McConnell-backing Kentuckians for Strong Leadership and the Cornyn-aligned Texans for a Conservative Majority.
-- Texas is just the first primary on the calendar in 2014. Hotline senior Senate analyst Julie Sobel took a look at the top Senate primaries at the end of last year, ranking Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS) as the most vulnerable to losing renomination. Mississippi state Sen. Chris McDaniel (R) has the support of key outside groups (Stockman does not). Beyond Mississippi, which some automated surveys show might be a coin-flip, the incumbent is favored in each of the other "competitive" Senate primaries. (Wyoming has since dropped off the map altogether.) We'd set the over/under on Senate incumbents losing renomination at 0.5.
We spend a lot of time on Senate primaries, but few Senate incumbents actually end up losing. Just because John Cornyn is stepping up his campaign doesn't mean he's any closer to becoming the next Dick Lugar or Bob Bennett.