GOP division widens as another senator girds for battle with tea party challenger

Maria Recio

A last-minute tea party primary challenge to Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn of Texas not only sent political shockwaves through the Lone Star State but signaled that the ongoing divide in the Republican Party would continue.

Rep. Steve Stockman, R-Texas, is aligned with the party’s hard-right faction, and his 2014 election challenge automatically puts pressure on Cornyn, who has tacked rightward for the last year since tea party favorite Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, won in 2012 as a political novice.

At the same time, another Senate Republican leader up for re-election, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, is also facing a tea party opponent, putting the Senate’s top GOP leaders in the position of dealing with intra-party challenges next year as they guide the caucus.

In last year’s elections, many analysts and mainstream Republicans blamed the tea party candidates for costing the party control of the Senate, losing seats the GOP was expected to win.

Cornyn was the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee last year and elected to stay out of divisive primaries. But Tuesday, the committee wasted no time in announcing support for the incumbent Texas senator.

“John Cornyn is one of the most conservative members in the Senate and a strong leader for the state of Texas,” an NRSC statement said. “We are proud to support Sen. Cornyn, and while this primary challenge is quite the head-scratcher, it will be defeated.”

One group pushing for activist candidates, the conservative Club for Growth, is apparently heeding the critics, at least in the Cornyn race, announcing Tuesday that its political action committee would not choose sides in the Texas Senate primary.

“While Congressman Stockman has a pro-economic growth record, so does Sen. Cornyn, as witnessed by his 87 percent lifetime Club for Growth score,” Chris Chocola, the Club for Growth’s president, said in a statement.

The GOP also wants to ensure that it secures the most electable candidates for open Senate seats in Georgia and Iowa. The party now holds 45 seats – six short of a simple majority and control of the chamber.

However, there is still significant opposition to just sticking to the mainstream candidates.

“We haven’t decided whether we will endorse anyone in this race, but we’re going to watch it closely,” said Matt Hoskins, executive director of the Senate Conservatives Fund, which has been supportive of tea party candidates.

“Texas deserves two conservative fighters in the Senate, not just one,” said Hoskins via email. “John Cornyn has voted to increase the debt, raise taxes, bail out Wall Street banks, and fund Obamacare. He’s become part of the problem in Washington and Texas Republicans deserve better."

Cruz himself has refused to endorse Cornyn, generally a slam dunk among in-state colleagues of the same party, and he has said he will not take sides in primaries.

“The GOP is faction-ridden,” said University of Virginia political expert Larry Sabato. “That’s obvious. You have seven incumbents being opposed in party primaries by tea party candidates. But I’ll bet they all win, or at most, there is one upset.”

Sabato said Cornyn was “in very good shape, at least at the starting gate.”

With the Club for Growth on the sidelines, “I don’t see how Stockman can come close to matching Cornyn’s war chest,” Sabato said.

Cornyn has $7 million in his political fund and Stockman has about $32,000.

Bill Miller, an Austin, Texas, political consultant with clients in both parties, dismissed Stockman’s chances.

“He’s an irritant,” Miller said. “He’s a burr under the saddle. He got into it because he’s going to talk about what he wants to talk about. Stockman’s going to have all the tea party issues. He’s going to be their amplifier.”

The primary is March 4, and there are six GOP opponents to Cornyn.

Mark McKinnon, a top Austin-based political adviser to former President George W. Bush, said that if Bevo, the Texas Longhorn that serves as the University of Texas mascot, “could get on the ballot, it would represent more of a threat to John Cornyn than Steve Stockman. And Bevo would raise more money.”

Meanwhile, in Mississippi, where six-term Republican Sen. Thad Cochran also faces a tea party challenge next year, GOP strategist Henry Barbour said competitive primaries were healthy, but he was supporting the incumbent Cochran.

“We want to affect public policy and you can do it a lot better by being in the majority,” said Barbour, nephew of the former governor and former Republican Party chairman Haley Barbour. “Any incumbent is vulnerable in this environment, but Thad Cochran has done an incredible job for Mississippi, especially after Katrina.”

By Maria Recio
McClatchy Washington Bureau