Bad blood is one way to describe it. Soon that political plasma will begin to boil, as the pending 2014-midterm elections will launch a grueling two-year process to determine which major Republican faction wins control of the party.
Will the grassroots or the GOP establishment prevail?
The war earnestly begins in the Lone Star State less than 30 days from now. Texas Sen. John Cornyn is fighting off intra-party challenges from a crowded field of Republicans, each of whom claims the mantle of grassroots champion. Congressman Steve Stockman (R-Seabrook) is notable among the challengers.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) talks to reporters after the weekly Republican Senate caucus luncheon at the U.S. Capitol January 28, 2014 in Washington, DC. Sen. Cornyn faces a tough election year as other Republicans battle for his seat in Texas. Photo Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
In the March 4 Texas primary, voters will decide some interesting races, aside from weighing Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis’ biographical creativity.
The contest is sure to draw the most ink is the U.S. Senate race, where two-term incumbent Cornyn faces seven Republican opponents, led by Congressman Stockman. If no candidate receives an absolute majority on March 4 (50 percent plus one vote), a run-off contest between the top two contenders is required on May 27.
Forcing Cornyn into a run-off most likely would lead to his undoing. A secondary election is often the death knell for an incumbent because a majority of primary voters have already voted for another candidate. For an office holder who only manages to win a primary plurality, attracting a majority of runoff voters is very difficult.
John Cornyn’s history in the Senate isn’t unusual. More than a few Senate Republicans have campaigned as staunch conservatives only to be co-opted by the GOP establishment once they gained seniority. As the second highest leadership Republican – Senate Majority Whip – Cornyn commands a national Republican constituency in addition to the one that directly elects him. His highly publicized opposition to fellow Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s courageous effort to defund Obamacare set grassroots conservatives’ teeth on edge, to say the least.
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn speaks to supporters during his re-election campaign kickoff rally in Austin, Texas, on Friday, Nov. 15, 2013. Cornyn called Friday for inclusiveness among Republicans and suggested his party should be the “responsible adults in the room and actually govern” a sentiment that stands in stark contrast to Texan colleague and tea party firebrand Ted Cruz. Cornyn has been in office since 2002 and faces no credible tea party challenger in the Republican primary in March. No Democrat has yet filed to challenge him next November. (AP Photo/Austin American-Statesman, Rodolfo Gonzalez)
Cornyn plays a game common to most Republican incumbents. They vociferously proclaim their desire to repeal Obamacare and cast multiple votes to do so – votes they know amount to nothing because such a repeal measure would never pass so long as Harry Reid controls the Senate and Barack Obama is president. Supporting Obamacare repeal is virtually a “free vote” for Republican incumbents – heavy on feel-good symbolism, but light on real accomplishment.
Ted Cruz took a truly substantive approach to defunding Obamacare. His action had meaning and would have relegated Obamacare to history’s dustbin. That’s why Texas’ junior senator took so many slings and arrows from the president, the Democratic Party, the national media, and many establishment Republicans – including Cornyn.
Cruz’s strategy made the Republicans actually take a real – not symbolic – stand. For Cruz’s troubles, only 18 other Senate Republicans joined him, which shows why there’s such growing discontent between Republican pols-gone-establishment and their constituents who nominate and help elect them.
Rep. Steve Stockman talks during a press conference. Photo Credit: www.politico.com
Among the seven Republicans challenging Sen. Cornyn, Stockman’s last-minute entry into the Senate race was a surprise, especially since he’s risking his electorally safe southeast Texas congressional seat. Stockman is banking more on name identification and a backlash against Cornyn within the coalition that nominated Cruz two years ago, given that his campaign coffers are meager. By contrast, the senator has a multimillion dollar war chest to draw upon in addition to an outside super PAC that will infuse millions more to support his re-election bid.
Perceptions of Stockman are mixed. Some Texans perceive him as David willing to take on the Cornyn Goliath. Others view him as something of a flake. Oddly, Stockman went on a trip to Egypt just after announcing his campaign, this when time is in short supply thanks to the fast approaching March 4 election and while important votes were occurring on the House floor.
A lack of money and an eccentric approach to campaigning means that Stockman is unlikely to upend Sen. Cornyn on March 4. But Cornyn’s not taking any chances. Texans for Sen. John Cornyn, Inc., sponsors a website that takes direct aim at Stockman’s ethics.
With Stockman and six other Republicans jousting with the incumbent, the anti-Cornyn vote fractures, resulting in a benefit for the senator and his supporters. But a significant aggregate vote against Cornyn’s renomination would be meaningful. Should the challengers together score a healthy percentage of the vote, major signals will be sent not only to Cornyn, but also to most of the other senators who comprise the GOP caucus.
Photo Credit: www.house.state.tx.us
Beyond the Cornyn renomination fight, Texas features a basketful of intraparty U.S. House contests.
Of the state’s 36 congressional districts, 24 are Republican-held, and 10 of those incumbents have drawn primary opponents. Of the 10, it appears two may be significant: the challenges to 90-year old Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Rockwall) and House Rules Committee chairman Pete Sessions (R-Dallas). But political reality suggests that the two incumbents (especially Sessions) remain favored to clinch their respective nominations on the first Tuesday in March.
The March 4 Texas political party nomination votes are the first contests in a national voting cycle scheduled to run through Sept. 9, not including the unique Louisiana primary that runs concurrently to Election Day, Nov. 4. June (18 primaries) and August (14 contests) are the two heaviest months for nomination elections.
Primary challenges are now taking forms other than directly opposing official House and Senate party leaders like Mr. Cornyn. In at least two instances, employing strategic elements that are fast becoming the focal points of their campaign, GOP congressional candidates are pledging to vote against the entire slate of House Republican leaders – Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), first and foremost.
Last week, Kansas state Sen. Steve Fitzgerald (R-Leavenworth) announced he would challenge three-term U.S. Rep. Lynn Jenkins (R-Topeka) on a platform opposing Boehner and his leadership team. Fitzgerald summed up his challenge in an interview to the Associated Press saying:
"…[I]f she [Representative Jenkins] saw this the same way I do, I would not take this on. I won't say anything bad about Lynn Jenkins whatsoever, but if you like the current leadership, vote for her. If you are unhappy with the current leadership, I think you deserve an alternative."
The Kansas primary is Aug. 5.
John Stone is a former Georgia congressional candidate and Capitol Hill staffer. He’s again challenging U.S. Representative John Barrow (D-Augusta) for his conservative southeast Georgia seat. Barrow is a shrewd politician, making enough conservative comments, voting just conservatively enough, and airing very creative television campaign ads that permit him to remain in office when other “Blue Dog Democrats” have fallen by the wayside.
Stone first must win the Republican nomination, and is pitted against a more establishment-oriented candidate. He, too, has made voting against the House Republican leadership a central theme of his campaign, and told us that the response to his platform has been stunning. Mr. Stone claims that more than 2,500 new donors have come to his campaign since announcing he would vote to overhaul the House Republican leadership team. He said, “Folks here in our 19 counties are simply demanding it [change in House GOP leaders].” The Georgia primary is May 20. If necessary, a run-off election will be held July 22.
Jim Ellis is a professional election analyst who has worked in national campaign politics and grassroots issue advocacy since 1978. He currently writes and speaks as a member of the PRIsm Information Network.
Jeffrey Schmidt is a 30-year political and public affairs veteran who specializes in grassroots and grasstops projects and strategic communications.
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