Loving the state you represent is not a unique phenomenon in Congress. But, as Texas Republicans are just dying to tell you, everything is bigger in the Lone Star State. This is Part III of Texas Rising, a continuing series on Texas Republicans. Part I examined the growing clout of the House delegation and Part II delved into the GOP’s weekly lunch.
The Texas GOP’s weekly lunch may be a sacred ritual for most of the state’s 26 congressional Republicans, but two members stand out for not keeping the Thursday Sabbath: Sen. Ted Cruz and Rep. Steve Stockman.
If a family that eats together stays together, what does it mean that Cruz and Stockman have been absent from a lunch that other Texas Republicans insist is fundamental to the delegation’s identity?
Both Cruz and Stockman have their reasons. Cruz is a senator on the move with a burgeoning national profile. Stockman didn’t want to make things awkward for his colleagues — or himself — during his unsuccessful attempt earlier this year to unseat Sen. John Cornyn in a primary.
Of course, no one is taking attendance, but the Senate presence at the lunch has diminished in general since Kay Bailey Hutchison left Congress.
“Phil Gramm was 100 percent attendance probably,” Rep. Joe L. Barton told CQ Roll Call. “Kay Bailey was pretty close to 100 percent. I’d say Cornyn is probably 75 to 80. And so far this year, Sen. Cruz is maybe 30 to 40 percent, something like that.”
The senators do have a conflicting policy lunch on Thursdays, but Cornyn usually tries to at least walk by the Texas gathering.
“It’s always a challenge to get back,” Cornyn said, but he tries to make it “part of the regular routine.”
When CQ Roll Call asked Cornyn about Cruz regularly missing the lunch, he said: “You’d have to ask him about that.”
We did, and Cruz said he attended “a great many of them.
“The nature of serving in the Senate is that the demands on the schedule are often conflicting and pulling you in multiple directions,” Cruz said. “But the Texas delegation as a whole works together well and I expect will continue to work together well for the benefit of the state of Texas.”
But some House members, even as they tried to defend Cruz’s sporadic attendance, suggested the delegation might work better if the junior senator from Texas broke bread with them more frequently.
“Sen. Cruz, obviously, is new and he’s trying to get his office set up,” Rep. Randy Neugebauer said, more than 15 months after Cruz was sworn in. “And, you know, we’d like to see him a bit more.”
Rep. Kevin Brady said he knows Cruz tries his best to attend and noted that House members had a good amount of dialogue with Cornyn. “So that’s just sort of how it’s working these days,” he said.
Just how well the relationship between Cornyn and Cruz is working these days is unclear.
The freshman has frequently jousted with Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate.
During the government shutdown, it was Cruz leading the charge against reopening the government unless Obamacare was defunded, and it was Cornyn voting for cloture to end Cruz’s filibuster. And during the most recent debt limit hike, it was Cruz forcing a vote on the issue, despite the wishes of GOP leadership, and it was Cornyn switching his vote to “aye” to ensure the debt limit would be raised — in the midst of the primary challenge from Stockman.
The week after the Texas primary — where Cornyn fended off Stockman to practically guarantee re-election — Cornyn and Cruz stopped holding a weekly constituent coffee together, opting for separate sessions on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
That may be more of a scheduling decision than a declaration of war, but the optics alone speak to the up-and-down relationship that exists between the senators.
But the tumult in the Cruz-Cornyn relationship is nowhere close to the turbulence in the Cornyn-Stockman pas de deux.
The always-amusing, often-bewildering Stockman ran a quixotic primary challenge against Cornyn this year — and the campaign came as a shock to most of the Texas delegation.
“Surprised me, that’s all I can say,” Rep. John Carter told CQ Roll Call. “Totally came at me out of the dark.”
And no one in the delegation endorsed Stockman.
“To my knowledge, we all backed Cornyn,” said Rep. K. Michael Conaway. “I’m not aware of anybody that said Steve was the right guy for the job.”
Pressed for more information, Conaway said, “He’s the newest guy here,” and was content to leave it at that.
But even if Stockman’s gadfly primary challenge didn’t have their blessing, and even if losing the bid meant he would be leaving Congress, Texas Republicans refused to condemn their friend from Friendswood, a Houston-area suburb.
“We embrace Steve,” Rep. Kenny Marchant said. “We didn’t — I don’t think anybody in the group thought [running against Cornyn] was the right thing to do.”
That ambivalence was why Stockman abstained from the Thursday lunches during the campaign.
“Yeah, I thought it was the best thing to do,” Stockman told CQ Roll Call. “I don’t want to make them feel uncomfortable.”
Nor did he ask for any endorsements.
“And I don’t think John asked for any endorsements either,” Stockman said, “because that was an unusual situation.”
Also unusual was Stockman’s campaign strategy. He slammed Cornyn on Twitter, ceaselessly trying to make #LiberalJohnCornyn a thing, but he also seemed to disappear at times — from the campaign trail and from the House floor for votes.
Still, those who know the congressman insist there’s more to him than the caricature implied by his firebrand Twitter account, @SteveWorks4You.
Spend 15 minutes with Stockman and you can see why his fellow Texans embrace him and why people are drawn to his personable, self-deprecating humor.
On the topic of his clothes, for instance: Stockman insisted to CQ Roll Call he was wearing $9 pants from either Kmart or Wal-Mart.
Asked what’s next for him, first he told us he was “going to go work for Roll Call,” then he told us he had his eyes set on the night shift at Wendy’s, which was why, he said, he now supported raising the minimum wage.
When he finally got serious about the question, he said he didn’t actually know what was next. “I might do something; we’ll see.”
In the meantime, the Texas Republican delegation has taken him back with open arms.
After Cornyn dispensed with Stockman by 40 points, Brady — who Stockman calls a “super sweet guy” — sought out the Texas GOP’s missing lunch companion.
“He came over to me, which almost started me crying,” Stockman said. “He comes up to me and says, ‘Steve,’ he says, ‘You’re part of the family.’ He says, ‘You need to start coming back to the Thursday lunches.’ ”
So Stockman returned. And in good Texas fun, when he first saw Cornyn, he jokingly demanded a recount.
This coming from a man who spent months characterizing Cornyn, in some of the most trollish tweets from a congressman ever, as the wrong choice for Texas.
After all those #LiberalJohnCornyn missives, on the night that Stockman lost his bid for Senate and, perhaps, once and for all ended his congressional career, Team Stockman sent out this 132-character tweet: “We wish Senator Cornyn best of luck in November and urge everyone to vote for, volunteer for and support the whole Texas GOP ticket.”
With eight characters left, @SteveWorks4You affixed this hashtag to the tweet: #family.