Politics

6 Texas-Sized Primary Hurdles for Steve Stockman

Stockman is challenging Cornyn in the Texas Republican Senate primary. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Texas Rep. Steve Stockman’s last-minute challenge to Sen. John Cornyn sent shock waves through Republican politics Monday night. But the congressman’s bid to upset the two-term incumbent has some Texas-sized hurdles to overcome before it's competitive — let alone successful.

Cornyn was minutes from avoiding a credible GOP primary challenger altogether before Stockman filed at the eleventh hour. Ideological outside groups in search of another Ted Cruz — who turned in one of the biggest upsets of 2012 in the GOP runoff for Texas Senate — had largely resigned themselves to the likelihood that toppling Cornyn was out of reach.

It's not yet clear whether Stockman's candidacy changes that. But, if nothing else, it ensures that Cornyn won’t take the March 4 primary lightly. While many Republican incumbents have faced legitimate primary challenges in the past few cycles, Stockman is not exactly striking fear in the hearts of establishment Republicans who stand firmly behind Cornyn.

Here are six reasons why:

1. This isn’t 2012

Key differences include the fact that this is not an open-seat race and Cruz had been running for 11 months by this point in 2011. Outside groups were falling over themselves to help Cruz then, and few would favorably compare Cruz’s quality as a candidate with that of Stockman.

“Steve Stockman is not Ted Cruz,” said veteran Texas pollster Mike Baselice, whose client, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, lost to Cruz in the 2012 Senate runoff.

2. Cornyn is no slouch. While tea party groups would probably rather have someone else in the Senate, it’s hard to argue that Cornyn is not conservative. He boasts a 93 percent lifetime score from the American Conservative Union, an A rating from the National Rifle Association and an endorsement from Texas Right to Life.

After two terms as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Cornyn knows how to run a race and is well aware of the importance of preparation — which is clear from his fundraising and ramped-up campaign operation. He’s ready for a fight.

3. Texas is big and expensive. Cornyn had nearly $7 million in cash on hand as of Sept. 30, while Stockman had banked just $32,000. He now has about two months to raise enough money to compete on TV in the primary's final weeks.

Media buyers say that a weeklong statewide television buy will likely cost about $2 million in a Texas Republican primary. That includes the 13 markets that GOP candidates bother to compete in. The Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston markets alone can eat up $1.2 million of that budget.

And it's not just television. The Lone Star State is possibly the most difficult area to campaign in geographically. Its population centers are hundreds of miles apart and candidates often must rely on air travel to hit several cities in one day and make multiple evening newscasts.

4. Personal financial issues. In an opposition research push within the first 24 hours of the race, Cornyn's team and allies focused on Stockman's troubled personal and campaign finance issues.

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As the Houston Chronicle documented last month, Stockman filed for bankruptcy in 2002 and "has failed repeatedly to disclose business affiliations that stretch from Texas to the British Virgin Islands on his Congressional financial disclosure forms." Recent campaign issues, according to the newspaper, include his headquarters being shut down by city officials and two staffers being fired for making prohibited donations to the campaign.

5. Where is the help? Given the expense and short time frame that he’s working with, Stockman’s viability will likely rely on multiple ideological outside groups parachuting in for backup.

That hope got off to a rocky start Tuesday morning, when the Club for Growth announced it saw little difference between the two candidates’ records and therefore does not expect to get involved. Two tea-party-friendly groups, the Senate Conservatives Fund and the Madison Project, also declined to commit to the race in statements that followed Stockman's announcement.

6. Stockman's unusual approach. The Texas political class greeted the Stockman news with a collective eye roll on Monday night, given his previous campaigns and the perception that he's to the right of even fellow Texas conservative firebrand Rep. Louie Gohmert.

While Cruz ran as an outsider, he employed well-connected political operatives who knew the ins and outs of running campaigns in the Lone Star State. The same cannot be said of Stockman's 2012 congressional bid.

Stockman ran a mysterious campaign, as reported at the time by the Houston Chronicle. He and his team were largely inaccessible to the press, and in Texas it is hard to imagine running a campaign without polling, TV or attending events.

During his first two campaigns for Congress, in 1994 and 1996, Stockman was known for an unorthodox campaign tactic that put him crosswise with the Federal Election Commission. Roll Call reported in 1998 that Stockman and his treasurer "were slapped with a $40,000 penalty for publishing a fraudulent newsletter that was billed as a community newspaper, but was actually published right out of Stockman’s own campaign digs" for his 1994 House race.

Stacey Goers contributed to this report.