The eyes of Texas were on the Tea Party Tuesday and the impact the far right would have on the state’s primary elections. The catalyst for those elections was freshman Republican Sen. Ted Cruz who catapulted to national prominence and is considered a possible 2016 presidential candidate.
Cruz’s in-your-face style and his role in a 16-day government shutdown last October have been an inspiration to his Tea Party supporters at home. Many hoped that his rapid political climb was the start of an important new chapter in the Tea Party’s drive for political influence and prominence.
Yesterday’s election results in the Lone Star State, however, were a mixed bag, with Tea Party candidates failing in two high-profile races but doing well further down the ballot.
The show-stealer with national implications was the impressive victory of John Cornyn, the second-ranking Republican in the Senate, over conservative Rep. Steve Stockman and six other Republican challengers. Cornyn, the one-time head of the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, drew the challenge despite his solid conservative voting record and credentials. He won with 59 percent of the overall vote – exceeding a high bar of performance set by many political experts.
At the same time, nine-term Republican Rep. Pete Sessions easily defeated his GOP primary challenger, Katrina Pierson, who was backed by FreedomWorks, a national Tea Party group.
Cornyn’s victory came as no surprise. Stockman apparently thought he could ride the crest of anti-incumbent sentiment and Tea Party antipathy towards the veteran Cornyn – who supported the 2008 Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) over conservatives’ objections and voted to raise the debt ceiling earlier this year to avert a default on U.S. debt.
But Stockman ran a very poor campaign. He held few campaign events, missed candidate forums and abruptly took an overseas trip at the height of the campaign. While Tea Party members have no love for Cornyn, many concluded that they liked Stockman even less.
In a recent letter, one coalition of Tea Party leaders told Stockman, “As your campaign rolled into 2014, Texans have witnessed what might be the laziest statewide campaign to date.”
During the past two elections, Tea Party challenges to incumbent Republican lawmakers have been high-risk ventures that occasionally have led to weaker candidates winning the primaries but then losing in the general election.
For example, Senate races in Delaware, Indiana and Missouri went to Democrats after Tea Party conservatives mounted successful primary challenges. Half the Republican senators running for reelection this year face contested primaries.
“In Cornyn’s case, there simply wasn’t much objective evidence that he was anything other than a strong conservative – if voting records count for anything,” said Larry J. Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist. “And Stockman was an inadequate challenger, to put it kindly.”
He added, “But the Tea Party and its very conservative allies are still strong in Texas, as some other results indicated. They’ll be around for a long time in some form or another in the Lone Star State.”
Tea Party candidates had more success in other statewide races against establishment Republicans than they did in federal races, as The Washington Post noted. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst (R) was headed for a second-place finish and runoff against state Sen. Dan Patrick (R), a conservative radio host running to his right. Meanwhile, state Sen. Ken Paxton, a conservative who fancies himself another Ted Cruz, advanced to a runoff against state Rep. Dan Branch in the race for attorney general.
This story was updated on March 6, 2014, at 10:30 a.m., to reflect the official tally of John Cornyn's primary victory.
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