So Steve Stockman is running for Senate. It’s all over Twitter, it might be all over Facebook depending on what kind of friends you have, and it’s the talk of this town (if you know what I mean). Initial coverage has suggested that the stand-off — between Representative Stockman, the East Texas far-far-right conservative, and Senator John Cornyn, an incumbent whose votes have rankled some Texas tea-party activists — will be another chapter in the nigh-unending saga of tea-party insurrectionists versus the Big Bad Establishment. But it’s actually much more complicated than that.
For one thing, it’s hard to imagine the race being much of a contest. Stockman has just $32,000 cash on hand per his latest filings (and $163,000 in debt). And he’s been beleaguered by allegations of ethics violations since entering office. Plus, with the primary set for March 4, he has less than three months to pull off a statewide victory — or, at least, to win enough votes to send the race to a runoff. So his odds are, uh, less than great.
But since Ted Cruz’s improbable victory over Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, long-shot conservative candidates in Texas have felt that the odds against them are never as bad as they seem. They argue that with enough grassroots energy, pulling a Cruz 2.0 is well within the realm of the feasible. And for many candidates, that may be true. But Stockman could have a big problem that Cruz didn’t: The grassroots — a key ingredient in the Cruz success formula — don’t seem to have coalesced around him yet. And there’s trouble brewing in his own district.
Enter Dwayne Stovall. Stovall announced about six months ago that he would challenge Cornyn in the Republican primary. His announcement didn’t get much play (Have you ever heard of Stovall? Didn’t think so), but Stovall, who has tea-party support, lives in Stockman’s district and knows the congressman. In fact, he tells National Review Online that the two had breakfast together a few weeks ago, and that Stockman told him then that he didn’t plan to run for Senate.
“I asked him, ‘If you don’t run, will you endorse me?’” Stovall tells me. “He said, ‘Yeah, I’ll endorse you.’”
Stovall says the congressman texted him last week to let him know that he’d filed to run for reelection to the House.
And a few days before Stockman left Texas to return to D.C., Stovall says the two had a phone conversation in which the congressman reiterated that he wouldn’t run for the Senate.
“I said, ‘If things change, if you look like you’re going to get in, just give me a heads up,’” Stovall tells me. “He said, ‘Will do.’”
He didn’t. Stovall says he found out about Stockman’s senatorial bid the way the rest of us did. Requests for comment directed to Donny Ferguson, Stockman’s only spokesperson on both the congressional and campaign side (at least, according to the receptionist in Stockman’s office who spoke with me), weren’t returned by press time.
Dale Huls, a member of the Clear Lake Tea Party executive board (a tea-party group that operates in Stockman’s district and includes many of his constituents), tells National Review Online that because Stockman didn’t keep his word to Stovall, he won’t support the congressman — despite his ultra-conservative record in the House.
“As far as the voting record goes, it looks good to tea-party folk, but I believe there is a character issue,” Huls says.
And it’s not just about failing to keep his word to Stovall. Stockman served in Congress in the 1990s for one term but lost his seat because of redistricting. When he ran again in 2012, he used signs that read “Reelect Congressman Stockman.”
“Yes, he was a former congressman,” Huls says, “but he wasn’t an incumbent, so we felt the reelection signs were wrong, unethical.”
He adds that on top of that, Dave Norman, the husband of Stockman staffer Bonnie Norman, filed to enter the race for Stockman’s congressional seat at almost exactly the same time the congressman filed to enter the senatorial race. Huls says he believes Stockman deliberately kept his entrance into the Senate race a secret so his staffer’s husband wouldn’t have much competition in the primary race to fill his old seat.
Ferguson, Stockman’s spokesperson, put a post on Facebook on Monday night that said, “Dave Norman is going to be a great congressman.” And of the numerous tea-party leaders, grassroots activists, and political consultants I spoke with after Stockman’s announcement, only Stovall had the slightest inkling that Stockman had been considering a senatorial run.
But there’s a plot twist! Late on Tuesday, the Texas GOP announced that it was required to extend the filing deadline for Stockman’s seat because he announced so late that he wouldn’t run for reelection. By then, however, the damage was done: The proximity of Stockman’s filing for Senate and Norman’s filing for his House seat seemed too close to be anything but collusion, and a trust deficit was born.
“For some people in this world, we still have character and honesty and we try to be sincere and tell the truth,” says Ray Myers, chairman of the Kaufman County Tea Party and director of Saddle Up Texas. “Lying and mistruth and misdirection in politics today is absolutely just getting out of control.”
He tells me he won’t support Stockman, in large part because of what he believes is duplicity.
“I’m not real happy right now with Mr. Stockman,” he says, adding that his group has statewide tea-party connections.
And Huls feels the same way. “Tea parties don’t only look for people who vote their way,” he says. “We look for men and women of character and principle, first and foremost, and the votes will come our way from that.”
He won’t support Cornyn or Stockman, he tells me. Instead, he plans to support Stovall.
“He is on his own, working as hard as he can,” he says of the dark horse’s dark horse. “We admire that kind of spirit, David versus Goliath activity.”
Not all tea-party leaders feel that way. Many of the activists I spoke with seemed uncertain about what to do next.
Resa Clark, a tea-party activist from Tyler who was on Cruz’s finance committee, tells me she thinks Stockman could have had a chance in the primary if he’d announced a year before the election. But with just three months, she says she’s hesitant to invest in a race that looks so daunting. She’s frustrated with Cornyn, she adds, but she’s not persuaded Stockman’s odds of victory are high enough to justify the amount of work she would have to put in by March.
“Do we do it to fight the fight?” she asks.
She adds that it’s unfair to suggest Stockman has grassroots support locked up: She knows activists who consider themselves “to the right of the Right” and also support Cornyn.
And that’s what’s fascinating about the Texas Senate primary: It’s easy to portray it as a simple Tea Party–versus–Establishment showdown, but the reality is much more complicated, much more problematic for Stockman, and much, much more personal.
— Betsy Woodruff is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.