One year ago, two pugnacious Texas Republicans with very different backgrounds were sworn in as members of Congress.
Ted Cruz, a freshman senator from Houston, had advised President George W. Bush and argued before the U.S. Supreme Court nine times. Pundits were already talking about him as a presidential candidate.
Steve Stockman of Friendswood was returning to the U.S. House after serving one boisterous term two decades earlier in which he drew attention for various outlandish comments and ties to domestic militia groups.
Now, Cruz’s star continues to rise, and Stockman has hitched his wagon to it in his primary challenge of the state’s senior senator, John Cornyn. Stockman is framing his campaign largely around the argument that Cruz would be a more effective fighter with Stockman at his side than Cornyn.
“Right now, people who are standing up like Ted Cruz and myself, we’re vilified,” Stockman said last month on a Midland radio show. “I still think we can change the nature of discussion in the country if we have people willing to stand up and take bullets.”
Cruz, for his part, has said he likes both Cornyn and Stockman but is not endorsing either. He has not made an endorsement in any other Senate races thus far.
“I’ve never liked it when Washington insiders try to pick winners and losers in Republican primaries,” Cruz told The Texas Tribune in December. “I think primaries should be decided by the grass roots in each state.”
Stockman’s campaign strategy is the latest demonstration of how Cruz has quickly claimed an outsize role in Texas politics, as well as nationally. Even before he officially joined the Senate, Cruz began rallying activists and Republican lawmakers to take aggressive measures to block President Obama’s health care law. That unsuccessful campaign culminated in a 16-day government shutdown in October.
While Cornyn has repeatedly praised Cruz, he has also been critical of the way Cruz and several other senators handled efforts to defund the health care law.
“We had a minor disagreement over tactics, and that happens,” Cornyn said in November at an event in Austin kicking off his re-election bid.
Many Cruz supporters did not view the disagreement as minor. In the fall, the Dallas-based conservative radio host Glenn Beck spoke on his show of the need to get “another Ted Cruz” in the Senate and lobbied several Republicans — including U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert of Tyler, the evangelical historian David Barton and Cruz’s father, Rafael Cruz — to challenge Cornyn. All declined.
Of the seven Republicans and five Democrats who ultimately filed to challenge Cornyn, Stockman is the best known. Yet he falls short of the ideal candidate many conservative activists had been seeking.
While Stockman’s actions have drawn publicity and cheers from many conservatives, allegations of impropriety regarding the source of some campaign donations have dampened enthusiasm for his Senate run. So too has an investigation by the Houston Chronicle that raised questions about the accuracy of Stockman’s congressional finance disclosure forms. Stockman declined a request to comment for this article.
Despite his earlier efforts to promote a primary challenge to Cornyn, Beck has not issued an endorsement in the race. Neither have some conservative groups that have been sharply critical of Cornyn in recent months, including the Club for Growth, an organization with a history of challenging Republican incumbents.
JoAnn Fleming, chairwoman of the advisory committee to the Legislature’s Tea Party Caucus, said that inquiries into Stockman’s ethics had raised eyebrows but that his rhetoric also turns off some potential supporters.
“It’s not that we’re looking for some sort of prototype of Ted Cruz,” Fleming said. “But we are looking for people who can have a serious debate and a serious discussion of the issues. I don’t think a slash-and-burn approach is particularly helpful.”
In 1995, Stockman was one of 54 new Republican members of the U.S. House. Initially, he signaled an interest in working well with others.
“I’m not here to break glass,” he told C-SPAN shortly before starting his first term. “I want to work with the majority and get some of the bills through for the nation.”
Stockman’s conciliatory demeanor would soon give way to one that seemed in constant search of a fight. At one point, he accused the Clinton administration of staging the 1993 Branch Davidian raid near Waco to promote a gun control bill.
After losing re-election, Stockman ran for several other public offices before winning an open U.S. House seat in 2012. In his return to Congress, Stockman has managed to hone his confrontational style into a kind of black comedy. To draw donations, he has sold “Obama barf bags” and bumper stickers with the slogan “If babies had guns, they wouldn't be aborted.” Last month he tweeted “The best gun lubricant around” with a photo of a can labeled “liberal tears.”
In perhaps his most famous move, he invited the rocker and vocal gun rights activist Ted Nugent to last year’s State of the Union address to protest Obama’s gun control proposal. When asked about Stockman’s guest, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi told The Huffington Post: "I am more concerned about Steve Stockman being here than Ted Nugent. Ted Nugent will leave. Steve Stockman will still be here."
Stockman abandoned his re-election plans and filed for the U.S. Senate race shortly before the Dec. 9 filing deadline. It was a decision that he had gone back and forth over for days, according to Dave Norman, who has known Stockman for years and is running to succeed him in the House.
“I tried to talk him out of it because I felt like he needed to continue in the district, but it was his decision,” said Norman, who added that he would probably vote for Stockman in the Senate primary.
Over the last month, nearly all of Stockman’s public comments have focused on criticizing Cornyn as either a “liberal,” a “backstabber” or both.
“If you continually bayonet your conservative colleagues, you cannot fall under the camp of a conservative and still get away with it,” Stockman said last month on Beck’s program.
Cornyn, for his part, is striking a different tone, emphasizing the need for the Republican Party to be a “big tent” that embraces libertarians, social conservatives, Tea Party adherents and establishment Republicans.
“What we’ve seen is when we’re divided, we capitulate,” Cornyn said recently. “We basically hand the victory to our political opponents.”