Tuesday March 4th, 2014 is primary election day in Texas, home to Tea Party Republican Senator Ted Cruz. Few states are as friendly to tea party candidates as the Lone Star state, but with the primary just a day away, the Tea Party wing of the GOP appears to be limping into election day. The Texas Republican primary will be the first national test of Tea Party strength this election year. However, despite Texas’ reputation as a very conservative state, Tea Party leaders are tempering expectations going into Tuesday.
The Tea Party’s lack of muscle this year is most evident in their failure to mount a more energetic challenge to Senator John Cornyn. Though Cornyn has a pretty conservative voting record, he has long been the target of far right Tea Party types who consider him too willing to compromise. In far right circles, Cornyn has been derided as a “wussypants RINO”, who is insufficiently committed to conservative causes. After Ted Cruz’s 2012 shellacking of David Dewhurst in the 2012 GOP Senate primary, Tea Party Republicans had good reason to believe that Cornyn could be vulnerable to a tea party challenger in 2014. However, the Tea Party challengers to Cornyn have stumbled and bumbled their way through the primary campaign. Cornyn looks poised to win an outright majority without even requiring a runoff election to dispense with his tea party opponents.
Texas GOP primary voters may still harbor sympathy for Tea Party ideology, but trying to find a candidate who espouses Tea Party values without appearing like a crazy amateur campaigner has turned out to be next to impossible. Congressman Steve Stockman has run one of the most inept campaigns in political history, and his peddling “Obama barf bags” has not materialized as a winning fundraising strategy. Two other Tea Party hopefuls, Chris Mapp and Dwayne Stovall, have blundered as well. Mapp wanted to empower ranchers to shoot at suspected immigrants crossing their property and he used the racially charged term “wetback” to refer to immigrants. Although the Tea Party is now rallying to Stovall, his campaign has been silly too, focusing most of its effort on attacking Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell for looking like a turtle.
The latest GOP primary Senate poll has John Cornyn leading 62 percent to Stockman’s 16 percent. Mapp and Stovall are mired in single digits. The six different candidates seeking to unseat Cornyn are only polling a combined 38 percent of the Republican vote. Tea Party supporters are also now downplaying the chances for U.S. House candidate Katrina Pierson to unseat Dallas-area Republican Congressman Pete Sessions. Though Pierson has been endorsed by Sarah Palin, Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and Ted Cruz’ father, she is not even expected to push Sessions into a runoff election.
Given the prospects that the Tea Party wing might get shut out in races to unseat incumbent GOP members of congress, the far right may have to settle for victories in state wide races. State senate district race 16 could serve as a barometer for assessing Tea Party strength on Tuesday night. In that race, John Carona, chairman of the Senate Business and Commerce committee faces a challenge from multimillionaire Don Huffines, who has the backing of Glenn Beck, Rand Paul and Rick Santorum. One of Huffines’ main lines of attack is that Carona once co-sponsored a bill to name a Dallas portion of Interstate 20 “Obama Freeway”. If Huffines fails to defeat Carona, even after tying him to Obama so vigorously, it could symbolize that even Texas Republicans have grown weary of relentless Obama-bashing as a substitute for promoting actual policies designed to help Texans.
Another crucial race that bears watching will be Donna Campbell’s bid for reelection in North San Antonio. Campbell was a surprise Tea Party winner in 2012. She was also the state senator that called the point of order to end Wendy Davis’ famous filibuster last year. Campbell faces two opponents. One is viciously anti-gay San Antonio City Councilwoman Elisa Chan, but the other is a pro-business moderate conservative named Mike Novak. If Novak can defeat the two Tea Party women, it will be a significant setback for the Tea Party movement within the Texas Republican Party.
Even if many Tea Party candidates fail, the Texas Republican Party is still very conservative. Texas Republican moderates would be regarded as Tea Party candidates in many other parts of the country. Nevertheless, if candidates who run as far to the right as they possibly can, come up empty on Tuesday it may cause some soul searching within the Tea Party movement as strategists begin to question if a conservative movement is too extreme for the Texas GOP primary, does it have any chance to survive long-term nationally. Tuesday’s election may give us a glimpse into whether the Tea Party is still gaining momentum or whether it is lurching slowly, almost imperceptibly, towards political oblivion.
Keith Brekhus is a progressive American who currently resides in Red Lodge, Montana. He is co-host for the Liberal Fix radio show. He holds a Master’s Degree in Sociology from the University of Missouri. In 2002, he ran for Congress as a Green Party candidate in the state of Missouri. In 2014, he worked as a field organizer for Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick’s successful re-election bid in Arizona’s 1st Congressional District. He can be followed on Twitter @keithbrekhus or on Facebook.