In a surprise move, outspoken tea party congressman Steve Stockman has filed to challenge Texas Sen. John Cornyn in next March's GOP Senate primary.
Texas Republican Party spokesman Spencer Yeldell confirmed multiple reports that Stockman had withdrawn his application to run for re-election to his House seat in order to run for the Senate instead. Stockman was elected to Congress in 2012 to a new district after previously serving one term from 1995 to 1997.
Stockman is a Republican firebrand who's called for President Obama's impeachment over gun control and is a staunch opponent of immigration reform. Many observers thought Cornyn would escape a serious primary challenge. But conservative groups who had been praying for a challenger to Cornyn, the minority whip and former chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, welcomed Stockman's change of heart.
"We haven't decided yet whether we will endorse Steve Stockman, but we're excited about the potential here," Senate Conservatives Fund Executive Director Matt Hoskins told msnbc.com in an email. Stockman's entrance adds another name to the growing list of more than a half dozen tea party-vs.-establishment GOP primaries in 2014.
"Texas deserves two conservative fighters in the Senate, not just one," Hoskins wrote. "John Cornyn has voted to increase the debt, raise taxes, bail out Wall Street banks, and fund Obamacare. He's part of the problem in Washington and voters deserve an alternative."
In an interview with the conservative World Net Daily, Stockman said it was because of Texas' other conservative senator that he was mounting the challenge, saying that Cornyn had “undermined Sen. Ted Cruz’s fight to stop Obamacare" earlier this year before the 16-day government shutdown. Cornyn didn't side with Cruz on a procedural motion the freshman senator argued would have stopped the health care law.
“I don’t know that I can beat him, but I am sure going to try,” Stockman told WND, adding that he hadn't yet informed Cornyn of his decision. “In Texas, conservative policies win over stabbing fellow Republicans in the back."
Cruz, a vice-chairman of the NRSC, said earlier this year he wouldn't endorse Cornyn for re-election, saying he was staying neutral for any primaries. NRSC spokesman Brad Dayspring tweeted Monday evening that the Senate campaign arm was "proud to support Sen. Cornyn and while this primary challenge is quite the head scratcher, it will be defeated."
With less than three months until the March 4 primary, Cornyn has a heavy advantage in fundraising (and Texas is an expansive, expensive state). Cornyn has almost $7 million in the bank while Stockman had just over $32,000 in his House campaign coffers and carried $163,000 in debt. He's been plagued by campaign finance problems.
Several other lesser-known challengers have also filed, but Stockman brings the biggest name in what may devolve into a nasty mess for the GOP. If no candidate gets 50% in the primary, the two top finishers would advance to a May 27 runoff.
Cornyn allies point to the senior senator's record and the fact that he was named by the National Journal as the second most conservative senator in 2012. "[I]t's hard to see how anyone can outflank Senator Cornyn, and particularly someone whose long record of financial mismanagement directly undercuts any claim to fiscal conservatism," GOP strategist Brian Walsh, a former Cornyn aide, told msnbc.