Why the Tea Party Doesn’t Have a Chance in Texas

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Feb. 19 2014 2:06 PM

Texas Tea

People are hyping the Tea Party threat to Texas Sen. John Cornyn. The truth is these grassroots conservatives don’t have a chance.

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Two days earlier, in the East Texas town of Longview, Cornyn had joined Karl Rove and country singer Neal McCoy for a two-hour fundraiser and jamboree. Mickie Hand, a local Republican parliamentarian, danced in the aisles as McCoy’s band played a cover of “Billie Jean.” Her necklace, a cross built with nails, swayed as she moved. She paused just long enough to condemn Cornyn’s debt limit vote.

“If every household did that, we’d be broke,” said Hand. “But we have a good senator in there who has time, who’s worked his way up. I’m very hesitant to get rid of that for someone who’s not overwhelmingly better.”

Over a long afternoon, I heard many, many iterations of that sentiment. Cornyn was tolerable at best; his opponents weren’t worth looking at. One Longview donor who’d shelled out to attend a pre-jamboree fundraiser with Cornyn and Rove started to tell me that her party needed to recapture the center, or else it couldn’t win in Texas. Realizing what she’d said, she asked me not to use her name.

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My search for some actual enthusiasm led me to a college auditorium in Arlington, Texas, where the six Senate candidates who were not Cornyn or Stockman held their final pre-vote debate. One of them, Ken Cope, had asked Stockman to quit the race because his “antics and embarrassing actions will steal the limelight from the serious candidates.” Another candidate, Dwayne Stovall, actually knew Stockman.

“He’s not a stupid guy,” Stovall told me over chips and salsa at a sports bar near campus, as a trio of undergrads sang along to Beyoncé songs on an iPhone. “He’s been perpetually trying to be a politician for decades. I think he saw the writing on the wall and said, Cornyn’s gonna be in a runoff. The polls said that six months ago. He rolled the dice. I just wish I knew that when we had breakfast two weeks before he got into the race and he asked how much I’d raised. If I’d have went, ‘I have $5 million in the bank and I’m gonna whip him!’ then I don’t think he’d have gotten in.”

Stovall had not raised $5 million. He was running $4,975,000 short of that. He was driving around Texas, trying to sync up campaign events with the schedule of his emissions-testing business. “You’re looking at a guy who puts 100,000 miles on his car every year,” said Stovall. He’d showed up at Tea Party meetings and candidate forums, winning endorsements after nine of them.

And it was easy to see why. Stovall, a former high school wrestler with a shaved head, described a political awakening that started when he was traveling internationally for his old business, linking up with builders in Japan or the Middle East. They explained all the benefits that came America’s way because the dollar was the reserve currency. Stovall looked at America’s debt obligations and imagined how the party would end. “There’s not enough currency in circulation on the planet to pay that off,” he said, “and yet we think we can keep on doing it.”

Stovall had gotten some pre-primary publicity, finally, with that old standby of the underfunded candidate: a viral YouTube video. In his most widely circulated statement of principles, Stovall sat on a pickup truck with his dog and listed the crimes of John Cornyn. “You don’t stab her in the back by voting for cloture on Obamacare,” he said, referring to Texas. “You don’t enslave its children with unconstitutional laws and overwhelming debt. And you certainly don’t do all this to please some guy that looks and fights like a turtle.” Cue: a picture of Mitch McConnell and a cartoon turtle.

Stovall thought the ad was ridiculous. He’d shot it weeks before, and told the campaign not to run it. Then came the debt vote, which made the ad look prophetic; Stovall told his team to “cut it loose.” The attention paid to that video boosted him almost as much as it depressed him. “You talk about the Congress enslaving your kids and future generations for no other reason than to grow this government, nothing. You put a talking dog and a turtle in the media, and people talk.”

Tuesday night, Cornyn’s campaign arrived at a Republican donor’s home in the exclusive Royal Oaks neighborhood of Houston. Young professionals, neatly dressed from days at the law firm or the medical device company, paid $25 each for a meet-and-greet. The whole thing was put on by Maverick PAC, started by veterans of the George W. Bush campaign who now find themselves representing the center, if not the left, of their party. They drank wine or light beer and ambled through the house until about 8 o’clock, when Cornyn and local Rep. Ted Poe were shepherded to the living room.

“Personal involvement is what’s required for a democracy to secede,” said Poe. He corrected himself. “Succeed! Not secede. That’s what Texas is gonna do!” Everybody laughed at the accidental joke, but just in case, Poe waved his hand, looking at Cornyn, as if deleting the comment in the air. The senator took his place.

“It’s pretty hard for anybody to get to my right, I have to tell you, when it comes to the issues,” said Cornyn. “It’s important to welcome people who maybe don’t agree with us 100 percent of the time. The fact of the matter is that that’s an impossible standard. How do we accomplish 80 percent of what we want?”

The young professionals, people who’d be funding Republican campaigns for decades to come, nodded and kept listening.

“I’ve found this to be an irrefutable rule of politics,” said Cornyn. He brought his right hand down on his left, like a gavel hitting a desk. “The candidate who gets the most votes wins.”

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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