If you want proof that that the Republican civil war is about style over substance, look no further than the state of Texas.
Incumbent John Cornyn, the second-ranking Senate Republican, faces a primary challenge from Tea Party firebrand Rep. Steve Stockman. With a bigger chest of campaign funds and higher name recognition than Stockman, Cornyn is a favorite to win. But Stockman’s challenge could force Cornyn to take a more strident posture on issues like healthcare and immigration reform.
When it comes to policy, though, Cornyn and Stockman don’t disagree on much. They both want to repeal President Obama’s healthcare law and they both oppose the Senate’s comprehensive immigration bill, which would have granted undocumented immigrants the chance to earn U.S. citizenship. Cornyn was ranked as the second-most conservative senator by National Journal in 2012.
Instead, their differences stem from strategy and tactics. Stockman, (aka @SteveWorks4You) is Congress’ foremost Twitter troll. He’s the type to compare President Obama to Saddam Hussein and call for his impeachment over gun rights. Stockman even invited conservative rocker Ted Nugent to the State of the Union.
Cornyn, well, isn’t likely to do any of those things.
"It's stylistic,” said Matt Mackowiak, a Texas-based Republican consultant. “The opposition to Cornyn is almost exclusively stylistic. [Stockman] is more likely to give a really sharp quote or sound byte or seize on an issue that would rile up the conservative base.”
Cornyn decided in July to remove his signature from a letter demanding that Obamacare be defunded in a government-funding deal, the strategy that resulted in the government shutdown. That irked Tea Party types like Stockman.
“We are extremely disappointed in the way he treated his fellow congressmen and broke the 11th commandment and undermined [Sen.] Ted Cruz’s fight to stop Obamacare,” Stockman on Tuesday told World Net Daily, a far-right website, after he announced his primary challenge.
Cornyn has voted multiple times to defund and repeal Obamacare, according to his office.
"It wasn't an ideological difference. It was a tactical difference” between Cornyn and Cruz, Mackowiak said.
And on immigration, Cornyn ticked off some Tea Party conservatives by expressing willingness to negotiate over the Senate’s immigration bill. He offered an amendment in June that would have blocked immigrants from earning citizenship if stricter border security requirements were not met.
But the plan was defeated and Cornyn voted against the Senate bill.
Cornyn’s immigration plan was derided by some Tea Party conservative groups, like Heritage Action, which said it would “serve as political cover for those senators seeking to justify their support for amnesty.”
Like Heritage Action, Stockman opposes granting legal status to undocumented immigrants at all costs. He spearheaded a (successful) effort to convince Speaker John Boehner to resist negotiating over the Senate’s immigration bill altogether.
But Republican voters are not likely to care enough about these tactical nuances, or Stockman’s trolling skills, to embrace him and ditch Cornyn. The Tea Party challenger faces a huge challenge in raising money and building a statewide campaign in less than three months before the March 4 primary.
Cornyn has around $7 million in his campaign coffers, whereas Stockman has only $32,000 and is also saddled with past campaign debt.
One potential source of money for Stockman, the conservative Club for Growth, has already said no to backing his campaign.
"I don't see a silver bullet politically for Stockman," Mackowiak said. “He'll fire up the base a little bit, but you have to cross the credibility threshold as a candidate."
Jordan Fabian is Fusion's politics editor, writing about campaigns, Congress, immigration, and more. When he's not working, you can find him at the ice rink or at home with his wife, Melissa.