WASHINGTON – It is a monumental shift in major race that could be sending shock waves through the GOP establishment.
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Underfunded and targeted by GOP strategist Karl Rove, Rep. Steve Stockman, R-Texas, has defied the odds in his long-shot bid to topple the second-most powerful Republican in the U.S. Senate, and is on the verge of forcing a crucial runoff with incumbent Sen. Jon Cornyn, R-Texas, in the Texas GOP primary.
According to the results of a stunning new poll, Cornyn has fallen from 50 percent to 43 percent.
That means Cornyn would have to gain eight points in the next two weeks, before the March 4 GOP primary, to break the 50 percent threshold to avoid a runoff, but he seems to be losing ground, fast.
A runoff is critical because it can change the entire direction of a race.
That's why forcing a runoff is the centerpiece of Stockman's strategy, the same strategy that sent Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, to the Senate in 2012.
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The goal is to force a runoff to buy time needed to rally the grassroots, raise funds and obtain key endorsements.
Cruz entered the race in 2012 as a little-known and under-funded outsider taking on the GOP establishment candidate.
Cruz began with a double-digit deficit in the polls, but after getting his opponent under 50 percent and forcing a runoff election, he garnered key endorsements from such GOP kingmakers as Sarah Palin and Jim DeMint. Cruz then went on to beat Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst by 14 points in the runoff and then beat the Democrat by 15 points in November.
But Stockman hasn't just put Cornyn in danger of a runoff. In a dramatic turnaround, the challenger has also put himself within striking distance of the incumbent, and he's closing – fast.
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When Stockman unexpectedly entered the race at the last minute in December, the initial poll had Cornyn at 50 percent and Stockman at 6 percent, a difference of 44 points.
With the latest poll showing Stockman has jumped to 28 percent and Cornyn has fallen to 43 percent, the difference is now just 15 points.
That means Stockman has made up an incredible 29 points since entering the race.
Gravis Marketing conducted the poll, and company President Doug Kaplan observed, “These are dangerous numbers for Cornyn, because they show that despite his power in the Senate and his familiarity with the voters, he has not yet made the sale."
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Cornyn, the minority whip in the Senate, was introduced at a fundraiser in Longview, Texas, on Sunday by Rove.
Stockman told WND, "Rove got on stage and said, 'John Cornyn is the second-most conservative senator,' which begs the question, who is first? Who is the most conservative senator? Is it Mike Lee? Is it Rand Paul? Is it Ted Cruz?"
Answering his own question, the congressman continued, "No, in 2010 the National Journal ruled that John McCain was the most conservative member of the Senate. So it puts my opponent in an awkward position, because it means John Cornyn is more liberal than John McCain."
Stockman pointed out that Rove and Cornyn do not mention who did the ranking. Indeed, it was the National Journal that declared McCain the Senate's most-conservative member in 2010.
The congressman also pointed out that the conservative Heritage Foundation ranked him and Cruz as the most conservative Texans.
As for the poll showing him dramatically gaining ground on Cornyn, Stockman told WND, "I am very encouraged. I am hopeful that it's true. If it is true, it will rock the establishment and defy the declarations that we are running a horrible campaign and don't know what we're doing."
Stockman also zeroed in on crucial factor revealed by the poll. While there are now only 15 points separating the two candidates, 29 percent of Texans are still undecided, giving the congressman ample opportunity to catch the senator.
The challenger told WND his "gut" tells him Cornyn is not releasing the results of his own polls because "he is fearful that a lot of the undecideds will not break his way."
"We don't tell everybody our campaign strategy when asked about it, but we have been very aggressive in numerous ways, and we have apparently made inroads. And we'll continue what we're doing," said a soft-spoken but seemingly confident Stockman.
Another potentially key factor that could help Stockman is that the Gravis poll was done from Feb. 10 to 12. That was just before Cornyn joined Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in casting the key votes that persuaded just enough fellow Republicans to join Democrats in lifting the debt ceiling.
Stockman mentioned that could cost Cornyn even more percentage points, because the vote was sure to have upset conservatives.
Even before the latest poll was released, a buoyant Stockman told WND, “Cornyn is on the ropes. His campaign is in full panic mode. He can’t even top 50 percent after 22 years and tens of millions spent.”
Cornyn has almost $7 million in campaign funds in the bank compared to Stockman’s $47,000, but Stockman has gained key name recognition, and has made a name for himself in a short time during his second stint in Congress (he previously served from 1995 to 1997), as one of the most reliably conservative voices in the House of Representatives.
Stockman has garnered a reputation for stinging one-liners with such tweets as, “Liberals love diversity. That's why they punish anyone who doesn't think, act, eat, drink, drive and speak exactly like them.”
Scathing remarks like that are why Stockman has become the darling of so many conservatives and the bogeyman to such liberal outfits as MSNBC.
The congressman has made numerous fans and foes with such headline-grabbing maneuvers as bringing WND columnist Ted Nugent as his guest to last year's State of the Union address, and calling for the House to begin impeachment proceedings against President Obama after walking out during this year's address.
Now he is taking the biggest gamble of his political career, risking his safe seat as a member of the House in a long-shot bid to oust Cornyn.
The congressman found it interesting that Cornyn is not releasing the result of his own polls, saying, “If they were good, trust me, they'd be released.”
Another indication the poll numbers are not good for the incumbent: The congressman says the senator's people are stepping up the attacks, and the Cornyn campaign itself is now doing anti-Stockman attack ads, “So they must be scared of something.”
Stockman said his opponent is being so aggressive because the numbers for Cornyn are not as strong as he would hope, and there are still a lot of undecided voters. "As a 12-year incumbent you'd think he'd have a stronger base."
The congressman said all of his victories have been David versus Goliath races, noting that he beat the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Jack Brooks, D-Texas, in 1994 even though the incumbent outspent him by 12 to one.
How does he do it?
The man who likes to say, "I was tea party before there was a tea party," says the trick is getting his conservative message to the voters.
"In 2012, I was such an underdog the Houston Chronicle proclaimed I had no chance of winning. They did this horrible piece on me, then said, 'But don't worry! He has no chance of winning, because he has no campaign ads, no consultants' and so on," Stockman cheerfully recounted.
He claimed that despite facing 12 candidates, including a multimillionaire, and running in a gerrymandered district that had been carved-out for the third-highest ranking Texas official, who the papers declared had the race all but sewn-up, "We were victorious because we ran on a conservative platform that spoke to the grassroots."
Why is this such an important election?
"Because John Cornyn is the second-highest ranking official in the Senate. He sets agendas. That's why I gave up my seat. He's so critical to the direction this nation is going, and to have someone who is committed to being less confrontational with Obama and try to be more appealing to Obama, as he advised, I think is a mistake," the congressman opined.
Stockman said the GOP actually lost seats when Cornyn was chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee because he doesn't advocate a conservative agenda. The congressman said the senator only sounds like a conservative when he runs for re-election.
"Even though his ads say he is a conservative, (Texas Democratic gubernatorial candidate) Wendy Davis sounds like a conservative. Obama sounded like a conservative when he was running, if you actually listened to the rhetoric. But we have to look at his voting record and his positions. And it is abundantly clear that they are different than the mainstream conservative values."
Illustrating his point, Stockman said "A vote for Cornyn is a vote for Obamacare."
The congressman said Cornyn has supported Obamacare numerous times in the false notion that it's going to help the Republican Party, adding, "That's going to absolutely destroy our nation."
That's why, he said, it is so important to beat the man who now serves as minority whip in the Senate.
His voice rising to demonstrate his conviction, Stockman declared, "I gave up my safe U.S. House seat to run against John Cornyn for U.S. Senate because I don’t want to see the Obamacare repeal movement defeated. I am willing to risk everything to see Obamacare repealed."
The congressman maintained it is one thing to face a Democrat as a clearly defined opponent, but quite another when you have a Republican who consistently works against other Republicans, saying that Cornyn worked against Sen. Marco Rubio in Florida, Senate candidate Joe Miller in Alaska and even against his fellow Texas senator, Cruz.
In fact, when Stockman broke the news to WND in December that he would challenge Cornyn, the congressman cited as his top reason how the incumbent GOP senator "undermined Sen. Ted Cruz’s fight to stop Obamacare."
"It's better to have someone who's knows what he stands for as opposed to a Republican who acts more like a Democrat," Stockman now adds.
On another hot-button issue, Stockman pointed out that Cornyn had claimed that Republicans could not win in 2016 without "resolving" the immigration issue, which conservatives took to mean granting amnesty to illegal immigrants.
"He's come out time and time again for it. He did a bill promoting it with Lindsey Graham, and he's now trying to distance himself from it. The people sending out these attack ads are primarily pro-amnesty people."
And, he added, they didn't like that he killed the amnesty bill (Sen. Majority Leader) Harry Reid (D-Nev.) had sent to the House.
"We did what's called a 'blue-slip.' We declared it a tax, which it is because the Supreme Court ruled the fees in the health care bill are taxes. The Senate cannot create or generate any revenue. The Constitution gives that power strictly to the House. The House creates what's called a blue slip, in that event, and I did that to both the immigration and the gun bills."
Stockman seemed unperturbed, even though his campaign isn't just uphill, it has turned downright nasty as he comes under a withering attack from establishment Republicans.
A super Political Action Committee, or PAC, supporting Cornyn made such stunning claims about Stockman that he filed a lawsuit claiming “numerous false statements” including “some of the most outrageous, malicious defamation ever recorded in Harris County (Texas).”
The congressman’s office said the PAC lists Karl Rove’s Warrenton, Va., address in TV station records for its ad purchases.
Stockman believes the lawsuit has "put a stop to some of the (negative) attitude and false claims made by the local press."
He said he is hoping to see documents the PAC claims to have, because "Cornyn's people are saying they're sticking by their story. But, we'd like to see what kind of proof they have because some of these false claims are just outrageous."
Stockman said the PAC has not stopped running ads with false claims and "It's ironic because John Cornyn himself has used federal funds in his campaign, which is a huge no-no."
Stockman said Cornyn has had 121 Federal Election Commission, or FEC, corrections and he has also had to back and report outside income.
"It's kind of ironic that he's attacking me on ethics when he's got major problems."
WND broke the news that Stockman plans to file an ethics complaint in the Senate against Cornyn, citing 24 alleged campaign violations.
A Stockman spokesman told WND a formal Request For Investigation was filed with the Senate Ethics Committee Monday. He said Cornyn used his Senate office to promote his re-election campaign.
Stockman closed by mentioning that any Texan, or any American, who wants to help his campaign can inform themselves on the issues, look at his website to see positions, contribute and even help campaign.
"We've been against the odds before and have prevailed in most cases. Not always, but we're pretty good campaigners."
Follow Garth Kant on Twitter @DCgarth.