DANA MILBANK: Tea Party no longer terrifies

Washington Post writers group Published:

WASHINGTON -- Rep. Steve Stockman's moment as a viable Senate candidate lasted exactly 13 hours 47 minutes.

At 7 p.m. Monday, the far-right Stockman, R-Toxicity, announced via the right-wing website WND that he would challenge incumbent John Cornyn in the Texas Republican Senate primary. And for a brief period, it appeared that Stockman could pose a credible threat; his decision was immediately praised by the Tea Party Patriots and the Senate Conservatives Fund, founded by the Heritage Foundation's Jim DeMint.

But then something unexpected happened: Sanity prevailed.

The Club for Growth, which started the trend of conservative primary challenges to incumbent Republicans, issued a statement just before 9 a.m. Tuesday saying that it was not on board with Stockman, the flamboyant lawmaker who distributed articles of impeachment against President Obama this fall and who tweets messages such as "Obamacare is less popular than chlamydia."

"While Congressman Stockman has a pro-economic growth record, so does Senator Cornyn, as witnessed by his 87 percent lifetime Club for Growth score," the group said, adding that "we do not expect to be involved in the Texas Senate race."

Matt Lewis, a highly regarded conservative writer with The Daily Caller, pronounced Stockman doomed. Conservatives were "in danger of throwing some babies out with the bath water," Lewis said, and he praised the Club for Growth's restraint in Texas as "leadership by example."

It was one of many signs that the tea-party-driven purge of the GOP has begun to subside. Conservative activists still dominate the party and its processes, but their reign of terror may be easing. Consider:

Rep. Paul Ryan, a darling of the Republican conservative base and a likely 2016 presidential candidate, just reached a budget agreement with Democrats that would allow a modest increase in spending. Even the hint of a spending increase was enough to produce howls from Heritage Action before the deal was announced.

The agreement is nothing for either side to celebrate. But what's noteworthy is that the threats from conservatives didn't deter Ryan.

At the same time, Senate Republicans are stepping up their efforts to help each other beat back primary challenges. The National Republican Senatorial Committee is going to battle against the Club for Growth over a primary challenge to veteran Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi.

Concern is also spreading on the right that House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio is planning to defy the tea party set on immigration reform.

Stockman, the would-be senator, must have thought he had gamed the system just right when he entered the primary battle against Cornyn on the last possible day.

Nobody can out-conservative Stockman. But Cornyn, a former Texas attorney general, is no liberal; he notes with pride that National Journal ranked him the second-most conservative senator last year. The difference between incumbent and challenger is character: Cornyn has it, Stockman is one. That the Club for Growth can recognize the difference is reason for hope.

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.

(c) 2013, Washington Post Writers Group

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  • The ryan/democrat budget is a farce. When are we going to demand that congress stop stealing from our children and grandchildren? Another false promise to possibly maybe a tini tiny bit of less spending 10 years form now is not a budget!

    The dems get power from making promise after promise of giving OPM to people who vote for them. The repubs are scared to death that the media will call them dirty names if they honor their oath of office so they cave in to the dems.

    The top 40% of taxpayers paid 106% of the total taxes. YES...106%  The bottom 40% who filed tax returns RECEIVED an average of $18,000 in benefits from OPM.