U.S. Sen. John Cornyn may draw challenge from Tea Party Republican from North Texas

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn’s seat is clearly a key target for Texas Democrats in 2020.

But it also may be a target for Texas Tea Party Republicans.

Monday night, state Sen. Pat Fallon, R-Prosper, announced he is forming an exploratory committee to help determine whether he will challenge Cornyn for the post.

“I want to have a conversation with Texans over the next few days,” he told a crowd of more than 100 gathered for a meeting of the Northeast Tarrant Tea Party, which is rebranding itself as the True Texas Project, at the NRH Centre. “What do they want?”

He said he’s been praying for months that “a viable conservative choice would step forward and offer their services to be a candidate for the United States Senate.”

Now, if Republicans indicate they would like him to run for the seat, and energize the party’s base, he will.

“If we do choose to this, I will work every day up to the primary,” Fallon said. “Because you deserve nothing less.”

Cornyn’s campaign declined to comment Monday night.

Political observers say this move illustrates an internal struggle in the Republican Party.

“Sen. Cornyn has been so concerned with which Democrat will be the nominee that he may have neglected paying attention to smoldering dissatisfaction within his base,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.

“Core Republican activists are looking for conservative candidates to push back on the rise of successful progressive Democrats in Texas,” he said. “If they feel John Cornyn is not the conservative he claims to be, a primary challenge could catch fire.”

Already, Dwayne Stovall, a perennial candidate, and Mark Yancey, a financial adviser, have filed to run against Cornyn in the 2020 Republican primary.

“The GOP is in a struggle for its identity in Texas, with Tea Partiers and Empower Texas wanting there to be a strong and unremittingly conservative response to national issues, thinking that motivating the conservative base is the secret to success,” said Jim Riddlesperger, a political science professor at TCU.

A number of Democrats also are running for this seat, including Chris Bell, a former Houston congressman and gubernatorial nominee; Amanda Edwards, a Houston city councilwoman; MJ Hegar, a retired Air Force helicopter pilot; and Royce West, a state senator from Dallas.

“We will win the White House, take out John Cornyn, expand our Texas congressional delegation, break the supermajority in the Texas Senate, flip the Texas House, and elect hundreds of local Democrats across the state,” Cliff Walker, executive director of the Texas Democratic Party, wrote in a statement Monday.

Candidates may start filing for spots on the 2020 ballot on Nov. 9.

The challenger

Fallon, a 51-year-old Prosper man who has held different public offices for 10 years, has served in the Texas Senate since January.

Before then, he served three terms in the Texas House and from 2009-2013 as a member of the Frisco City Council. He also served as mayor pro tem of the city for one year.

He is not up for reelection until 2022 and wouldn’t have to leave his Senate seat to challenge Cornyn.

Fallon is owner and CEO of Virtus Apparel, which is based in Prosper. Before that, he served in the United States Air Force and was stationed at Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls.

“I think there would be a very steep curve for Fallon to get statewide name recognition,” Riddlesperger said. “While he may be well-known in his district and among conservative activists, I suspect that he is not well-known outside this area.

“He will need major resources to mount a campaign against Cornyn, but insurgents have occasionally been successful in Republican Party primaries.”

The incumbent

Cornyn, who has held political offices in Texas for two decades, has accumulated a war chest of more than $9 million as he seeks a fourth term in office.

A former Texas Attorney General and former Texas Supreme Court justice, Cornyn has served as one of the two U.S. senators representing Texas since 2002.

Through the years, he has held increasingly powerful posts in D.C., including serving as the Senate Majority Whip and the Senate Minority Whip.

He does not have a big fan base with some grassroots Republicans, particularly those in Tea Party groups, who have booed him at some Republican Party of Texas state conventions.

He has, however, already drawn some big endorsements by President Donald Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz, Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and more.

And these endorsements could help shore up support for Cornyn among some Tea Party members.

“My guess is that Cornyn would be very difficult to beat in a statewide race, given his nearly universal name recognition and the financial resources he can bring to bear,” Riddlesperger said. “But these are strange times, and the core of the Republican Party in Texas is very conservative.”

Cornyn saw the tough re-election bid Cruz had last year against Beto O’Rourke and said he takes nothing for granted. He’s noted many times that the 2018 Senate race was “closer than many people would have thought.”

Cruz won with just over 200,000 more votes than O’Rourke, but he lost the dependably red Tarrant County by 3,869 votes.

“He captured people’s imaginations and came very close to winning,” Cornyn said earlier this year. “It only makes sense ... that candidates running in 2020 learn from that.”

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Anna M. Tinsley grew up in a journalism family and has been a reporter for the Star-Telegram since 2001. She has covered the Texas Legislature and politics for more than two decades and has won multiple awards for political reporting, most recently a third place from APME for deadline writing. She is a Baylor University graduate.