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John Cornyn is not any Ted Cruz. However does he face a tricky Texas reelection?

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WASHINGTON – John Cornyn is an enigma.

It is probably not his personal doing. In any case, it must be counterintuitive to explain essentially the most highly effective Texan to serve within the U.S. Senate since Lyndon Johnson as a shrinking violet.

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However Cornyn is an outlier inside a technology of larger-than-life Texas politicians who’ve grow to be nationwide fixtures for smiling in mugshots, blowing up their very own get together’s nationwide conventions in a hail of jeers, livestreaming street journeys, bragging about snuffing out a coyote whereas jogging, or filibustering whereas carrying pink sneakers or studying Dr. Seuss.

It looks as if flamboyance and ambition for greater workplace are historic stipulations for any Texan serving in an workplace as excessive profile because the U.S. Senate.

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“I’m none of these issues,” Cornyn laughed in a latest interview.

There isn’t a ghostwritten Cornyn memoir. His ego doesn’t appear to dwell and die on what number of instances he seems on Sunday morning discuss reveals. And he’s by no means launched a presidential bid, exploratory marketing campaign or perhaps a vice presidential lobbying effort.

“I haven’t run for president,” he mentioned. “My spouse instructed me if I made a decision to run for president, I wanted to get a brand new spouse. And I’ve been married 39 years, and I’m not going to go down that path.”

It’s that understated high quality — what some observers describe as “boring,” “vanilla” and “not Ted Cruz” — that lends a lot uncertainty to his 2020 reelection marketing campaign.

However Cornyn’s calmness might also show to be his biggest asset amid potential Texas political tumult. He’s the de facto chief of state Republicans this cycle, along with his identify set to look on the 2020 poll under solely the presidential contest.

And from this perch, Cornyn, regardless of his often regular method, is cranking the alarm as loudly as he can to his fellow Texas Republicans.

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“We’re, I believe, now not the reliably crimson state we now have been,” he mentioned. “We’re susceptible to turning purple. And if we don’t do our job, then we might flip blue within the coming years. “

A few of the most revered minds in Texas politics agree.

“He’s unbeatable in an everyday yr, however this isn’t an everyday yr,” mentioned Invoice Miller, an Austin lobbyist who ran Cornyn’s first statewide race in 1990. “A presidential yr like this one adjustments the outlook. In any other case, he’s unbeatable within the state of Texas.”

Now, due to former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke‘s near-ouster of U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in final yr’s midterm elections, Texas Democrats odor blood. An infinite stream of Democrats throughout the state spent the winter and spring floating their very own names to run in opposition to Cornyn. At this level, Air Drive veteran MJ Hegar is essentially the most distinguished Democrat to formally enter the fray.

Cornyn is the primary to agree that the bottom is shifting.

“All the things’s modified [since 2014],” Cornyn mentioned. “I believe 2018 awakened everyone on the Republican facet to the truth that we not solely have to be aggressive within the primaries, however we have to discuss to broader basic election voters, too.”

Out of sight, out of thoughts

Because the state’s standard-bearer, Cornyn is aware of he should run a powerful marketing campaign to guard different GOP positions within the state. However he is also sending a message to his fellow Texas Republicans: He wants their coattails, too.

The Democratic squeeze is coming above and under him on the poll.

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For the primary time in a technology, the presidential contest might have tangible results in down-ballot races throughout the state. A latest ballot confirmed former Vice President Joe Biden with a lead over President Donald Trump within the state, and a slew of different Democratic candidates have been in putting distance of the president. This week’s Texas Tribune/College of Texas ballot discovered the state is evenly break up when requested about Trump‘s reelection, a putting shift from 2016, when Trump gained the state by 9 factors.

Beneath Cornyn’s seat on the poll, nationwide Democrats telegraph they intend to spend cash on Texas races for the U.S. Home and state Home. Acknowledging this offense, Cornyn is warning each Republican officeholder within the state, even these in so-called protected seats, to run a viable marketing campaign.

As for what occurred final yr — with Republicans dropping two notable congressional races and simply barely successful a number of others — there’s a debate amongst leaders in each events over how a lot that needed to do with Democrats fielding a uniquely charismatic nominee in O’Rourke in opposition to Cruz, who’s unmatched in his means to alienate moderates and the left.

Cornyn isn’t as polarizing as Cruz, however Democrats bullish on their probabilities in 2020 view the state’s senior senator as going through the alternative drawback. He could not provoke liberal ardour, they argue, however on the identical time, he could not evoke ardour from his personal base, both.

That argument is on Cornyn’s thoughts.

“I at all times inform folks the benefit of being within the Senate is you run each six years, and the unhealthy factor in regards to the Senate is you run each six years,” he mentioned. “As a result of, frankly, in case you’re doing all of your job and also you’re type of out of sight and out of thoughts, you need to return and remind individuals who you might be and what you’ve been doing.”

Simply how nicely Texans know him — or moderately do not — is a priority.

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“That’s going to be one thing we’re going to need to work on,” Cornyn mentioned. “We’ll be ready to do this.”

Cornyn is outwardly nervous that Republicans throughout the state are “frankly a bit bit complacent.” It has been so lengthy since uncompetitive basic election races grew to become the norm within the state that he fears the state’s Republican incumbents have misplaced their grasp on recognizing hazard indicators and the best way to run basic election campaigns.

“I believe that’s completely the case,” he mentioned. “The way in which congressional districts are drawn, most members don’t have aggressive basic elections.”

A type of members who usually averted robust reelection battles was U.S. Rep. John Carter. The Spherical Rock Republican discovered himself going through an unusually robust problem final yr from Hegar, who drew nationwide consideration for a biographical video that turbocharged her fundraising. After dropping to Carter by lower than three factors, she opted to vie for Cornyn’s seat in 2020.

The place supporters see Cornyn’s lack of drama as an asset, Hegar sees it as indicative of somebody not preventing sufficient for on a regular basis Texans.

“Texans aren’t serious about typical profession politicians, like Sen. Cornyn, who promote them out to company donors and highly effective particular pursuits,” Hegar mentioned. “Throughout his 17 years in Washington, Cornyn’s true legacy is being Mitch McConnell’s ‘sure man,’ main the efforts to shred protections for over 4.5 million Texans with preexisting circumstances, and taking part in a crucial position in pushing for a tax invoice that added over $2 trillion to the nationwide debt and threatens Medicare and Social Safety all whereas enriching large firms who’ve donated over $9 million {dollars} to him all through his political profession.”

“Sticks do not work”

Cornyn is likely one of the few Texas Republicans who has hands-on expertise with aggressive, knife-fight basic elections. In any case, he has run dozens of them.

From 2009 till 2012, Cornyn served because the chairman of the Nationwide Republican Senatorial Committee. In every get together, a senator assumes this position of chief fundraiser, recruiter and strategist with the goal of flipping as many Senate seats as potential whereas defending incumbents. It is a job that takes a political strategist with the sort of peripheral imaginative and prescient that Cornyn confirmed he possessed over an extended profession in Texas politics.

A lawyer by coaching, Cornyn gained his first race in 1984, turning into a district choose in his residence base of Bexar County. Within the 30-plus years since, he has by no means misplaced an election. He rose via the ranks of Texas politics by means of an in depth alliance with George W. Bush and his political adviser, Karl Rove. Cornyn ran for state Supreme Courtroom in 1990 and gained reelection in 1996. In 1998, he jumped into the state legal professional basic race. That major featured his solely true setback of his political profession: He positioned second on the first spherical of the first however then simply trounced his rival within the runoff.

By 2002, Cornyn’s shut affiliation with then-President Bush put him within the driver’s seat for the GOP nomination to succeed retiring U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm. Cornyn gained his subsequent three Senate campaigns by a minimum of 12 factors, his final one in 2014 by 27 factors when the Democrats put forth their weakest challenger but, a millionaire dentist with little political expertise.

Gov. George W. Bush (center) celebrated a 1998 election night victory with John Cornyn (right) and Rick Perry. Cornyn and Perry were elected that year as state attorney general and lieutenant governor, respectively.
Gov. George W. Bush (middle) celebrated a 1998 election evening victory with John Cornyn (proper) and Rick Perry. Cornyn and Perry have been elected that yr as state legal professional basic and lieutenant governor, respectively.
 Bob Daemmrich

Cornyn has leveraged his relationships with donors within the state to construct his stature within the Senate. Through the years, he has repeatedly hosted out-of-state colleagues on fundraising junkets via the state. There was no level in his profession at which these donor ties mattered greater than throughout his tenure on the NRSC.

The marketing campaign committee chairman is likely one of the highest danger/reward posts in politics, and Cornyn’s tenure got here at a very stormy level for Republicans. He took over in the course of the Nice Recession, simply months after the federal authorities had bailed out Wall Road banks and amid excessive unemployment charges.

An institution backlash seized the Republican get together. Earlier than the 2010 cycle, viable major opponents to incumbents have been a rarity in nationwide politics. However in a number of races throughout Cornyn’s two phrases on the NRSC, unelectable conservatives managed to take down incumbents or establishment-blessed candidates — solely to then lose probably winnable seats to the Democrats within the basic election.

Nevertheless it’s exhausting to seek out any Republicans who blame Cornyn and his staff for the hits. The widespread notion inside his get together is he made one of the best of a tricky state of affairs.

In his position as chairman, considered one of his prime obligations was to problem members to lift cash to ship to different Senate races elsewhere within the nation. Chairman no extra, he’s now urging the alternative to his fellow Texans.

“Texas has been a donor state for a very long time. Maybe it’s time we’re a donee state,” Cornyn mentioned.

He famous that he has spoken with fellow Republicans within the state’s congressional delegation about how their relationships with the GOP marketing campaign arms for his or her respective chambers want to alter this cycle.

“There’s at all times a temptation by the management to extract as a lot cash out of the state as they will. After which to make use of that wherever they want it, and I perceive that,” Cornyn mentioned. “However we have to guarantee that our Texas races from the president and all the best way right down to the courthouse are adequately financed and resourced.”

“It’s additionally going to imply we remind Texans that we have to maintain Texas,” he added.

After stepping down as head of the NRSC, Cornyn ascended even greater, turning into Republican whip in 2013. Because the lead vote-counter, he promised to rule with a carrot-only method.

“Sticks don’t work too nicely within the Senate in my expertise,” he mentioned.

He relinquished the whip position late final yr, in accordance with get together time period restrict guidelines. However he stays extensively perceived as a member of McConnell’s inside circle and a possible future Senate Republican chief when that emptiness happens.

Republican staffers and senators alike crow about Cornyn’s graciousness.

“I believe John has a eager ear actually to hearken to member considerations,” mentioned U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, who has served within the Senate since 2015. “And that’s necessary in any chief. … He’s a doer moderately than a viewer, and he simply has an exquisite mannerism about him,” she added.

Democratic strategist Jim Manley watched Cornyn function whip from Manley’s perch on the time as spokesman to then-Senate Majority Chief Harry Reid. Manley considered the Texan as a hard-charging proponent for the Republican case however fair-minded in method.

But for all of the reward Cornyn attracts from colleagues for his courteous nature, he additionally has proven a extra irritable and combative facet.

As a senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he was some of the forceful advocates for the affirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Courtroom. Cornyn in contrast the charged hearings to the ways of Joseph McCarthy.

Most political observers level to these days final fall as a number of the ugliest in latest political historical past. Upon Kavanaugh‘s profitable affirmation, Cornyn took a victory lap with an Instagram submit that includes a glass of champagne and a hashtag, “#Bubbles4brett.”

He additionally incessantly mixes it up on Twitter with journalists, colleagues and activists he perceives as unfair. He mentioned it “disturbs me once I simply see one facet of the story dominating the whole lot when the truth is there’s a fairly apparent clear and opposing view.”

Earlier this yr, he crossed phrases with a liberal favourite, U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, over a tweet he posted on Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. He later defined he was evaluating Mussolini’s fascism to socialism and warning in opposition to federal authorities overreach.

“A Republican senator full-on quoted Nationwide Fascist Social gathering chief and Hitler ally Benito Mussolini prefer it’s a Hallmark card,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted.

Cornyn quipped in response the next morning that Ocasio-Cortez has “possibly some of the uninformed opinions I’ve seen in … hours.”

“One factor I’ve to type of consider is you possibly can’t take them again when you unleash them,” he mentioned, referring to his tweets.

“I attempt to be restrained. … That is possibly the Venn diagram the place Sen. Cornyn and President Trump overlap,” he mentioned. “No person’s going to mistake me for the president, however I do suppose it’s a good way to speak.”

Is Texas in play?

For Democrats targeted on flipping management of the U.S. Senate subsequent yr, the Texas race isn’t on the prime of their record, but it surely’s not far off.

Manley, the Democratic former spokesman, mentioned a number of seats rank far forward in precedence over Texas — offensive pushes in Arizona, Maine, Georgia and Colorado, together with defending their seat in Alabama.

However Manley harassed Texas continues to be key.

“It’s not the top-tier race, but when we’re to reclaim the Senate, we’ve set to work with all of the seats which are up. Particularly given what occurred in Texas two years in the past, it’s undoubtedly value a play,” he mentioned.

Leah Askarinam, a political analyst with the Washington, D.C.-based Inside Elections, concurred — whereas placing the onus on the eventual Democratic nominee to show this race right into a prime goal.

“Texas is fairly far on the back-burner proper now,” she mentioned. “Investing in Texas can be wildly costly for Democrats. But when a Democratic candidate can do the heavy lifting in fundraising — with out exterior teams, like O’Rourke did — there’s an opportunity this race turns into aggressive.”

For now, Cornyn is usually begging off taking photographs on the Democratic subject. On this interview, he did subtly work in considered one of his marketing campaign’s newest knocks on Hegar — “Hollywood Hegar,” a reference to the celebrities within the marketing campaign launch video she launched in April.

However Cornyn nonetheless left area for different contenders to enter the fray, together with both O’Rourke or former Housing and City Growth Secretary Julián Castro if both candidate’s presidential run peters out.

On the identical time, Cornyn is telegraphing that he intends to keep away from a personality-driven marketing campaign. He described himself as “a coverage junkie” and is anticipated to focus his marketing campaign on laws he has moved via Congress in recent times, together with Hurricane Harvey aid and funding for future hurricane mitigation. It’s doubtless he can even spotlight his advocacy for victims of crime and his efforts resulting in main adjustments to the felony justice system that Trump signed into regulation final yr.

Cornyn can be prone to spotlight his response to a singular occasion that appears to have rattled him greater than every other in his Senate profession — the 2017 church taking pictures in Sutherland Springs, by which a veteran with a historical past of home violence killed 26 folks. In early 2018, Cornyn efficiently pushed for language in a spending invoice that improved federal background checks for gun purchases. Though gun management advocates dismissed the transfer as not sufficient to deal with a mass taking pictures epidemic, it is one of many solely efforts on gun coverage Congress has efficiently handed in over a decade.

No matter occurs with Cornyn’s future, the results will final far longer than the six-year time period forward.

Ought to he win, there’s a chance {that a} Texan will at some point lead a chamber of Congress — a feat not achieved since Democrat Jim Wright served as U.S. Home speaker within the late 1980s.

However ought to he lose, it’s going to doubtless imply a collapse of Republican numbers within the Senate and a Democratic takeover. And past the political shock again residence in Texas, it will likely be the lack of a gradual, if quiet, Republican hand.

Regardless of these stakes, Cornyn is holding his tack easy.

“The way in which you advance within the Senate is to develop a repute as somebody who you possibly can belief and who will likely be a straight shooter,” he mentioned. “And I’ve tried to do this.”

Disclosure: Invoice Miller and Karen and Karl Rove have been monetary supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan information group that’s funded partially by donations from members, foundations and company sponsors. Monetary supporters play no position within the Tribune’s journalism. Discover a full record of them right here.


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