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Is Sen. John Cornyn Conservative Enough For Texas?

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, the Senate minority whip, questions Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius before the Senate Finance Committee on Nov. 6.
J. Scott Applewhite
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, the Senate minority whip, questions Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius before the Senate Finance Committee on Nov. 6.

Being an incumbent ain't what it used to be.

Texan John Cornyn is the No. 2 man in Senate GOP leadership and by most measures holds high conservative ratings — according to National Journal's rankings, he was the second most conservative senator in the last Congress.

But this week, Cornyn joined the crowded ranks of incumbent Senate Republicans who are now facing a primary challenge.

"The unhappiness people have with government opens the door to any challenger," says Michael Berlanga, a former GOP legislative aide in Texas. "Any incumbent needs to be on guard."

That may be particularly true in Texas. Just last year, Ted Cruz came out of seemingly nowhere to beat Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, his better-known and better-funded opponent, in the Republican Senate primary.

"Everyone in the Republican Party is running on the Ted Cruz model," says Trey Martinez Fischer, a Democratic state representative. "You have to give credit to a winning model."

For Cornyn, there's another Cruz factor at play. Much of his vulnerability stems from the fact that party activists feel he was insufficiently supportive this fall of Cruz's effort to defund Obamacare, even at the cost of a government shutdown.

"I won't vote for John Cornyn," says Ron Brandin, a retired police officer in San Antonio, the senator's political base. "He hung Ted Cruz out to dry."

But Brandin admits he knows almost nothing about Cornyn's challenger, Rep. Steve Stockman. That's not uncommon, even in Texas Republican circles.

And that's precisely Stockman's problem. Having just met the filing deadline for the March primary he has four months to introduce himself to voters around the huge state and to raise the money to be competitive with the incumbent.

Cornyn begins with an enormous cash advantage. According to their most recent filings, Stockman had about $32,000 in cash on hand, while Cornyn had $7 million.

"[Stockman is] going to spend 120 days asking for money, as far as I can see," says Jim Lunz, a former Bexar County GOP chairman. "I don't see how in 120 days you can expect to cover 36 other [congressional] districts."

Not Cornyn's Crowd

Lunz was among some 150 people who crowded into the new Bexar County Republican Party headquarters, in an office building alongside Interstate 410 in San Antonio, for its grand opening Thursday.

The crowd — a mix of party volunteers and candidates for local and state offices — should have been favorable to Cornyn. He attended college and law school in San Antonio and got his start in politics 30 years ago with his election as Bexar County state district judge.

Not many people at the gathering showed much love for Cornyn, however.

"The Tea Party people are unhappy he didn't support Ted Cruz," says Thomas Marburger, a GOP precinct chair. "I think Cornyn is vulnerable."

Like a number of Republican incumbents, Cornyn managed to anger contingents of his party with a few votes that continue to rankle.

"I was not happy with him for voting with the rest of the Senate for Hillary Clinton for secretary of state," says Warrington Lee Austerman, a GOP precinct chairman in Converse, Texas.

But for Republicans in San Antonio, Stockman remains mostly a question mark. He served one term in the House during the 1990s and is now less than a year into his second stint representing a district east of Houston.

"I think I heard the name," says Austerman, "that's all I can say."

The Cruz Model

Stockman not only lacks name recognition but has a problematic record to run on. He's known for making controversial statements and recently fired two aides for having made improper contributions to his campaign.

Stockman's effort lacks several factors that helped make Cruz successful last year, according to James Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas. Cruz had laid the groundwork for his long-shot bid months in advance and was able to take advantage of an extended primary season.

"I think a lot personally of Congressman Stockman and he's always been a friend of conservative ideals, but I think a race now against a sitting U.S. senator is very late," says Cathie Adams, president of Texas Eagle Forum, a conservative advocacy group. "Six months ago, or even three months ago, that would have been very well-received in the state of Texas."

Adams complains that Cornyn "has not convinced enough Texans that he is on our side when it comes to repealing Obamacare." But Henson's polling shows that while the Tea Party wing may have soured on Cornyn lately, he maintains a reservoir of support from many years of casting conservative votes.

"Saying he's vulnerable overstates the case," Henson says. "Stockman poses much less of a threat to Cornyn than Cruz did to Dewhurst."

Where The Action Is

Stockman's bid is just one reason Texas Republicans are in for a lively primary season. Gov. Rick Perry's decision to retire set off a game of musical chairs, with nearly every statewide office set to change hands next year.

Republicans hold all those offices, but some of this year's candidates are seeking to present themselves as more conservative than the incumbent. That's certainly the case in the lieutenant governor's race, where no fewer than three officeholders are seeking to unseat Dewhurst.

"There seems to be a moving definition of what being a conservative means," says Martinez Fischer, the Democratic state representative.

Lunz, the former Bexar County GOP official who helped recruit Cornyn for his first political race, says all the intraparty fighting isn't necessarily helpful, but it's not entirely surprising, either.

The GOP dominates Texas now, but Lunz recalls that when he first got involved in politics back in 1960, Republicans held a grand total of two elected positions throughout the state, out of a total of more than 5,000.

"We've been fighting each other ever since," Lunz says. "If there's any power you can perceive in being a Republican official when there is no Republican Party, you can imagine the fighting when we're as powerful as we are now."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.
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