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For Cornyn, right turn could be defensive play

Monday, February 25, 2013 - 7:27pm

After more than a decade representing blood-red Texas in the U.S. Senate, John Cornyn finds himself in an unusual spot: burnishing his conservative credentials.

One would think the senior Texas senator’s reputation would be secure: Cornyn, who has ascended to minority whip, spent two election cycles as chairman of the Senate’s Republican campaign fundraising arm, and National Journal last week ranked him second in its 2012 list of the most conservative senators.

But with the departure of Kay Bailey Hutchison, his more moderate fellow Texas Republican, and the arrival of the state’s unabashed new junior senator, the Tea Party darling Ted Cruz, Cornyn seems to be shifting discernibly right, as evidenced, Republican observers say, by his recent positions on everything from cabinet appointees to a bipartisan immigration plan.

Cornyn’s aides say that this perception is not reality and that anyone looking at the last few weeks rather than the last 11 years is missing a solid conservative voting record.

“Sen. Cornyn has relentlessly fought for a conservative agenda — first in Austin, and now in Washington,” Megan Mitchell, his spokeswoman, wrote in an email, adding that Cornyn “is proud to have Ted Cruz in the Senate and looks forward to working together on behalf of 26 million Texans.”

Since New Year’s Day, when Cornyn voted for the tax bill to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff and Cruz, who had not yet been sworn in, said he would have voted against it, the Texas senators have not parted ways on any legislation of note.

It may be, some observers suggest, that Cornyn, a hard-line conservative, is feeling liberated after years of seeking middle ground with Hutchison.

“Hutchison was putting more pressure on him to vote in ways that maybe weren’t always in concert with his principles,” said Matt Mackowiak, a Republican consultant and former Hutchison press secretary. “He’s voting more like his principles now than before.”

It may also be that the Senate’s No. 2 Republican, who is up for re-election in 2014, is an astute observer of his party’s shifting sands.

As the leader of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Cornyn watched Tea Party candidates upset Republican incumbents in each of the last two primary cycles. While those in more conservative states won their elections, others lost to Democrats who might have been ineffective against more moderate opponents — leading establishment Republicans to blame them for blowing an opportunity to gain control of the Senate.

At home in Texas, Cornyn witnessed Cruz snatch a Senate seat out from under Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, the deep-pocketed Republican candidate who most believed had the 2012 race in the bag.

Even Karl Rove, the political mastermind who is credited with helping Cornyn get elected to the Senate, has taken note, spearheading the Conservative Victory Project to help establishment Republicans make it out of their primaries against far-right opponents.

Although Cornyn says he is prepared for a primary challenge, his prospects of getting “Dewhursted,” as some Texas Republicans have taken to calling it, appear slim.

“The real fallacy that exists right now is, ‘Ted Cruz did it, so I can do it,’” Mackowiak said. “It’s impossible to do to Cornyn what’s been done to Dewhurst.”

For one thing, there is no obvious Cruz-like challenger waiting in the wings to challenge Cornyn. Thus far, he has one primary opponent, military veteran Erick Wyatt of Rockport, a self-described "constitutional conservative" who is aligned with the Tea Party. The only name party operatives utter, and even then with skepticism, is state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, a conservative radio host who is “not looking past June” — the end of the Texas legislative session — his staff says. Nor is there early evidence of a Democratic candidate likely to give Cornyn a run for his money in the general election.

For another, Cornyn’s seniority, national fundraising connections and key Senate leadership post are valuable assets that make him less vulnerable to the rumblings of the far-right interest groups that called for his head after his reluctant vote for the “fiscal cliff” deal.

Since then, both Cornyn and Cruz voted against U.S. Sen. John Kerry’s confirmation as secretary of state, notable because they were two of just three Senate Republicans to do so. Cornyn, who has voted against several of President Obama’s nominees, said Kerry had a “long history of liberal positions,” while Cruz said he had a “less-than-vigorous defense” of national security.

They are both taking a hard line on a bipartisan blueprint for immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship, saying securing the border should be the priority.

They both voted against the renewal of the Violence Against Women Act, which passed overwhelmingly in the Senate, though their rationales for doing so were different. Cruz said that it was a states’ rights issue; Cornyn said a provision about tribal courts violated the Constitution.

And they have both been key players in efforts to block former U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel’s nomination as secretary of defense. Cornyn, an early opponent of Hagel's nomination, led the charge to ask the president to withdraw it. Cruz made national headlines for his aggressive, pointed questioning of Hagel.

When Cruz was asked whether he thought he was having an effect on Cornyn’s politics, he said, “John Cornyn and I are working together very, very, closely, and I think Texas is well served by having two senators work hand-in-hand to fight for conservative principles.”

Debra Medina, a Texas Tea Party activist and former gubernatorial candidate who is weighing a run for state comptroller, said those who share her political beliefs distrust Cornyn, though they hope Cruz is pushing him “to that more ideologically consistent place.” But she added that “while there are some politicians that are never going to get a pass from the Tea Party, who we’ll never want to work with or support, Cornyn is not by any stretch in that category.”

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