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Cornyn seeks Senate seats for GOP in ‘10

- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 14, 2009

Sen. John Cornyn arguably has one of the toughest political jobs in Congress: overseeing the Republican senatorial campaign effort for 2010 in an election cycle when most analysts say the GOP will likely lose more Senate seats.

It is still early in the two-year midterm campaign cycle and "the landscape could change significantly. But right now at this point, the Democrats are positioned to pick up two or three seats," said veteran elections forecaster Stuart Rothenberg.

"History has dealt Cornyn a bad hand. The Republican brand is damaged, they have a number of vulnerable open seats. If he can break even in this cycle, I'm sure, privately, he'd be thrilled," Mr. Rothenberg said.

But the two-term Texas senator doesn't see things that way at all.

"I wouldn't agree with that," he said of Mr. Rothenberg's forecasts. "Will there be losses? It's too early to say. If we're lucky to have the candidate recruitment fall into place, those numbers will change dramatically."

He acknowledged his party faces a tough election cycle that he calls "a mixed bag." Still, he expects the national political landscape will look a great deal different in the fall of 2010 than it does now, with President Obama's job-approval ratings topping 60 percent and Democrats riding high with nearly 60 seats in the Senate.

"Given the overreaching of the administration on spending, borrowing, nationalizing big sectors of our economy, I think the 2010 elections will be a referendum on the administration's policies," Mr. Cornyn said in an interview with The Washington Times."

"Unemployment will remain very high next year. There is a real danger we will see inflation take off. There will still be massive government debt, and unfunded liabilities are looming. … I think the economy will remain weak at a minimum," he said.

With polls showing almost half of Americans already opposed to Mr. Obama's $787 billion economic stimulus package and expressing doubts it will create many jobs, Mr. Cornyn said he already sees evidence that "Obama's personal popularity no longer carries over into the popularity of his policies."

The former attorney and Texas state Supreme Court justice has risen quickly in his party's hierarchy since his election in 2002. As chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the No. 4 leadership position among Senate Republicans, Mr. Cornyn admitted he has been given a tough job, but quickly added he relishes the challenge.

"I didn't come to Washington to be a wallflower, but to show what one person can do to turn things around. I felt this was the place where I could be most productive," he said.

Few of his colleagues were begging to take the chairmanship job after the party's stark losses in the past two elections. Going into 2010, Republicans must defend 19 seats to the Democrats' 17, including vulnerable open Senate seats in Missouri, New Hampshire and Ohio, where veteran Republican incumbents are retiring.

But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told The Washington Times that Mr. Cornyn "actually did want to do it. He didn't have to be drafted. He's aware of the challenge and was anxious to step up to the plate to do the job."

"The early indications are that he's doing it in an outstanding fashion. One of the measures of that is money raised. He's raised almost 40 percent more than his committee raised two years ago. The other is candidate recruitment and he's been effective there," Mr. McConnell said.

Mr. Cornyn's early recruits include former Bush administration budget director Rob Portman, who is running for the open seat in Ohio; Gov. Charlie Crist, whom he talked into running for the open seat in Florida; and former Rep. Rob Simmons, who is mounting a strong challenge to vulnerable Democratic Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut.

Mr. Cornyn said that next year's competitive Senate races will largely depend on candidate recruitment and added there are a number of "top-quality candidate recruits that we are talking to now confidentially."

"We're working on a good recruit in New Hampshire, Missouri's open race is sorting itself out a little bit, and in places like Colorado we're still looking for the right [candidate]," he said.

The candidate wooing process is not without its political complications.

The 57-year-old lawmaker ran into a buzzsaw of criticism from conservative Republican activists in Florida when the NRSC quickly endorsed Mr. Crist, even though he faces a primary challenge from former Republican state House Speaker Marco Rubio.

Mr. Cornyn said that Mr. Crist asked for the endorsement, arguing the governor has the better chance of keeping the seat being vacated by Sen. Mel Martinez in the GOP column.

Mr. McConnell defends the early endorsement, saying Mr. Cornyn's "job is to win. We don't have significant numbers in the Senate, only 40 seats. So he's working hard to get us over 41, which is the number we need to stop the Democrats" from passing their agenda.

There was similar criticism in party ranks when Mr. Cornyn did not endorse conservative anti-tax advocate Pat Toomey, a former congressman who will be the likely Republican nominee in Pennsylvania after Sen. Arlen Specter's decision to defect to the Democrats. But last week, Mr. Cornyn quietly sent a $5,000 contribution to the Toomey campaign from his own political action committee.

"I certainly haven't taken an early endorsement off the table but want to talk to leaders in Pennsylvania first. It's certainly an option, and I won't foreclose it, that I would endorse him early," Mr. Cornyn said.

The Houston-born Mr. Cornyn won election in 2002 with 55 percent of the vote, easily winning a second term in 2008. He has carved out a legislative record that has earned him a 92 percent lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union.

His record includes votes to end the estate tax, drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, ban same-sex marriage and build a 700-mile fence along the U.S.-Mexico border.

People close to Mr. Cornyn say he is ambitious and has his eyes on climbing the party's leadership ladder, with the Senate campaign post a key rung on the way. The NRSC assignment has proved a mixed blessing politically in the past.

"It's a tough job," said Mr. McConnell. "I had it for two [election] cycles. … You have to make hard decisions and often have to make tough calls, deciding whose campaign is going to get money."

Will it help Mr. Cornyn climb further up the party leadership? "It has for some members, and not for others. I don't think it will be a deterrent for him in the future," Mr. McConnell replied.