- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 18, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

No one envies Sen. John Cornyn’s job as chairman of the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee in a daunting election cycle when the party likely will lose more Senate seats in 2010.

Soon after the two-term Texas senator took over the No. 4 Republican leadership post, five Republican-held Senate seats became open contests as a result of four retirements in New Hampshire, Missouri, Ohio and Florida and a devastating party switch in Pennsylvania - states that are trending Democratic and where his party’s prospects of holding them look bleak.

“History has dealt Cornyn a bad hand,” veteran elections forecaster Stuart Rothenberg told me last week. “The Republican brand is damaged; they have a number of vulnerable seats. If Cornyn can break even in this cycle, I’m sure, privately, he’d be thrilled.”

But Mr. Cornyn is a never-say-die kind of guy who knows it’s still very early in the two-year midterm cycle and the political landscape could change significantly before next year. Mr. Rothenberg predicts Democrats “are positioned to pick up two to three Senate seats,” but the senator thinks otherwise.

“I wouldn’t agree with that. It’s a mixed bag. 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 told me in an interview.

Sure, it’s a tough cycle with some overwhelming challenges for a party that is on the ropes right now. Yet Mr. Cornyn expects, with some justification, that the national political climate may look very different in fall 2010. “Given the overreaching of the administration on spending, borrowing, nationalizing big sectors of our economy, I think the elections will be a referendum on the administration’s policies,” he said.

“Unemployment will remain very high next year. There is a very 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.

Mr. Cornyn isn’t talking through his hat. With unemployment rising to 9.4 percent last month and forecasts of further job losses, the U.S. economy could be in for a long and anemic recovery, with slow economic growth, weak job creation and a volatile stock market. Making matters worse is an unprecedented $2 trillion deficit this fiscal year alone and the prospects of trillion-dollar deficits as far as the eye can see as weak growth begets weak tax revenues and deeper debt.

As reported in my most recent previous column, President Obama’s weakest poll numbers are on his handling of the economy and government spending. Mr. Cornyn already sees evidence that “Obama’s personal popularity no longer carries over into the popularity of his policies.”

Republican strategists also think the looming health care battle will hand Republicans a major political issue, just as Hillarycare did in the mid-1990s, which led to the party’s political comeback in the 1994 elections.

The administration’s plan could become a minefield for Mr. Obama and his party: Taxing employee health care premiums for the first time, restricting Medicare coverage, reducing hospital subsidies, and imposing mandates and price controls on the private health care industry are just a few of the poisonous issues that could work to the Republicans’ advantage next year.

Mr. Cornyn, a former state Supreme Court judge, is one of his party’s sharpest strategists and has risen quickly up the leadership ladder. He admits he has been given “a tough job” but makes it clear that 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 told me.

Mr. Cornyn has history on his side. The party in power tends to lose seats in midterm elections, and Mr. Obama’s presidency may be no exception. Just two presidents have reversed that trend: Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1934 and George W. Bush in 2002.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, gives Mr. Cornyn “an A-plus” for how he has handled the campaign chairmanship so far - particularly his success at fundraising. “He raised almost 40 percent more than his committee raised two years ago and eliminated the committee’s debt,” Mr. McConnell told me.

In the meantime, it remains to be seen whether Mr. Cornyn’s candidate recruitment proves to be as successful, though his record thus far has been impressive: former Bush budget director Rob Portman in Ohio, Gov. Charlie Crist in Florida and former Rep. Rob Simmons, who is mounting a strong challenge against Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut.

People close to Mr. Cornyn say he’s politically ambitious and has his eyes on the minority leader’s post if he succeeds as campaign chairman next year.

Can success in his new job help Mr. Cornyn climb further up the leadership ladder one day? I asked Mr. McConnell. “It has for some members, and not for others. I don’t think it will be a deterrent for him in the future,” he said.

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.

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