Big Red

Is John Cornyn too conservative to get reelected to the U.S. Senate—or just conservative enough?

December 2007By Comments

In early April 2005, not quite halfway through his first term in the United States Senate, John Cornyn rose to address his colleagues. Newspaper reports would describe the chamber as “nearly empty,” but it didn’t matter, because everyone would know soon enough what he had to say. Cornyn had served on the Texas Supreme Court before being elected the state’s attorney general in 1998 and its junior senator in 2002, and in Washington he had quickly carved out a niche as a critic of the U.S. Supreme Court and a vigorous supporter of President Bush’s nominations of conservative jurists. The moment he had chosen to speak came during a time of high drama and intense partisanship in Washington. Terri Schiavo had died four days earlier, congressional (and presidential) intervention having failed to persuade the courts to prevent the removal of her feeding tube. Democrats were filibustering the nominations of judicial candidates like Priscilla Owen, another former Texas Supreme Court justice. Republicans were threatening to invoke the so-called “nuclear option” to declare the filibustering of those nominees out of order and to rule that they could be confirmed by a simple majority vote.

Cornyn’s ire had been aroused by a Supreme Court ruling that the death penalty was unconstitutional in cases where the accused was eighteen or younger at the time the crime was committed. He condemned “the increasing politicization of the judicial decision-making process at the highest levels of our judiciary [that] has bred a lack of respect for some of the people who wear the robe.” This was normal rhetoric for Cornyn. But what he said next was not: “We have seen some recent episodes of courthouse violence in this country . . . and I wonder whether there may be some connection between the perception in some quarters on some occasions where judges are making political decisions yet are unaccountable to the public, that it builds up and builds up and builds up to the point where some people engage in . . .” And here he paused, averted his gaze from the C-SPAN camera, looked down, and bit his lip, as if he realized that he was about to say something that maybe he shouldn’t. “Engage in violence. Certainly without any justification, but a concern that I have.”

The blame-the-victim message went off like a bomb. The next night, Jon Stewart skewered Cornyn on The Daily Show (“What an absolutely handsome crazy person”). The day after that, New York Times editorial writers, noting previous threats against judges in the Schiavo case by House majority leader Tom DeLay, complained, “When a second important Republican stands up and excuses murderous violence against judges as an understandable reaction to their decisions, then it is time to get really scared.”

Cornyn must have been a little scared himself, because he went into damage-control mode. The day after his speech, he made a conciliatory statement on the Senate floor that began, “As a former judge myself for thirteen years . . . I am outraged by recent acts of courthouse violence. I certainly hope that no one will construe my remarks on Monday otherwise.” Democrat Richard Durbin, of Illinois, a member of his party’s leadership, said something nice about Cornyn—the comments “seemed inconsistent with my knowledge of him”—and the hubbub subsided. Cornyn told the Houston Chronicle he had learned two things from the experience: that “if people can take what you say out of context and use it against you, they will” and “not to wonder aloud on the Senate floor.”

In one way, the episode was atypical of Cornyn’s performance thus far in the Senate: The 55-year-old is normally sure-footed and not prone to make mistakes. In another, it was right in line with the kind of senator he has become—and I do mean right—for Cornyn has been a very different politician in Washington than he was in Austin. It wasn’t only Durbin who found his remarks to be out of character. Back home, Texans were left to ponder what had happened to the middle-of-the-roader they thought they knew. Whether he’s been influenced by the staffers he inherited from his predecessor, Republican Phil Gramm, or has made a shrewd political calculation that the shortcut to advancement in the Senate is via the right side of the spectrum, the fact is that Cornyn has evolved into one of the body’s most conservative members. In 2006 he tied for the Senate’s third-most-conservative voting record in rankings compiled by National Journal, a nonpartisan weekly magazine for Washington insiders. (“A moderate in Texas is a conservative in Washington,” he told me.)

But votes alone don’t fully convey Cornyn’s ideological conversion. It is his willingness to be the champion of Republican wedge issues—he co-sponsored constitutional amendments banning flag burning and gay marriage, for example, and presided over hearings on both—that distinguishes him from other senators who see the world as he does. You have to be someone who is very comfortable in your own skin to take on such a role and all the blowback it engenders (critics said Cornyn was “cutting and pasting” the Constitution). So it was no surprise that it was Cornyn who offered the amendment in September rebuking the liberal activist group for its ad in the Times referring to General David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, as “General Betray Us.” In doing so, he forced Democrats to choose between defending or attacking their base and made the Times, which has been no admirer of his, look bad—and it earned him a front-page story in the Washington Post and an accompanying photograph of him holding up the Times in “Dewey Defeats Truman” style. (Cornyn, who has a fine sense of irony about politics, was amused that the Times was pressured to rescind the discounted rate it had given MoveOn, meaning that he had helped add $77,000 to the paper’s bottom line. “Crazy like a fox,” he said.) Still, you just don’t see the Republicans at the top of the Senate’s pecking order engaging in this kind of political gamesmanship. Cornyn makes no secret of his desire to climb up, but at this stage of his career he’s a bit schizophrenic: He wants to be a show horse and a workhorse. The Senate, however, is a club, and the club has its unwritten rules. One of them is that you can’t have it both ways.

As he prepares to run for reelection in 2008, then, Cornyn remains something of an enigma. Even though Cornyn has held various statewide offices for almost eighteen years, his name identification back home is below the critical 80 percent mark. He won his seat in 2002, defeating former Dallas mayor Ron Kirk, by pledging allegiance to President Bush, running a glitch-free race, and riding a Republican wave to victory by a comfortable 12 percentage points, 55 to 43. Having placed his bets, he has let his chips ride, but neither the president nor the wave is as strong six years later. Cornyn continues to support most of the administration’s policies, including its management of the Iraq war, and to hew to the conservative views of his party’s political base—not only in votes he has cast but in articles published under his name on the Web sites of National Review (“In Defense of Marriage”) and Human Events (“Courts Are to Blame for War on Christmas”). As recently as September, when he opposed a significant expansion of the children’s health insurance program, he gave no indication of moving to the center. That he is staying the course in the face of a serious Democratic challenge is a clear sign that he regards recent GOP setbacks as transient and that he believes Republicans in general and conservatives in particular will return to power sooner rather than later. He’s taking the long view: The political universe may be changing, but he is not.

If you were to encounter John Cornyn at, say, Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, a place where you might reasonably expect to see notable folk, you would immediately think to yourself, “That man is a United States senator.” Indeed, shortly after his election in 2002, USA Today described him as “a casting director’s dream.” He stands six feet four inches tall in the black custom boots he wears to work every day. As a young man, he was so self-conscious about his prematurely white hair that he waited until he turned 32 before filing for district judge in San Antonio, as if an additional year would have made a difference, but today it gives him a veneer of statesmanship. You can’t help but notice the size of his head: It’s quite long and rather narrow, an impression enhanced by a receding hairline. He has a soft face that does not tense up in anger. Even when his words are sharp, his voice is muted and nonthreatening. You would come away from your airport encounter with the feeling that he’s someone to be reckoned with.

The record supports that conclusion. Although the Senate’s seniority system was not designed to reward freshmen—“one hundred class presidents” is the way one staffer described the body to me—Cornyn has had a successful first term, at least by Washington standards, playing a significant role in two major policy areas. On judicial nominations, he was outspoken in his criticism of what he called a “broken” confirmation process. When a bipartisan group of senators, who became known as the Gang of Fourteen, engineered a compromise to avoid the nuclear option, Cornyn labeled it a “sellout.” (His operating philosophy has not been “Blessed are the peacemakers.”) On immigration, he was highly critical of proposed reforms that failed to provide credible enforcement of the law. He spent a lot of time in meetings trying to find common ground, but eventually he pulled the plug, effectively dooming any prospect of reform this year. In a rare break with his patron, he assailed the bill supported by the president—and several of his fellow Republicans. John McCain, of Arizona, got so mad at Cornyn in a backroom meeting, the Washington Post reported, that he shouted a curse word “associated with chickens.”

He has been active on other issues as well, sometimes in league with Democrats. He shares an interest in India with Hillary Clinton, of New York, and together they established the India Caucus to discuss issues that involve the two countries. He worked with Ted Kennedy, of Massachusetts, to sponsor the Military Citizenship Act, which accelerates the naturalization process for foreigners serving in the armed forces, and to push legislation that gives the Food and Drug Administration the authority to regulate tobacco products. Earlier this year, the Senate passed Cornyn’s bill (sponsored with Patrick Leahy, of Vermont) to reform the Freedom of Information Act, which, among other things, would require agencies to act on media requests in a timely fashion. (Transparency in government is a favorite cause of Cornyn’s, dating back to his time in Texas.)

His signature achievement, however, was getting elected by his fellow GOP members to their leadership team in his first term—the first freshman in recent memory to do so. John Ensign, of Nevada, was his main rival for the position of vice chairman of the Republican conference. (The lowest-ranking of the five leadership positions, its duties include “floor messaging”: recruiting colleagues to deliver the party’s talking points each day during the thirty minutes before the Senate gets down to business.) Cornyn held two advantages. First, he had more of a following. The Almanac of American Politics 2004, in its profile of Ensign, relates that when the vote to make Yucca Mountain the national repository for nuclear waste came up, he could get only two Republicans to vote with him on the issue most important to his home state. Cornyn, on the other hand, is a favorite of junior Sunbelt conservatives because of his ideological purity. And he is close to both the president and Karl Rove. Second, Ensign had a cordial relationship with Nevada’s other senator, Democrat Harry Reid, then the minority leader and now the majority leader. Ensign had run a bitter race against Reid in 1998 and lost, but after he won an open seat in 2000, they struck a truce. (The Almanac describes them as “cooperative colleagues.”) The perception that Ensign might be loath to criticize Reid worked to Cornyn’s advantage. In the end, Ensign opted to run for chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the campaign arm of Senate Republicans, leaving Cornyn unopposed and on track to get where he wanted to go.

During the late summer and early fall, I saw Cornyn speak on several occasions, traveled with him to El Paso, spent a couple of days hanging around his office in Washington, and had a final interview with him in Austin over the Columbus Day recess. But the most interesting and most revealing time that I spent with him was at an event that had nothing to do with politics.

It was a Sunday morning in late August. Cornyn had made an early appearance on ABC’s This Week to talk about President Bush’s unexpected statement, after years of insisting otherwise, that the Iraq war was like Vietnam (because an American withdrawal could lead to a human rights catastrophe). Then he headed out to a local gun range to shoot skeet. He had changed into crisp jeans and a work shirt, with a camouflage pouch for ammo around his waist. His daughter Haley came along, and they met up with Texas Supreme Court justice Harriet O’Neill and her husband, Austin lawyer and Rove pal Kerry Cammack. I had almost declined an invitation to join them, for fear that I might be offered the opportunity to shoot. I had not discharged a firearm since I was a twelve-year-old at summer camp, having been such a poor shot that I was taken out of activities on the next-to-last day of camp and force-fed .22 bullets and instructions for hours, until I at last earned my pro-marksman medal, the lowliest award available, lest my family think that the summer was for naught. The potential for embarrassment was high. But the opportunity to see a politician in unscripted circumstances was too good to pass up.

At the Capitol City Trap and Skeet Club, seven concrete pads were arranged in a semicircle on the edge of an open field. Just outside the pads, on the far left and the far right, were towers from which clay disks emerge through small openings. An eighth pad was located midway between the towers, on the diameter of the semicircle. A shooter makes the rounds—at the first two stations, firing at a disk from the high tower, then at one from the low tower, and then at disks simultaneously emerging from both towers. After the first two stations, there are variations on the same theme. The shooter yells, “Pull!” just like in the movies, and another member of the party presses the button on a handheld device that causes the disks to fly. O’Neill was the first to shoot, and she obliterated a clay pigeon on her initial blast. Cornyn immediately offered her a can of Skoal.

Cornyn had brought a 28-gauge shotgun, which is the kind Dick Cheney uses, and the joshing started. Cornyn said, “Cheney tells people, ‘I trust John Cornyn, and he trusts me, because he still goes hunting with me.’” The senator was the next to shoot. He carried his over/under Beretta in the crook of his left arm with the chamber open, so that the double barrels, one on top of the other, pointed downward. He pushed two shells in and snapped the barrels into place. I could tell at a glance that Cornyn knew what he was doing. The shotgun was like an extension of his arm, held at the same angle to his body. His left elbow flared out so that it was almost horizontal. “Pull!” He wheeled and took aim, a little ahead of the flight line. Bang! The cursed birds flew on. “Uhf!” Cornyn exclaimed, shaking his head. Bang! The second barrel fired. A disk exploded!

I started keeping score in my notebook. Hit. Hit. Miss. Hit. It became apparent that Cornyn has an entire vocabulary of grunts and growls for missed shots: “Ruh!” “Unh!” “Erg!” “Gur!” “Nah!” He was shooting pretty well—50 percent hits, which Cammack told me is considered good—but the muttering continued. For the first time, I saw the competitive fire in a person who has often been described as low-key, even bland. When Cammack suffered through a long string of misses, Cornyn needled him: “It’s okay. We’re laughing with you.”

Sure enough, the dreaded moment arrived: Cornyn handed me the gun and pressed shells into the double barrels. “Try it,” he said. I struggled to remember. One eye open? Both eyes open? I focused on the slot where the disk would emerge. Don’t shoot the tower, you idiot. “Pull!” What happened? Where are they? They’re gone. That was fast. “Pull!” There they are. Swing around. Now! No, too late. Out of range. The dark cloud of shot dissipated harmlessly. The disks fluttered to the ground, undisturbed. Cornyn put two more shells in. Try one eye this time. But which one? “Pull!” Swing around again. There it is. Bang! The first barrel discharged. Another miss. Bang! Improbably, impossibly, the disk exploded in midair. Cornyn and his friends cheered the miracle.

The first opportunity to see him on the stump had come in early August in Austin, when he addressed the Central Texas branch of the Navy League of the United States, a group of military boosters. Many were in uniform. Flags and bunting—red, white, and blue—were on display near the podium. Cornyn gave a low-voltage speech, something I would get used to as I accompanied him to other events. Rarely does he gesticulate. Seldom does he offer an applause line or resort to inflection. Even when he launched his screed against activist judges on the Senate floor, his words were tough but his tone was unperturbed. Nowhere did I see him get wound up emotionally or cheerlead for Republicans or attack Democrats. (It was too early for that sort of thing, a Cornyn staffer told me. The election was still fifteen months away.) On this day he stuck close to military topics. He talked about how a story in the Washington Post about injured veterans “living in horrible conditions” had led to the passage of the Dignified Treatment of Wounded Warriors Act. “It passed unanimously,” Cornyn said, calling it “a bright spot of bipartisan spirit.” This was one of four times when he would invoke bipartisanship. “I hope we can lay aside our partisan and other political differences,” he later said. I wondered if this was genuine or if, as I suspect, Cornyn had seen polling, or sensed intuitively, that partisanship was not playing well those days, even in Texas and even before a sympathetic audience.

After his remarks, Cornyn took questions. The first one was “What has the current government in Iraq done to merit our confidence and get our support?” I wondered whether Cornyn was as surprised by the query as I was. If people in this audience were unsure about our mission over there, then who wasn’t? (Well, Cornyn, for one.) His answer was that the Iraqis “are not stepping up as we wish they would . . . but in the long run, the consequences of a failed state are too horrible to contemplate. Iran would have a free hand in the region. Syria would intervene to protect the Sunnis. I don’t see an easy solution.”

The next questioner asked why the families of 9/11 victims got $2 million while the families of dead soldiers receive $20,000 in life insurance—another indication of dissatisfaction. Someone in the audience said that the insurance payout was much higher—it is—and Cornyn said he would look into it. Other questions addressed illegal immigration—Cornyn responded in considerable detail about proposals he had offered—and the lack of health insurance for children. If this had been a focus group that was asked the classic political pollster’s question about whether the country is on the right track or the wrong track, it appeared to me that even this group of highly patriotic Americans would fall in the “wrong track” camp.

The last question was about the atmosphere in Washington: Is it a mean town? Have you made friends? Cornyn cited Harry Truman’s famous quip: “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.” Then he added, in a tone that was almost wistful, “Political adversaries should not be personal enemies. I’m not looking forward to the things my adversaries are going to say about me.”

He has come a long way for somebody who started his political career in the wrong party, the wrong town, and the wrong office (Republican, San Antonio, state district judge). And, I should add, the wrong law school (St. Mary’s). On occasion, Cornyn reveals a suppressed resentment at colleagues and critics from elite institutions; when he was enlisted in the hopeless cause of trying to sell Harriet Miers’ Supreme Court nomination, he lashed out at “East Coast elitism,” which he described to an Austin American-Statesman reporter as “people looking down their noses at folks here in Texas and not giving people like Harriet Miers credit for incredible accomplishments.” Part of Cornyn’s antipathy toward the Supreme Court, which he also expressed to the Statesman reporter, is that it is dominated by the “Eastern seaboard legal elite.”

Cornyn was a medical malpractice defense attorney in the late seventies and early eighties, frustrated by “the good-old-boy system at the Bexar County courthouse,” when a Republican-led judicial reform committee was looking for candidates. A longtime local GOP warhorse, Douglas Harlan, suggested he run for district judge, and he won the race. By the late eighties, a similar movement had targeted Democrats on the Texas Supreme Court who tilted toward plaintiff’s lawyers, and Cornyn ran for an open seat. When I asked if Rove had recruited him, Cornyn bristled as much as I’d ever seen. “I contacted him,” he said. “He said he was getting on an airplane but would draft a letter on my behalf. I never heard from him again.”

Cornyn joined the court in 1991, just as it was wrestling with the school finance issue. His most important contribution proved to be a January 1995 opinion upholding the constitutionality of the Robin Hood school finance law, resolving a thorny six-year legal battle over the meaning of “equitable” public education funding. Cornyn held that Robin Hood met the state standard of establishing an efficient school system—no easy decision for an aspiring Republican politician, since it validated a law that required property-rich school districts (including affluent suburbs chock-full of Republican voters) to share their local tax revenue with poorer districts. Influential Republicans in Dallas—and in particular, Highland Park, one of the wealthiest school districts in Texas—hated the ruling. “They were really mad,” Cornyn recalled. “So was the Dallas Morning News.” He called Tom Luce, formerly Ross Perot’s attorney and a strong advocate for public schools, to ask what he should do. “Tom told me, ‘Go see them and let them vent.’ It was the best political advice I’ve ever had.”

Aside from the school districts that profited from Robin Hood, the major beneficiary of Cornyn’s decision was the state’s new governor, George W. Bush. The court’s threat to close the schools if its finance directives were not obeyed had been a continuing crisis for his predecessor, Ann Richards, and would be a continuing crisis for his successor, Rick Perry, but Cornyn spared Bush the same ordeal. If he had ruled differently, Bush might have been forced to resort to an unpopular solution—say, raising taxes—and he might not have been positioned to run for national office. Instead, Cornyn became a Bushie: “Corndog,” as the future president would nickname his reliable ally.

He won reelection to the court in 1996—with Rove as his consultant this time—but he would not serve out his second term. In the summer of 1997, two Republicans jumped into the race for attorney general against Dan Morales, the Democratic incumbent, and both were better known than Cornyn in GOP circles. Tom Pauken, a Dallas lawyer, had been Republican state chairman and had strong support on the party’s conservative wing. Barry Williamson, another Rove client, was a member of the Texas Railroad Commission who had initially planned to run for comptroller. By the time Williamson decided that he really wanted to run for attorney general, Rove had signed on with Cornyn. For Rove, the race was crucial. Bush was running for reelection as governor and preparing to run for president, and a hostile attorney general could create all sorts of problems for him. Rove had to ensure a Republican victory.

In December 1997, Morales announced that he would not stand for reelection, clearing the way for a Republican to win the office. Williamson, who had $1 million to spend, regarded Pauken as his chief rival and ran negative ads against him in the Metroplex during the Republican primary. This had the effect of suppressing Pauken’s vote just enough to allow Cornyn to squeak into the runoff by 14,000 votes. Williamson looked like a sure winner until a campaign stop in Llano. Barging in on a panel of 280 prospective jurors for a capital murder trial, he went into full campaign mode, introducing himself and shaking hands with the crowd. The tone-deaf episode made statewide news, and Cornyn cruised to victory in the runoff with 57.9 percent of the vote. The general election was no problem. With Bush rolling up 68 percent of the vote, Cornyn defeated Democrat Jim Mattox, who had formerly held the office, 54 percent to 44 percent.

The attorney general tends to be a low-visibility official, but this was not the case with Cornyn. For someone who had spent his career in the cloistered theater of the judiciary, he proved to have a keen political sense. His biggest undertaking was his intervention in the tobacco case, in which Morales had retained five high-profile Democratic trial lawyers to sue cigarette companies on behalf of the state to recover health care costs. The lawyers won a settlement of $17.3 billion for the state and $3.3 billion in fees for themselves, to be paid by the companies, not the state. Cornyn tried, unsuccessfully, to challenge the fee. Nonetheless, his bashing of trial lawyers was popular with Republicans, who surmised that some portion of the legal fees would end up in Democratic campaign coffers, and especially with tort reformers, who had been some of his biggest contributors.

For upwardly mobile pols, the AG’s office has been an unstable launching pad. Cornyn and Mark White succeeded; Mattox and John Hill failed. The main drawback is that it’s hard to win friends by filing lawsuits. (One exception is child support collections, which Cornyn increased by 63 percent over those of Morales’s tenure.) In most cases, even if you prevail, and certainly if you settle, critics will say that you didn’t do enough—as happened in actions Cornyn pursued against Koch Industries (for water pollution), against Aetna (for illegally attempting to influence doctors to withhold care, a case initially filed by Morales), and against auto insurers (for underpaid claims). He angered district attorneys, and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, by going before the U.S. Supreme Court to confess error on the part of the state in a capital punishment case. The former chief psychologist for the state prison system had testified in the capital murder trial of Victor Hugo Saldano that a defendant’s race or ethnicity was a factor in his future dangerousness and should be taken into consideration by a jury in deciding whether to impose the death penalty. Cornyn told the court that race should not be a factor in a jury’s deliberations and supported Saldano’s request for a new hearing relating to his punishment.

He intended to seek reelection in 2002, but in early September 2001, three-term incumbent Phil Gramm announced that he would not run for the Senate again. Cornyn promptly indicated that he would get in the race. David Dewhurst, who was land commissioner at the time, showed interest as well. When the 9/11 attack put politics on hold, Cornyn had the head start. Dewhurst settled for lieutenant governor.

Cornyn’s timing was perfect: The election fell after 9/11 and before Iraq. The Democrats made too much of the multiracial makeup of their “dream team” ticket, with Ron Kirk, an African American, as Cornyn’s opponent and the Hispanic oilman Tony Sanchez as the gubernatorial nominee. Both Kirk and Cornyn spent more than $9 million, but Cornyn won by half a million votes. The race really wasn’t about issues or personalities; it was about president and party. And in 2002 Texas was all about George W. Bush and Republicans.

The U.S. Senate is a fascinating place. It is full of people who have been governors, people who want to be president. And yet the Texas Legislature seems like a model of efficiency by comparison. In Washington, so much of a senator’s day is taken up with TV appearances, videoconferences, and other efforts to be heard above the din. The procedure is arcane, the pace glacial, the sense of urgency nonexistent. It has been said of the “world’s greatest deliberative body” that it is neither great nor deliberative nor a body. I heard a lot of similar comments about the Senate while I was in Washington, such as, “Half the people want to destroy everything you’re doing; the other half want to take credit for it.” Sometimes it seems as if the art of messaging is more highly valued than the art of legislating. “The essence of the two-party system,” a Cornyn staffer told me, “is that you can’t let the other side define you, and you have to define the other side.” Cornyn’s greatest talent, the staffer said, is that he “delivers the message without being a prick about it.”

It’s the fate of many senators to be more appreciated in Washington than back home, where the voters have little knowledge of the inside game. Cornyn falls into this group. He arrived with instant stature: friend of the president, connection to Rove, former state Supreme Court justice, chosen by the biggest Republican constituency in the country. His is not an everyday résumé—“He’s a real lawyer,” minority leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, told me—which is why, as a raw freshman, he was asked to chair the Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Property Rights.

According to Senate tradition, freshmen are supposed to be seen but not heard and wait their turn (which may take decades), but tradition predates the advent of C-SPAN, Web sites, and the 24-hour news cycle. “I didn’t come here to sit on my hands,” Cornyn likes to say, and the moment was right to get involved, with judicial confirmations on center stage. While he was still in his first year in the Senate, he had a tense exchange with Patrick Leahy, the ranking Democrat on Judiciary. As the New York Times reported it, “John Cornyn, a freshman Republican from Texas, took up the lecturing tone that is especially disliked by many Democrats.”

“As time goes on, I become more and more troubled by just how . . . badly the president’s judicial nominees are treated,” Cornyn had said, going on to accuse Democrats of being biased against Southern judges.

In response, Leahy—who has spent three decades in the Senate—noted that when Bill Clinton was president, one third of the nominees rejected by the Republicans were from the South. “Being new here,” he told Cornyn, “you may not have realized that.”

“I can read history, Senator,” Cornyn shot back.

There was a time when such an exchange would have hurt a freshman, but that was before the polarization of American politics. If anything, it helped him: At the end of Cornyn’s first year, the GOP leadership made him a deputy whip.

By the summer of 2004, Cornyn’s strident rhetoric had been muted and replaced by the more reasoned style he employs today. The New Republic, the venerable left-of-center political journal, ran a profile of Cornyn that portrayed him as “the hard right’s soft new face.” It was published shortly after Cornyn had been a floor leader in the GOP’s losing fight for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, and the author, Michael Crowley, was able to collect quotes from activists in both parties about Cornyn’s rise to prominence that read like blurbs on a book jacket. (Grover Norquist, Americans for Tax Reform: “He’s become a serious player.” Ralph Neas, People for the American Way: “More and more, he seems to be the designated hitter for the right wing of the Republican Party on the most controversial issues.”) The main theme of Crowley’s piece was that Cornyn’s “sunny, calm tone” was what conservatives needed to make their message more palatable. “Whereas congressional right-wingers—and especially Texans like Tom DeLay—often limit their appeal by acting like villains from a Michael Moore nightmare, Cornyn is genial,” Crowley wrote. “If Tom DeLay is the stylistic equivalent of heavy metal, John Cornyn is muzak.”

Cornyn had found his role. He was that hypothetical creature of the law: the reasonable man. If the Republicans—or the White House—needed a message, or a messenger, he was their go-to guy. He even had an explanation for why a Democratic push to require the Bush administration to release more information about torture of detainees at Abu Ghraib should not come to a vote. The proposal was providing “a road map to our enemies,” he said, sounding an awful lot like an executive branch henchman. “The unintended consequences of this is to help our enemies by reducing American resolve to get actionable intelligence and to finish the job that we’ve started in Iraq.”

Playing the role required more than ability. It took willingness, a much scarcer commodity but one that he had in abundance, and it made him a valuable asset to the leadership. All senators like to make speeches, but most want to do it only on issues that make them look good. Cornyn would get involved in issues that nobody wants to touch, like Abu Ghraib and gay marriage. “A number of older members don’t like to handle social issues,” Sam Brownback, of Kansas, told a reporter. “That really gave him stature with the broader caucus.” When the going is tough and players are hurting and the opposition is moving the ball and the coach says, “Somebody get in there and stop ’em,” Cornyn is the guy who will say, “Put me in!”

“The only way he can lose is if Texas votes Democratic,” a staffer in Cornyn’s Senate office told me. If that’s the benchmark, then he’s a shoo-in for reelection, notwithstanding the widespread belief among Democrats that he’s beatable, because this is still a Republican state. I was present when Republican pollster Mike Baselice made a presentation to a business group in October, and his unambiguous message was that the numbers favor the R’s. They have a nine-point lead over the D’s in the base vote—a generic Republican candidate starts a statewide race with 43 percent of regular voters, while a Democrat starts with 34 percent—and that translates to a huge number of people. Texans cast 7.4 million votes in the 2004 presidential race. Nine points is 666,000 votes. That is the deficit the Democrats must make up. (Democrats, of course, argue that the numbers are changing.)

Swings of this dimension rarely occur in politics. Texas did not become Republican overnight, and it will not become Democratic overnight. Twenty years passed from Bill Clements’s breakthrough win in the 1978 governor’s race to the Republican sweep of all statewide offices in 1998. Several more years would pass before the congressional delegation and the state House of Representatives had Republican majorities. Karl Rove always said of the Republicans’ rise to power, “This is a process, not an event.” The same will be true for the Democratic resurgence.

How can the D’s close the gap? One indicator in their favor, Baselice said, is that Democrats have a greater interest in voting, around a five-point edge, than Republicans do. This portends a depressed Republican turnout, one of the elements necessary for a Democratic victory. What about independents, who make up about a fourth of the Texas electorate, or around 1.8 million votes? If they were to break two-to-one for Democrats—which is a lot to ask for—that’s a pickup of some 600,000 votes, almost enough to wipe out the deficit.

Polling numbers suggest that he might be vulnerable. His name ID is not where it ought to be, but that problem can be rectified with money. The real weakness appears in his favorable-unfavorable ratings and in his job performance: He falls short of 50 percent in both measurements. DailyKos, a liberal political Web site, commissioned a poll from Maryland-based Research 2000, which bills itself “the nation’s most unbiased and reliable research firm,” that found that Cornyn was viewed favorably by 46 percent of respondents and unfavorably by 44 percent. In job approval, 45 percent approved of Cornyn’s performance, 44 percent disapproved. (Twenty-four percent “strongly disapproved,” while 22 percent “strongly approved.”) The poll also tested Cornyn’s general electability by asking, “If the 2008 election for U.S. Senate were held today, would you vote to reelect John Cornyn, would you consider voting for another candidate, or would you vote to replace Cornyn?” “Reelect” was 40 percent, “consider” was 15 percent, and “replace” was 35 percent; ten percent were not sure. One way to interpret these numbers is that they suggest a 55-45 race, a margin that resembles the nine-point lead Republicans have in the base vote. Another is that a quarter of the electorate—the “considers” and the “not sures”—is undecided.

The decision of trial lawyer Mikal Watts not to seek the Democratic nomination in the Senate race leaves Rick Noriega, a state legislator from Houston, as Cornyn’s presumed opponent in the general election, unless there is a late entrant in the Democratic primary. Noriega appeared to be the choice of Democratic inside players and would likely have defeated Watts, but he would have been competing for the public’s attention against a candidate who was capable of outspending him by several million dollars. That problem no longer exists. But if Watts’s money is no longer an issue, Noriega’s lack of funding remains one. He must raise at least $10 million to be competitive and to get his personal story before the public, which includes his military service in Afghanistan, his time as sector commander for National Guard troops assisting the Border Patrol in Laredo, and his work in setting up shelters for Katrina victims in Houston.

The crucial moment for Noriega will occur sometime in the late summer, when national party strategists begin to decide how to allocate their resources for the fall elections. They will do polling in the state to determine Cornyn’s vulnerability and their own candidate’s viability. If they conclude that the race is winnable, they’ll put money and manpower into Texas. If they conclude that it isn’t, they will not hesitate to cut their candidate loose. The potential peril facing Texas D’s is that there are so many other states where Senate seats are in play, and this is such a red state that the race against Cornyn will be seen as too much of a long shot. It’s hard to blame them: Democrats haven’t won a statewide election in Texas since 1994.

If a race should develop, however, Democrats will have plenty of ammunition to use against Cornyn. The obvious issues are those with the most appeal to swing voters: his close ties to (unpopular) Bush and (pilloried) Rove, his support of the war, his opposition to stem cell research. Then there’s his vote on children’s health insurance. Cornyn voted against the Democrats’ bill, because it greatly expanded the number of kids covered by the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, after voting for a less costly version, backed by the Republican leadership, that covered far fewer children. He knows it will be an issue in the campaign. “Sometimes there’s a cost to being in the leadership,” he told me. “You have to support the bills the leadership wants.”

As for immigration, it may be hard for either side to take advantage of the issue. I observed this on a trip to El Paso with Cornyn. The day ended with a fundraiser at the home of a prominent Republican who said to Cornyn in a terse introduction, “One question you’re going to be asked tonight is about this wall.” And he was. Cornyn, who originally opposed a long wall but now supports “fencing” where needed, acknowledged the political dilemma by saying, “The closer you get to the border, the more people are concerned about the common culture and the economic impact. The farther away you get, the more people are concerned about security.” That didn’t seem to appease anyone. I left thinking that immigration is a dicey issue for an incumbent. Almost everyone can find something to dislike, and almost no one can find anything to like.

If he wins reelection in November, Cornyn can expect his second term to be very different from his first. A new president will occupy the White House, and Cornyn will no longer have to carry the Bush administration’s water. He will become the senior senator from Texas; Hutchison has said that she will not seek reelection and has hinted that she’ll resign her seat, possibly as early as 2009, to run for governor in 2010 (see Texas Monthly Talks). He will inherit the job of delivering federal largesse for Texas, a role he does not seem entirely comfortable playing. “I want to help Texas,” he told me, “but I’m very concerned about the growth of the federal government.” He talked about getting a seat on Finance or Appropriations, two of the most influential committees, and of moving up in the leadership. And, of course, he hopes to see his party take back the majority that it lost in 2006, unlikely as that is to occur. “I’d like to try to help Republicans regain our principles,” he said. “I think Republicans govern best when we are the party of reform. Power offers temptations that are hard to resist.”

How will he adapt to his new circumstances? The danger for him is that if he persists in the role he’s carved out for himself, as a lieutenant in the partisan wars, he may find himself excluded from the closed-door bipartisan meetings in which policy is hashed out. On the other hand, he could always go back to being the kind of politician he was in Texas—the kind who would have been welcome in those meetings. Perhaps he is keeping that option open. During our last conversation, in October, he acknowledged that being in the minority had given him a greater appreciation of Senate procedures that are designed to force compromises, such as the one he once labeled a “sellout.” “I’ve come to realize that we never want to resort to a nuclear option,” he told me. “Today’s majority is tomorrow’s minority. You can end up eating your own words.”

Related Content