For the past decade, Texas’s senior senator, John Cornyn, has been the straight man of the duo our state has sent to Congress’s upper chamber. Junior senator Ted Cruz is the type to pick fights with Muppets or talk about secession, while the seventy-year-old former Texas attorney general has served in relative anonymity. He’s spent much of his four terms playing Gallant to Cruz’s Goofus, coasting to reelection by double-digit margins in every campaign he’s run. For stretches of his career, the bulk of the Texans who elected him to high office couldn’t even rate his work and answered “don’t know” when asked to. Now that’s power.
The past few weeks, however, have revealed cracks in the aura of “I don’t know, he seems fine?” that has kept Cornyn ascending the GOP ranks to Senate minority whip. In late June, at the party’s Texas convention, Cornyn addressed the crowd—to a chorus of boos from conservatives displeased with his efforts to advance a (downright modest) gun safety bill in the wake of the Robb Elementary School massacre in Uvalde. The bill did not include any weapons bans, and polling indicates that, among a broader pool of Texans than the ones who attend the convention, stricter gun laws are popular: 52 percent would like to see more-strict laws, while only 14 percent would like them to be loosened further—a group that, it’s safe to say, was significantly overrepresented by convention attendees.
The booing was a far cry from the days when Cornyn got to walk out on the convention stage to a video in which a Sam Elliott soundalike recited a poem about how “Big John” was a cowboy! The senator tried to defend his bill over the boos by stressing how little it would change. (The bill “primarily means enforcing current law,” Cornyn said. “Nothing more, and nothing less.”) No matter: following the speech, Donald Trump took to his social media platform, Truth Social, to decry the senator as a “RINO” who would “TAKE YOUR GUNS AWAY.”
The displeasure with Cornyn extends beyond the limited focus group that is the Texas GOP convention, however. According to new polling from the University of Texas’s Texas Politics Project, rank-and-file voters have also begun expressing their dissatisfaction with Cornyn’s performance. Back in February, his approval, disapproval, and “don’t know” numbers were almost identical. But a survey of Texas voters conducted in late June found that Cornyn’s disapproval number has risen to 50 percent, while his approval rating has fallen to 24 percent, with 26 percent unsure—an unpromising trend over the year to date, and a downright dramatic reversal from the halcyon days of 2016 and before, when a plurality of Texans didn’t even know what the guy did all day.
Looking at the crosstabs in the polling, the decline in Cornyn’s numbers seems clearly driven by conservative and independent voters. Among Republicans, who’ve given him approval ratings in the fifties or higher over the past four years, only 41 percent now approve; the number disapproving in that group, meanwhile, has doubled, from 17 percent in April to 34 percent today. (A quarter of Republicans don’t have an opinion.) Among independents, Cornyn’s prospects are scarcely better—58 percent now disapprove, the highest for Cornyn in the history of the UT poll and a stark increase from 39 percent in April, while his approval rating, which has never been particularly high among this group, matches an all-time low of just 10 percent. And lest you think that his push for modest changes to the nation’s gun safety laws endeared Cornyn to Democrats, disapproval even among that group has risen by twelve points from the start of the year.
The result is that for the first time in UT’s poll, more voters disapprove of Cornyn than Cruz. For all of his contentiousness, Cruz has never had an approval rating as low as Cornyn’s is now. While the junior senator’s approval rating has often been underwater, his polling has remained remarkably consistent throughout the majority of his political career: his approval has never been higher than 47 percent or lower than 35 in the UT poll, while disapproval has ranged from 37 to 48 percent. Everyone mostly seems to have made up their their mind about who Cruz is, in other words—but Cornyn, despite his two decades in office, appears to have finally introduced himself to many Texas voters, and they don’t love what they see.
Will any of this matter for Cornyn’s political future? Who can say! Cornyn won’t be up for reelection until 2026, when he’ll be 74 years old. His numbers could recover by then; he could choose to retire; an asteroid could kill us all before that year comes. One thing is certain: even if he continues to lose some support from his own party, we can count on him to tweet through it.