As Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas surveyed the political landscape last year after his party had picked up six seats in the Senate, he decided his work was not complete. As the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the affable Texan had been the point man in shaping strategy for GOP candidates, but Republicans remained four seats short of a majority in the Senate.
Cornyn, a former judge with shrewd political instincts, asked for another tour at the helm of the NRSC to finish the job of helping the GOP win control of the Upper Chamber. It was an easy sell. GOP senators unanimously re-elected the 59-year-old lawmaker to a second term at a celebratory meeting last year in which Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell , never known for his effusive praise, declared Cornyn to be “the best NRSC Senate chair Republicans have ever had.”
Given that vote of confidence and a 2012 election cycle in which the Democrats’ grip on the majority is tenuous at best (they must defend 23 of the 33 seats on the ballot next year), Cornyn is upbeat. Charlie Cook, the nonpartisan expert handicapper of political races, says that seven of the 23 Democratic-held Senate seats on the ballot next year are “toss-ups”—the most competitive contests. Only two of the 10 GOP Senate seats are similarly up for grabs. Republicans need to pick up just four seats to take the gavels in the Senate. And Cornyn and the GOP believe that a remarkably weak economic recovery and high unemployment will help to sink President Obama and the Democrats. “Jobs will still be the Number One issue,” Cornyn said. “That’s far and away why I think we are going to have a good election in 2012 — the issue matrix really hasn’t changed much” from 2010.
“My goal is to get us back in the majority,” he told The Fiscal Times. “I’ll be disappointed [with any other result]—that’s the reason I took the job a second time.”
If Cornyn steers the GOP to a majority, not only will he get credit for helping McConnell realize his long-time goal of supplanting Democrat Harry Reid as majority leader, but those results also would put him in a prime position to win a higher leadership post in the Senate, where he is eyeing the Number Two job — that of Republican whip — currently held by Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz, who is retiring. According to National Journal vote ratings, Cornyn is in an eight-way tie for the most conservative senator, while his likely competitor for the whip post, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., is the 30th most conservative senator.
“The deck is stacked very heavily against the Democrats in the Senate — we are getting maybe to the point that we would start predicting that there is a 60-40 chance Republicans would take the Senate [next year],” said Steve Smith, a political science professor at Washington University and veteran observer of the Senate.
Still Some Serious Landmines Ahead
Yet if Cornyn is correct that the economy will be the most decisive issue, then Republicans’ path to victory may be strewn with some serious political landmines, experts say. The biggest unknown is how the debt ceiling melodrama plays out, and whether House Republicans block a final deal and trigger the first U.S. default in history, precipitating an almost certain economic crisis. Polls consistently show that voters trust President Obama more than Republicans to handle the economy, and they would blame Republicans more than Democrats in the event of a default on the debt.
What’s more, Obama political strategist David Plouffe said recently that the president may be able to run successfully for reelection without being able to point to a strengthening economy. “The average American does not view the economy through the prism of GDP or unemployment rates or even monthly jobs numbers,” Plouffe said at a recent Bloomberg Breakfast. “They are going to vote based on: ‘How do I feel about my own situation? Do I believe the president makes decisions based on me and my family?’”
Democrats are also certain to argue that the GOP is more concerned about slashing spending and preserving tax breaks for wealthy Americans than spending more on jobs programs, extended unemployment insurance and public projects to stimulate the economy. Moreover, Democrats believe that Republicans are suffering from a grave, self-inflicted wound by backing House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan’s plan to transform Medicare into a voucher program.
That issue already helped Democrat Kathy Hochul win a House seat in a heavily Republican district in western New York earlier this year when she argued the Ryan plan would all but end Medicare.
“Our supporters are motivated and energized, in part because Republicans are overreaching with an extreme agenda that privatizes Medicare, and we're using this issue to go on offense in 2012,” said Guy Cecil, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s executive director.
“Most Democrats consider the Ryan budget to be manna from heaven,” noted veteran Democratic strategist David DiMartino, who has been involved in multiple Senate campaigns. “It gave Democrats something to talk about other than the economy.”
A Battle-Wise Cornyn
But Cornyn shrugs off such claims. When pressed on the Democrats’ use of the Ryan plan to attack GOP candidates, he said, “I don’t think the Ryan plan or the House budget is going to be the seminal issue that some Democrats believe it will be, come November . I am not too concerned about it … They seem to be listening to their political advisers telling them to attack, attack, attack, and not yielding to their more constructive instincts of trying to actually come up with a plan and solve the problem.”
The battle-wise Cornyn also recognizes that some factors that affect Senate races are out of his control. For example, next year’s Senate candidates will be running in a presidential election year. “We did very well last time, but it was a mid-term election and voter turnout was different than what it will be in a presidential election year. So we need a presidential candidate who will win, preferably, but if not win, then run close, neck and neck, and not do any unnecessary harm to our Senate candidates.”
Even as he exudes confidence, Cornyn also acknowledges some missteps from his last tour as NRSC chairman, when the committee backed several candidates in primaries who went on to lose against Tea Party challengers. The Texas lawmaker said he learned a lesson. “Well, we don’t get visibly engaged and ahead of the primary voters,” he said. “We learned [that] certainly the quality of the candidate makes a difference, but the primary voters jealously guard their prerogative to make that choice and not people who are outside the state.”
Some critics say that Cornyn is pulling his punches in an effort to avoid offending the Tea Party — and undermine his bid to move up in the leadership. He rejects the notion that he needs to be concerned about his standing with the Tea Party. “I am a pretty conservative guy fiscally and socially, but also I recognize their energy and contribution to our successes. In fact, the last election wasn’t a vindication of Republicans; it was a referendum on the president and his party’s overreach and on their policies.”
As for the Tea Party’s involvement in races this cycle, Cornyn said he hopes they learned something, too. “Hopefully their energy is going to be a little more sophisticated in the sense that they have been through [it]—it’s not their first rodeo,” he said.