WASHINGTON – John Cornyn is an enigma.
It may not be his own doing. After all, it should be counterintuitive to describe the most powerful Texan to serve in the U.S. Senate since Lyndon Johnson as a shrinking violet.
But Cornyn is an outlier within a generation of larger-than-life Texas politicians who have become national fixtures for smiling in mugshots, blowing up their own party’s national conventions in a hail of jeers, livestreaming road trips, bragging about snuffing out a coyote while jogging, or filibustering while wearing pink sneakers or reading Dr. Seuss.
It seems like flamboyance and ambition for higher office are historical prerequisites for any Texan serving in an office as high profile as the U.S. Senate.
“I’m none of those things,” Cornyn laughed in a recent interview.
There is no ghostwritten Cornyn memoir. His ego does not seem to live and die on how many times he appears on Sunday morning talk shows. And he’s never launched a presidential bid, exploratory campaign or even a vice presidential lobbying effort.
“I haven’t run for president,” he said. “My wife told me if I decided to run for president, I needed to get a new wife. And I’ve been married 39 years, and I’m not going to go down that path.”
It is that understated quality — what some observers describe as “boring,” “vanilla” and “not Ted Cruz” — that lends so much uncertainty to his 2020 reelection campaign.
But Cornyn's calmness may also prove to be his greatest asset amid potential Texas political tumult. He is the de facto leader of state Republicans this cycle, with his name set to appear on the 2020 ballot below only the presidential contest.
And from this perch, Cornyn, despite his usually steady manner, is cranking the alarm as loudly as he can to his fellow Texas Republicans.
“We are, I think, no longer the reliably red state we have been,” he said. “We are at risk of turning purple. And if we don’t do our job, then we could turn blue in the coming years."
Some of the most respected minds in Texas politics agree.
“He’s unbeatable in a regular year, but this is not a regular year,” said Bill Miller, an Austin lobbyist who ran Cornyn’s first statewide race in 1990. “A presidential year like this one changes the outlook. Otherwise, he’s unbeatable in the state of Texas.”
Now, thanks to former U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke's near-ouster of U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in last year's midterm elections, Texas Democrats smell blood. An endless stream of Democrats across the state spent the winter and spring floating their own names to run against Cornyn. At this point, Air Force veteran MJ Hegar is the most prominent Democrat to officially enter the fray.
Cornyn is the first to agree that the ground is moving.
“Everything’s changed [since 2014],” Cornyn said. "I think 2018 woke up everybody on the Republican side to the fact that we not only need to be competitive in the primaries, but we need to talk to broader general election voters, too.”
Out of sight, out of mind
As the state’s standard-bearer, Cornyn knows he must run a strong campaign to protect other GOP positions in the state. But he also is sending a message to his fellow Texas Republicans: He needs their coattails, too.
The Democratic squeeze is coming above and below him on the ballot.
For the first time in a generation, the presidential contest could have tangible effects in down-ballot races across the state. A recent poll showed former Vice President Joe Biden with a lead over President Donald Trump in the state, and a slew of other Democratic candidates were in striking distance of the president. This week's Texas Tribune/University of Texas poll found the state is evenly split when asked about Trump's reelection, a striking shift from 2016, when Trump won the state by nine points.
Underneath Cornyn's seat on the ballot, national Democrats telegraph they intend to spend money on Texas races for the U.S. House and state House. Acknowledging this offense, Cornyn is warning every Republican officeholder in the state, even those in so-called safe seats, to run a viable campaign.
As for what happened last year — with Republicans losing two notable congressional races and just barely winning several others — there is a debate among leaders in both parties over how much that had to do with Democrats fielding a uniquely charismatic nominee in O’Rourke against Cruz, who is unmatched in his ability to alienate moderates and the left.
Cornyn is not as polarizing as Cruz, but Democrats bullish on their chances in 2020 view the state's senior senator as facing the opposite problem. He may not provoke liberal passion, they argue, but at the same time, he may not evoke passion from his own base, either.
That argument is on Cornyn’s mind.
“I always tell people the good thing about being in the Senate is you run every six years, and the bad thing about the Senate is you run every six years,” he said. “Because, frankly, if you’re doing your job and you’re sort of out of sight and out of mind, you have to go back and remind people who you are and what you’ve been doing.”
Just how well Texans know him — or rather don't — is a concern.
“That’s going to be something we’re going to have to work on,” Cornyn said. “We’ll be prepared to do that.”
Cornyn is outwardly worried that Republicans across the state are “frankly a little bit complacent.” It's been so long since uncompetitive general election races became the norm in the state that he fears the state's Republican incumbents have lost their grasp on recognizing danger signs and how to run general election campaigns.
“I think that’s absolutely the case,” he said. “The way congressional districts are drawn, most members don’t have competitive general elections."
One of those members who normally avoided tough reelection battles was U.S. Rep. John Carter. The Round Rock Republican found himself facing an unusually tough challenge last year from Hegar, who drew national attention for a biographical video that turbocharged her fundraising. After losing to Carter by less than three points, she opted to vie for Cornyn's seat in 2020.
Where supporters see Cornyn's lack of drama as an asset, Hegar sees it as indicative of someone not fighting enough for everyday Texans.
“Texans aren’t interested in typical career politicians, like Sen. Cornyn, who sell them out to corporate donors and powerful special interests," Hegar said. "During his 17 years in Washington, Cornyn’s true legacy is being Mitch McConnell's 'yes man,' leading the efforts to shred protections for over 4.5 million Texans with preexisting conditions, and playing a critical role in pushing for a tax bill that added over $2 trillion to the national debt and threatens Medicare and Social Security all while enriching big corporations who have donated over $9 million dollars to him throughout his political career."
"Sticks don't work"
Cornyn is one of the few Texas Republicans who has hands-on experience with competitive, knife-fight general elections. After all, he has run dozens of them.
From 2009 until 2012, Cornyn served as the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. In each party, a senator assumes this role of chief fundraiser, recruiter and strategist with the aim of flipping as many Senate seats as possible while protecting incumbents. It's a job that takes a political strategist with the kind of peripheral vision that Cornyn showed he possessed over a long career in Texas politics.
A lawyer by training, Cornyn won his first race in 1984, becoming a district judge in his home base of Bexar County. In the 30-plus years since, he has never lost an election. He rose through the ranks of Texas politics by way of a close alliance with George W. Bush and his political adviser, Karl Rove. Cornyn ran for state Supreme Court in 1990 and won reelection in 1996. In 1998, he jumped into the state attorney general race. That primary featured his only true setback of his political career: He placed second at the first round of the primary but then easily trounced his rival in the runoff.
By 2002, Cornyn's close association with then-President Bush put him in the driver's seat for the GOP nomination to succeed retiring U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm. Cornyn won his next three Senate campaigns by at least 12 points, his last one in 2014 by 27 points when the Democrats put forth their weakest challenger yet, a millionaire dentist with little political experience.
Cornyn has leveraged his relationships with donors in the state to build his stature in the Senate. Over the years, he has regularly hosted out-of-state colleagues on fundraising junkets through the state. There was no point in his career at which those donor ties mattered more than during his tenure at the NRSC.
The campaign committee chairman is one of the highest risk/reward posts in politics, and Cornyn’s tenure came at a particularly stormy point for Republicans. He took over during the Great Recession, just months after the federal government had bailed out Wall Street banks and amid high unemployment rates.
An establishment backlash seized the Republican party. Before the 2010 cycle, viable primary opponents to incumbents were a rarity in national politics. But in several races during Cornyn's two terms at the NRSC, unelectable conservatives managed to take down incumbents or establishment-blessed candidates — only to then lose potentially winnable seats to the Democrats in the general election.
But it's hard to find any Republicans who blame Cornyn and his team for the hits. The widespread perception within his party is he made the best of a tough situation.
In his role as chairman, one of his top responsibilities was to hassle members to raise money to send to other Senate races elsewhere in the country. Chairman no more, he is now urging the opposite to his fellow Texans.
"Texas has been a donor state for a long time. Perhaps it’s time we are a donee state," Cornyn said.
He noted that he has spoken with fellow Republicans in the state's congressional delegation about how their relationships with the GOP campaign arms for their respective chambers need to change this cycle.
"There’s always a temptation by the leadership to extract as much money out of the state as they can. And then to use that wherever they need it, and I understand that," Cornyn said. "But we need to make sure that our Texas races from the president and all the way down to the courthouse are adequately financed and resourced."
"It’s also going to mean we remind Texans that we need to take care of Texas," he added.
After stepping down as head of the NRSC, Cornyn ascended even higher, becoming Republican whip in 2013. As the lead vote-counter, he promised to rule with a carrot-only approach.
“Sticks don’t work too well in the Senate in my experience,” he said.
He relinquished the whip role late last year, in accordance with party term limit rules. But he remains widely perceived as a member of McConnell’s inner circle and a potential future Senate Republican leader when that vacancy occurs.
Republican staffers and senators alike crow about Cornyn’s graciousness.
“I think John has a keen ear really to listen to member concerns," said U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, who has served in the Senate since 2015. “And that’s important in any leader. ... He’s a doer rather than a viewer, and he just has a wonderful mannerism about him,” she added.
Democratic strategist Jim Manley watched Cornyn serve as whip from Manley's perch at the time as spokesman to then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Manley viewed the Texan as a hard-charging proponent for the Republican case but fair-minded in approach.
Yet for all the praise Cornyn draws from colleagues for his courteous nature, he also has shown a more irritable and combative side.
As a senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he was one of the most forceful advocates for the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court. Cornyn compared the charged hearings to the tactics of Joseph McCarthy.
Most political observers point to those days last fall as some of the ugliest in recent political history. Upon Kavanaugh's successful confirmation, Cornyn took a victory lap with an Instagram post featuring a glass of champagne and a hashtag, “#Bubbles4brett.”
He also frequently mixes it up on Twitter with journalists, colleagues and activists he perceives as unfair. He said it “disturbs me when I just see one side of the story dominating everything when in fact there is a pretty obvious clear and opposing view.”
Earlier this year, he crossed words with a liberal favorite, U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, over a tweet he posted on Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. He later explained he was comparing Mussolini’s fascism to socialism and warning against federal government overreach.
“A Republican senator full-on quoted National Fascist Party leader and Hitler ally Benito Mussolini like it’s a Hallmark card,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted.
Cornyn quipped in response the following morning that Ocasio-Cortez has “maybe one of the most uninformed opinions I have seen in ... hours."
“One thing I have to sort of keep in mind is you can’t take them back once you unleash them,” he said, referring to his tweets.
“I try to be restrained. ... This is maybe the Venn diagram where Sen. Cornyn and President Trump overlap,” he said. “Nobody’s going to mistake me for the president, but I do think it’s a great way to communicate.”
Is Texas in play?
For Democrats focused on flipping control of the U.S. Senate next year, the Texas race is not at the top of their list, but it's not far off.
Manley, the Democratic former spokesman, said several seats rank far ahead in priority over Texas — offensive pushes in Arizona, Maine, Georgia and Colorado, along with protecting their seat in Alabama.
But Manley stressed Texas is still key.
“It’s not the top-tier race, but if we are to reclaim the Senate, we’ve got to work with all the seats that are up. Especially given what happened in Texas two years ago, it’s definitely worth a play,” he said.
Leah Askarinam, a political analyst with the Washington, D.C.-based Inside Elections, concurred — while putting the onus on the eventual Democratic nominee to turn this race into a top target.
“Texas is pretty far on the back-burner right now,” she said. “Investing in Texas would be wildly expensive for Democrats. But if a Democratic candidate can do the heavy lifting in fundraising — without outside groups, like O'Rourke did — there's a chance this race becomes competitive.”
For now, Cornyn is mostly begging off taking shots at the Democratic field. In this interview, he did subtly work in one of his campaign's latest knocks on Hegar — “Hollywood Hegar,” a reference to the celebrities in the campaign launch video she released in April.
But Cornyn still left space for other contenders to enter the fray, including either O’Rourke or former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro if either candidate's presidential run peters out.
At the same time, Cornyn is telegraphing that he intends to avoid a personality-driven campaign. He described himself as “a policy junkie” and is expected to focus his campaign on legislation he has moved through Congress in recent years, including Hurricane Harvey relief and funding for future hurricane mitigation. It’s likely he will also highlight his advocacy for victims of crime and his efforts leading to major changes to the criminal justice system that Trump signed into law last year.
Cornyn is also likely to highlight his response to a singular event that seems to have rattled him more than any other in his Senate career — the 2017 church shooting in Sutherland Springs, in which a veteran with a history of domestic violence killed 26 people. In early 2018, Cornyn successfully pushed for language in a spending bill that improved federal background checks for gun purchases. Although gun control advocates dismissed the move as not enough to address a mass shooting epidemic, it's one of the only efforts on gun policy Congress has successfully passed in over a decade.
Whatever happens with Cornyn’s future, the consequences will last far longer than the six-year term ahead.
Should he win, there is a likelihood that a Texan will one day lead a chamber of Congress — a feat not accomplished since Democrat Jim Wright served as U.S. House speaker in the late 1980s.
But should he lose, it will likely mean a collapse of Republican numbers in the Senate and a Democratic takeover. And beyond the political shock back home in Texas, it will be the loss of a steady, if quiet, Republican hand.
Despite those stakes, Cornyn is keeping his tack simple.
“The way you advance in the Senate is to develop a reputation as someone who you can trust and who will be a straight shooter,” he said. “And I’ve tried to do that.”
Disclosure: Bill Miller and Karen and Karl Rove have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.