THE WEEKEND INTERVIEW
'We Need an Election'
The head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee on the party's chances to take control next November.
BY JAMES TARANTO
The Wall Street Journal, Saturday, December 10, 2011
NEW YORK--The junior senator from Texas is decidedly unenthusiastic about the current state of the institution he joined nine years ago. "It's not what I would call the world's greatest deliberative body now," John Cornyn, a Republican, says on a recent visit to the Journal. "The Senate has been pretty much dysfunctional. I mean, we haven't had a budget for well over 900 days. We don't have legislation that's introduced and then referred to committee, and actually have it marked up in committee, where people can offer amendments and debate them. . . . It's all been sort of prepackaged. [It] shows up on the floor, [Majority Leader] Harry Reid denies the opportunity to . . . offer amendments, and then he complains about Republicans filibustering the legislation."
For seven months in 2009-10, Democrats held 60 seats, enough to overcome a filibuster. Last year's elections cut that majority to 53-47. "Now that they need Republican support," Mr. Cornyn says, "there is very little outreach"--a state of affairs he blames chiefly on President Obama.
Mr. Cornyn imagines the president with an angel sitting on one shoulder and a devil on the other: "He's listening to the devil, who's telling him, 'Don't make a deal.' Paul Ryan in the House proposed a constructive solution to . . . our fiscal problems. And rather than engage and propose something constructive himself . . . [the president] decided to go into the class-warfare mode, where, as you know, you can't raise taxes enough to solve the problem."
"And by the way," he adds, "it's not raise taxes so we can pay down the debt, it's raise taxes so we can keep on keeping on--doing what we're doing, which is spending a whole lot more money, making a whole lot more promises than we can actually keep from a financial standpoint." Mr. Cornyn worries that without a solution to the spending and debt problem, "we're going to end up like Europe." To break the impasse, he says, "we need an election."
Mr. Cornyn is chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which recruits and supports GOP candidates for the upper chamber. To achieve a Senate majority, Republicans will need a net gain of four seats (or three plus the vice presidency) next November.
Since senators serve six-year terms, the body is divided into three "classes," with 33 or 34 seats up for election every two years. Democratic-leaning states are predominant among next year's class, 22 of whose 33 members come from states that Barack Obama carried in 2008. Nonetheless, observers and odds makers give Republicans a better-than-even shot at taking the majority. That's because Democrats did very well in 2000 and 2006, picking up a total of nine seats. Republicans will be defending only 10 seats next year to the Democrats' 23, allowing the GOP to play offense.
Mr. Cornyn runs down the states where he sees the strongest opportunities for Republican pickups:
North Dakota. This heavily GOP state hadn't elected a Republican to Congress since 1980--until last year, when the party took both an open Senate seat and the at-large House seat. The winner of the latter, Rep. Rick Berg, is now seeking the seat of retiring Sen. Kent Conrad. It's the most likely GOP Senate pickup, Mr. Cornyn says, "although [Democrat] Heidi Heitkamp, the former attorney general, is going to make that a real race. . . . But I'm confident that we'll win."
Montana. Sen. Jon Tester was elected in 2006. "He's going to have to run against [Rep.] Denny Rehberg, who's been elected statewide multiple times," Mr. Cornyn says. "That's going to be hand-to-hand combat, but . . . Sen. Tester has voted for a lot of policies, including the health-care bill and the spending, that I think Montanans are going to find problematic. Our strategy is going to be a referendum on President Obama and his economy and those enablers who helped him take a bad situation and make it worse."
Nebraska. Sen. Ben Nelson, elected in 2000, "is not going to announce until Christmas whether he is running for re-election," says Mr. Cornyn. "It's pretty clear to me that Democrats have no Plan B in Nebraska, so they're trying to do everything they can to persuade Sen. Nelson to run. . . . We have three candidates in that race--the attorney general, John Bruning; Don Stenberg, the treasurer; and Deb Fischer, a state senator--and I think any one of those would do well."
Missouri. Sen. Claire McCaskill, elected in 2006, is "very vulnerable," Mr. Cornyn says. But "we have a three-way primary, and it really depends on who's nominated, whether they are able to withstand what they know is coming at them in a general election."
Wisconsin. This is an open seat, with Sen. Herb Kohl retiring after four terms. Public-sector unions are trying to recall Gov. Scott Walker, and Mr. Cornyn thinks "there's going to be a lot of oxygen sucked out in the recall efforts [and] probably not as much attention paid to the [Senate] primary that'll be in August." The prospective GOP candidates are Tommy Thompson, a four-term former governor; Mark Neumann, a two-term former representative who unsuccessfully challenged Sen. Russ Feingold in 1998; and Jeff Fitzgerald, speaker of the state Assembly. Mr. Cornyn hopes the victor will face Madison-area Rep. Tammy Baldwin, whom he describes as "really far to the left of even the good people of Wisconsin."
Ohio. Sen. Sherrod Brown was elected in 2006. "Josh Mandel is the consensus candidate, the state treasurer, in a state that [Republican Sen.] Rob Portman won by 18 points in 2010," Mr. Cornyn says. "There's going to be a lot of money in the presidential race spent there, so the dynamics will be different, but I like our chances."
New Mexico. Five-term Sen. Jeff Bingaman is retiring in this Democratic-leaning swing state. "Running against an incumbent, it's a little more challenging than running in an open seat," says Mr. Cornyn. GOP candidates include ex-Rep. Heather Wilson and Lt. Gov. John Sanchez.
Virginia. Sen. Jim Webb is retiring after just one term. The man he beat in 2006, Republican George Allen, is vying to win his old seat back. Mr. Obama carried the Commonwealth in 2008, the first Democrat to do so since Lyndon Johnson. But Republicans surged in 2009 and 2010, and Democratic candidate Tim Kaine, a popular former governor, also served as chairman of the Democratic National Committee, making him, in Mr. Cornyn's words, "one of the main cheerleaders for the Obama agenda, which is unpopular in Virginia."
Hawaii. The president's native state is overwhelmingly Democratic, but Mr. Cornyn thinks Linda Lingle, a two-term Republican former governor, has "a real shot" at the seat Sen. Daniel Akaka is vacating.
Mr. Cornyn cites two Republican incumbents who "have the biggest challenges":
Massachusetts. Sen. Scott Brown won a January 2010 special election against a lackluster opponent at the height of public outrage over ObamaCare. Next year he is likely to face Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard professor who has made a name for herself as a left-wing populist. "He's going to have everything but the kitchen sink thrown at him there--already has," says Mr. Cornyn.
Nevada. Sen. Dean Heller, appointed in May when his predecessor resigned in a scandal, "is running against two opponents," says Mr. Cornyn. "One is Shelley Berkeley, a liberal congresswoman from Nevada, and the second is Harry Reid"--the Senate Democratic leader, also a Nevadan--"who is doing his dead level best to try to dry up Dean's contributions and make life challenging for him in this election."
If Republicans win all these races--a big if--the GOP will have a 56-44 Senate majority in 2013. It's possible that other seats will become competitive--in 2010, no one thought Wisconsin's Mr. Feingold was vulnerable until a few months before he lost--but a 60-seat supermajority, enough to overcome a filibuster, seems out of reach. That raises the possibility that even if Republicans hold the House, take the Senate, and defeat Mr. Obama, Senate Democrats will still be able to block the GOP agenda.
Then again, 2014 looks promising for Senate Republicans, who will be defending only 13 seats to the Democrats' 20, and on GOP-friendly terrain (John McCain carried 18 of the 33 states in that year's Senate class). Democrats from states like Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina, South Dakota and Virginia may be more inclined toward accommodation.
As for 2012, Mr. Cornyn lists three Republican incumbents who may be vulnerable to a nomination challenge from the right: Indiana's Dick Lugar, Maine's Olympia Snowe and Utah's Orrin Hatch. Two GOP senators lost their renomination bids in 2010, although one of them, Alaska's Lisa Murkowski, won the general election as a write-in candidate.
In his role at the NRSC, Mr. Cornyn is a partisan, not an ideologue: His job is to elect Republicans. In 2010 that sometimes put him at odds with Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, who worked to nominate tea-party conservatives, often against candidates the GOP establishment viewed as more electable.
"Somehow, miraculously, I became part of the establishment--something I never aspired to," Mr. Cornyn says with a chuckle. "I always thought Republicans do better when we run as reformers. When we're part of the establishment, we lose, because we're sort of Democrats Lite."
How did Mr. Cornyn find himself in that position? To illustrate, he tells the story of his effort to recruit a candidate for an open seat in Florida. In late 2009, he traveled to Miami to ask Jeb Bush, the former governor, to run. "It took him about a month to make a decision, and he said 'no,'" Mr. Cornyn recalls. "I looked around, in my naiveté, and I said, 'Well, who's the most popular Republican in Florida?' And lo and behold, it was Charlie Crist," Mr. Bush's successor as governor. "Well, that was a bad choice." Mr. Crist ended up running as an independent instead, finishing a distant second. "The good news is, the Lord moves in mysterious ways, and Marco Rubio is a star. I couldn't be more happy with the way that turned out."
Other conservative primary victors, including Kentucky's Rand Paul and Utah's Mike Lee, ended up winning in November too. On the other hand, Mr. Cornyn observes: "There are at least three states in 2010 that, if the primary process had turned out differently"--that is, if the establishment favorite had won--"we probably would have elected Republicans: in Delaware, in Colorado, in Nevada." (In the Nevada race, Mr. DeMint did not make a primary endorsement.)
Mr. Cornyn says that he and Mr. DeMint both learned from the 2010 experience. "He and I have become more aligned, in the sense that we're both worried about 'What are your conservative credentials, and what kind of senator could you be?' But you know what? We've got to also worry about 'Can you get elected?' "
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