Cornyn primary threat waning

Greg Nash

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) appears poised to escape a primary challenge in 2014, despite continued rumblings on the right that he is insufficiently conservative.

Cornyn has tepid approval ratings from Texas conservatives, according to polls, and some of the activists who helped now-Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) win his primary last year have looked to find a candidate to challenge him. 

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But many of their targets have passed.

Evangelical historian David Barton (R) decided this week not to run, joining Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), state Supreme Court Justice Don Willett and Tea Party activist Katrina Pierson as potential foes who decided against a challenge to Cornyn.

With Texas's election filing deadline less than a month away, it looks increasingly likely that Cornyn will avoid having a serious opponent.

“I've not heard anybody else express interest to me. The two individuals I worked on took a pass,” said JoAnn Fleming, who heads the Texas Tea Party group Grassroots America We The People.

She was referring to Gohmert and Barton.

“I've moved on to other things. If somebody is interested in talking to the Tea Party groups about it, we'll be happy to hear from them, but I'm not beating the bushes for anybody at this point,” Fleming added.

Cornyn, the Senate Minority Whip, was first elected in 2002 and is seeking a third Senate term.

His approval rating with Republicans stands at 46 percent, with 33 percent disapproving, according to a new poll from Democratic firm Public Policy Polling.

Forty-nine percent of Texas Republicans say they would prefer someone more conservative, to just 33 percent who say they’ll support him in the primary.

But he’s amassed a huge war chest in the expensive state, with nearly $7 million in the bank. He’s worked hard to connect with grassroots Republicans, hired a campaign team with close connections to the state’s Tea Party, and has maintained a solidly conservative voting record, especially over the last two years.

He also might have benefitted from the large number of open political positions in Texas this year.

Six of the seven statewide elected offices have no incumbent running, giving aspiring Republican candidates a much easier path to promotion than taking on a member of Senate leadership.

Pierson says she was asked by a number of activists to run after Gohmert took a pass on the race.

But she said that a statewide bid against an entrenched incumbent in a state where it costs millions of dollars a week for television advertising was too much of an undertaking.

She instead chose to run against Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas), so she could spend more time with her school-aged son.

“I was asked by several folks to consider the Senate race. I'm not really interested in that,” she says. “A statewide race would be very difficult.”

Some Tea Party activists are still unhappy with Cornyn for splitting with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) on the strategy of pushing a government shutdown to try to defund ObamaCare.

Cruz has said he wouldn't endorse Cornyn but wouldn't back his opponents — and donated $2,500 to Cornyn's reelection campaign in May from his leadership PAC.

Cornyn, who was National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman last year, stayed publicly neutral in the 2012 GOP Senate primary race between Cruz and Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst (R).

Other conservative were unhappy about Cornyn’s willingness to engage in discussions about immigration reform, though he ultimately voted against the bill that passed the Senate.

But his lifetime score from numerous conservative groups is solid to strong, and for most of the year, his record and Cruz’s were indistinguishable.

“A lot of the dissatisfaction is stylistic. He's voted with Cruz on almost everything,” said Texas GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak.

Cornyn does have some primary challengers: Immigration attorney Linda Vega (R), Iraq War Veteran Erick Wyatt (R) and businessman Dwayne Stovall (R) have announced campaigns. But they’ve attracted little interest either in Texas or from national conservative groups.

The deep-pocketed Club for Growth has shown no interest in defeating Cornyn, and a spokesman for FreedomWorks said the group “is not involved or planning to become involved in the Cornyn race at this time.”

Both groups were major players in helping Cruz defeat Dewhurst in the GOP Senate primary.

One of FreedomWorks’s top staffers on that race, Brendan Steinhauser, is now Cornyn’s campaign manager.

“Sen. Cornyn is treating it as if it's the toughest race he's ever run. He’s home as often as he can be, traveling across the state doing things like GOP county dinners and meeting with grassroots activists,” Steinhauser tells The Hill, when asked why it looks like his boss will avoid a real challenge.

Mackowiak says he doubts anyone will step up in the next month.

“I don't see any individual who possesses the ability to raise enough money and win enough grassroots support to beat Cornyn in a primary,” he says.

“There are a number of grassroots leaders that are angry. But true vulnerability exists when candidates are actually challenged. That no one's stepping up shows there's a disconnect between what the grassroots folks think and what those who have actually considered a campaign saw.”