Big Senate gains in 2010 could put Cornyn in the 2012 White House mix

Expectations that Republicans will make big gains in the Senate this cycle have sparked presidential buzz for GOP campaign chief John Cornyn.


Republican insiders who are dissatisfied with the current crop of likely White House hopefuls have floated Sen. Cornyn’s (R-Texas) name as a promising challenger.

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Former Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.), a one-time chairman of the Republican National Committee, touted Cornyn for president Wednesday morning. He made his remarks during a panel discussion at the Willard Hotel sponsored by DLA Piper, a law and lobbying firm.

“Cornyn has been NRSC chairman and has done a very effective job with it,” Martinez said in a telephone interview later in the day. “He’s raised a lot of money and made contacts throughout the country.

“Even if we don’t win the majority, he’s going to be riding a nice crest of success,” Martinez added. “Coming from a large state like Texas immediately puts you in a different category.”

The National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), which Cornyn chairs, has seen its fundraising jump by 25 percent compared to last cycle.

The committee’s prospects have also improved dramatically under Cornyn’s leadership.

In March of 2009, The Cook Political Report rated only one Democratic Senate seat (Illinois) as a toss-up. It rated five Republican-held seats, in Florida, Kentucky, Missouri, New Hampshire and Ohio, as toss-ups.

Nineteen months later, prognosticators are talking about the possibility of Republicans capturing as many as 10 Democratic seats.

But not all of those GOP candidates were originally supported by Cornyn.

The NRSC and the Tea Party ran head to head in several Republican primaries, and the Tea Party candidates won in most of them.

Cornyn saw his picks lose in Alaska, Colorado, Delaware, Kentucky, Nevada and Utah.

In Florida, Cornyn originally backed Gov. Charlie Crist for the GOP nomination, but when Tea Party favorite Marco Rubio gained momentum, the NRSC switched its allegiance to Rubio.

Cornyn did get his Senate recruits and primary winners in California, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Ohio and Washington state.

Regardless, the sunny prospects for the GOP have put Cornyn’s name in the 2012 mix.

“He’s in the conversation among some of us who talk,” said Martinez. “He’s not an outlier.”

Martinez said he is often asked “who is the person” who will emerge as the likely GOP nominee in 2012.

“They ask that because the usual suspects aren’t that satisfying,” he said. “There’s a yearning for a fresh face, and he will provide that.”

Some Republican strategists agree there is a sense of dissatisfaction with the current crop of Republican hopefuls likely to challenge Obama in two years.

“Cornyn has central-casting presidential charisma,” said Alex Castellanos, who served as senior strategist and media consultant for Mitt Romney’s 2008 presidential campaign. “I think he’s going to be on everyone’s list. The buzz has started around town that he’s someone who could fill the Republican vacuum.”

Castellanos said Texas, the second most populous state in the country, with a concentration of wealthy Republican donors, could provide a powerful base of support.

Some insiders speculate that Cornyn could link up again with Karl Rove, who advised his race for Texas attorney general in 1998.

Cornyn has a proven record of tapping his donor base in Texas to raise millions of dollars in political funds.

His tenure atop the NRSC has enabled him to build a contact list of conservative donors and activists from across the country.

Brian Walsh, Cornyn’s spokesman at the NRSC, downplayed talk of the presidency in 2012.

“His focus is firmly on the next three and a half weeks and the election results on Nov. 2 and his job serving as the senator from Texas,” said Walsh.

A senior Senate Republican aide said he had not heard any talk about Cornyn running for president in 2012. He said Cornyn’s aides have not broached the subject.

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But Cornyn’s supporters in Texas would like to see him run for the White House, and often ask about it.

Rep. Pete Olson (R-Texas), who served as Cornyn’s chief of staff in the Senate from 2003 to 2007, says people in Texas frequently ask him about Cornyn’s ambitions for higher office.

“I’ve heard people back home say they wish he’d run for president, but he’s focused on getting a Republican majority back in the U.S. Senate,” said Olson.

Olson said voters may have some Texas fatigue because the last Republican president, George W. Bush, hailed from the state. But he said he could foresee things falling into place for a White House bid.

“The dice could roll that way,” said Olson. “He is head of the NRSC, he’s getting national exposure, building a national database and getting on a lot of Sunday talk shows.”

Olson said Cornyn is very close to his wife, Sandy, and his two daughters, Danley and Haley, and would carefully weigh the impact on his family’s life.

Cornyn has developed a reputation in the Senate as a hard worker who digs into the details of various issues.

He has worked on restoring fiscal responsibility to the federal government and reforming the nation’s immigration system, putting his focus on fixing the border.

Cornyn represents a state where Hispanics make up nearly a third of the population, and that could serve him well in a national election at a time when Hispanic voters are a growing portion of the electorate.

Martinez noted Cornyn’s work on immigration reform but said he could do more.

“I probably would have pushed him a little harder to do more,” said Martinez.

Sources close to Cornyn say he is interested in chairing the NRSC for another election cycle.

But his calculus could change if Republicans make big gains on Election Day and no candidate emerges as the front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination.

“It’s definitely a weak field,” said Robert Guttman, director of the Center on Politics and Foreign Relations at Johns Hopkins University. “After the election, there are some stars who could emerge as national figures.”


Albert Eisele contributed to this report.

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