Cornyn needs GOP to win Senate majority to secure his promotion

Sen. John Cornyn’s prospects of becoming the second-ranking Senate Republican leader could face a challenge if Republicans fail to win the majority in the chamber, say current and former Senate GOP aides.

Cornyn (Texas) is the only declared candidate for the post of Senate Republican whip, which is being vacated by the retiring Jon Kyl (Ariz.).

Aides say that if Cornyn, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), helps deliver a Senate Republican majority on Election Day, he would have a firm grip on the No. 2 leadership job.

ADVERTISEMENT
But if Republicans fumble what was seen last year as an all but certain takeover of the upper chamber, it could open Cornyn to a challenge from Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Thune (S.D.) or another colleague.

“Any time you make a prediction, if you’re wrong, you get dinged,” said a senior Senate GOP aide.

“It certainly doesn’t help his case, but we’ll see,” said another Senate GOP aide. “Right now everyone is expecting a good cycle. If that doesn’t happen, people tend to re-evaluate.”

A former Senate GOP leadership aide said: “I think that hurts his chances if he’s at the senatorial committee and we don’t take the Senate.”

But current and former Senate GOP aides say whether Republicans win the majority is only one of several factors that will weigh on the whip’s race. 

“I think how well Republicans do on election night in the Senate is a factor, but not the determining factor, in any sort of potential contested whip’s race,” said another former Senate GOP leadership aide. “It’s one element members will evaluate if there is more than one candidate.”

The former aide said senators would also consider their relationships with the candidates, the candidates’ policy positions, their public profiles, past assistance such as campaign contributions and visions for the future. 

Thune has not said whether he will run for whip, but he been careful not to rule it out.

Current and former GOP aides think Thune is less likely to make a bid if Cornyn can claim credit for building a new GOP majority. 

Cornyn and Thune have declined to talk about a potential match-up.   

When Cornyn took over as chairman of the NRSC at the beginning of 2009, Democrats controlled 58 seats — a number that jumped to 60 when Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.) switched parties and now-Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) won a legal battle over his contested election.

 Cornyn predicted last year that Senate Republicans would be back in the majority in 2013. 

“My goal is to get us back in the majority,” Cornyn told The Fiscal Times in July. “I’ll be disappointed [with any other result] — that’s the reason I took the job a second time.”

In August of 2010, when Republicans were on a trajectory to capturing the House, Cornyn predicted his party would win the Senate in the 2012 cycle.

At the time it seemed highly likely, but expectations have shifted over the past 10 months.

“At the beginning of the cycle you had no choice but to look at the raw numbers, and as retirements were announced those numbers for Democrats got worse, not better,” said Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor at The Cook Political Report who specializes in Senate races. “I’d say in January I probably gave Republicans a 65 percent chance of getting the majority.”

Duffy and other political handicappers now say the battle for Senate control is a “jump ball.”

After sparking a backlash from Tea Party conservatives in 2010 for backing more centrist candidates in GOP primaries, Cornyn took a hands-off approach for this year’s contests. 

Whether that strategy helps or hurts the quest to regain the Senate Republican majority remains to be seen. 

If Republicans fail to wrest the Senate from Democrats, Cornyn could have to explain why he did not recruit stronger candidates in Michigan and Pennsylvania, where Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D) and Bob Casey Jr. (D) have easy paths to reelection. 

While it’s debatable whether Cornyn could have recruited stronger challengers in those states, GOP sources say he bears no blame for the biggest blow to their dreams of a Senate majority: the surprise retirement of Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), which has given Democrats a likely pickup.

Republicans might also be hurt by crowded primary fields in Missouri and Florida. But Cornyn can point to clear recruiting successes in Montana, North Dakota and Ohio, where the GOP nominees had clear paths.

Political experts say there are other factors at play over which the NRSC has no control. 

One former leadership aide said the success of Senate candidates rests largely on the performance of Mitt Romney, the presumptive presidential nominee. 

If Romney loses by a substantial margin to Obama, he could be blamed for failing to articulate the party’s message.

Brian Darling, senior fellow for government studies at the Heritage Foundation, said Senate floor tactics also influence the battle for the majority. He said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has done a good job protecting vulnerable Democrats from voting on many controversial amendments. 

“Reid is so controlling of the agenda and not allowing amendments. It’s very hard for the minority party to make a good-faith fight by forcing votes on different issues,” he said.

Duffy, of The Cook Political Report, said the chairmen of Senate campaign committees do not usually get blamed for missing expectations. 

“I’ve never actually seen a committee chairman get thoroughly blamed for a loss,” she said. “I think what you’re going to look at more than anything is effort. Did they do everything they could?”

She said Cornyn has “done the works.”

In the 2008 election cycle, Democrats outraised the NRSC by $70 million. In the 2010 cycle, Cornyn helped cut the Democratic lead to $12.5 million. At the end of 2011, Democrats outraised Republicans by only $2 million. 

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell’s (Ky.) assent was not hampered by Senate Republicans losing four seats when he served as chairman of the NRSC in 2000. 

He was elected whip in 2002. 

But former Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), who helped Republicans capture the majority in 2002, vaulted straight to Senate Republican leader after serving as NRSC chairman.