John Cornyn eyes second term in Senate

September 21, 2008 7:16:05 AM PDT
George W. Bush's sagging popularity has prompted many Republicans up for election this year to run away from the lame-duck president. That's not an option, or an inclination, for Texas Sen. John Cornyn. Perhaps more than any member of Congress, the former state Supreme Court justice and attorney general has tied his political fortunes to his fellow Texan at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. Last year, he voted with Bush 90.5 percent of the time, more than any other U.S. senator, according to Congressional Quarterly. And their personal ties stretch back to Texas, to a shared culture and history, long before Bush set his eyes upon the White House.

Not surprisingly, allies of Cornyn's Democratic opponent, a state legislator who fought in Afghanistan, have portrayed Cornyn as an administration lapdog who takes orders from controversial Bush strategist Karl Rove.

If those attacks worry Cornyn, 56, it doesn't show: The man that Bush calls "Corndog" gave an interview to The Associated Press in Rove's old Austin office, where he spoke warmly of his ties and friendship with both the president and his oft-maligned strategist.

"The Democrats want to win this time and they have just been relentless in attacking (Bush)," Cornyn said. "Karl has certainly been willing to be the lightening rod . . . I think he's got a magnificent political mind. And he's a good friend."

While closeness to Bush may not hurt Cornyn in conservative Texas, it's clear the president won't be able to offer the kind of help he did in 2002, when Cornyn won the first time. Back then, Bush was riding so high that even the Democrat in the race -- former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk -- said he might vote for him in the 2004 elections.

"It's a good reminder that popularity is a fleeting commodity," Cornyn said.

Cornyn easily defeated Kirk even though the Democrats stayed competitive in the money race. This year, Cornyn is crushing state Rep. Rick Noriega in dollars -- pulling in $16.4 million compared to $2.4 million so far, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which base their figures on federal campaign finance reports.

But polls show Noriega, a lieutenant colonel in the Texas Army National Guard, giving Cornyn more of a race than the raw financial figures would suggest. A Rasmussen poll published in August showed Cornyn leading his Democratic opponent 47 percent to 37 percent. Analysts generally say anything under 50 percent for an incumbent represents political danger.

Cal Jillson, political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, attributes Cornyn's less-than-stellar re-elect numbers to his low profile and visibility. He's not near as well-known -- or as popular -- as the state's senior senator, Kay Bailey Hutchison, for example.

Jillson also spoke of the "downward pressures" on Republicans nationwide this election year. Still, he predicted that those factors will merely narrow Cornyn's margin of victory, not defeat him.

"I would be absolutely shocked if he did not win re-election," said Jillson, noting the lack of national Democratic money flowing to Noriega's campaign. "The Democrats in Texas are still not ready for prime time."

Cornyn, son of a career Air Force officer who flew B-17s in World War II, grew up like most military brats: he moved around a lot. Born in Houston in 1952, Cornyn graduated from high school in Japan before settling down in San Antonio, where his dad was stationed at Lackland Air Force Base.

He got his start in politics at the Bexar County Courthouse, serving six years as a state district judge before getting elected to the Texas Supreme Court in 1990. Cornyn scored a major upset in the 1998 attorney general's race, beating better known candidates in both the primary and general elections and becoming the first Republican in the job since the Civil War era.

He had planned to run for re-election in 2002, but when U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm announced in late 2001 that he would retire after nearly two decades in office, Cornyn jumped in and became the instant favorite.

The phrase "central casting" often accompanies descriptions of Cornyn, a white-haired lawyer who stands at 6-foot-4 and exudes comfort in the stuffy confines of Washington committee hearings and esoteric floor debates.

But Cornyn defies simplistic characterizations. He's the fourth most conservative member of the Senate, according to the National Journal, which uses a rating system based on key Senate votes on economic, social and foreign policy issues. Yet his sunny demeanor and gift for oratory have earned him the title -- as the left-of-center New Republic put in 2004 -- "the hard right's soft new face." He was also recently named by Washingtonian magazine as the "most eloquent" Republican senator, coming in fourth overall behind Democratic Sens. Barack Obama, Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd.

Cornyn, who co-sponsored constitutional bans on flag burning and gay marriage, has sometimes bucked the White House, too, despite his deep ties to Bush. He championed government transparency over objections from an administration that has often prized secrecy. He also sided with Kennedy in an effort to give the Food and Drug Administration the power to regulate tobacco products, and he opposed the president's comprehensive immigration reforms, becoming the lead proponent of a more conservative alternative.

Cornyn said optimism is his secret weapon.

"When people see just anger and sort of negative attacks, it turns them off," Cornyn said. "If you're . . . down the middle in Texas you're pretty much treated as an arch-conservative in Washington, D.C. But it just shows me how out of touch Washington, D.C. is with the rest of the country."

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