Cornyn downplays latest split with Cruz as primary approaches


by MARK WIGGINS / KVUE News and photojournalist J.P. HARRINGTON

Bio | Email | Follow: @MarkW_KVUE

Posted on February 21, 2014 at 7:23 PM

AUSTIN -- United States Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) enters the final weeks of his reelection campaign with the backing of one of the nation's largest business lobbies. The senior senator from Texas received the endorsement of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Friday morning.

"There's so much uncertainty about the policies emanating from Washington, D.C., whether it has to do with regulations or whether it has to do with taxes or whether it's new burdens that are placed on employers like Obamacare," Cornyn told media and supporters at the Austin headquarters of the Texas Association of Business.

Cornyn faces renewed criticism by some in the tea party after voting to block Senate colleague Ted Cruz from filibustering a vote on the debt ceiling earlier this month. Outnumbered by the Senate's Democratic majority, Republican leadership had hoped to register their opposition by voting against an increase which would nonetheless pass along party lines.

When Cruz threatened a filibuster requiring 60 votes to break, Cornyn and a handful of Republican leaders found themselves in the position of having to cast an unpopular cloture vote before the debt ceiling measure could be taken up. Although all Senate Republicans voted against raising the debt ceiling after ending the filibuster threat, Cruz called the result a "show vote."

"That sort of trickery to the constituents is why congress has a 13 percent approval rating," Cruz said in an interview with CNN Thursday. Asked whether he was accusing Cornyn of tricking constituents, Cruz replied, "I like John Cornyn. He's a friend of mine. He and I have agreed on the vast majority of issues. I disagreed with him on this."

"I thought it was a vote against another government shutdown, which I thought would have been destructive of our only chance to really rein in the Obama administration and reckless spending," Cornyn said Friday. "And that is a Republican majority in the United States Senate in November 2014. Again, not a disagreement over the policy."

Like his opposition to the strategy championed by Cruz that led to a government shutdown last fall, Cornyn maintains the latest disagreement was only tactical. The two are both opposed to the Affordable Care Act and highly critical of the Obama administration, but Cornyn suggests Republicans will be unable to affect significant policy changes without a majority in the upper chamber. Asked whether he felt Cruz had deliberately placed Republican leadership in the position of having to take a politically damaging vote, Cornyn demurred.

"I don't really believe that," Cornyn said. "I think we're all on the same team. What we need to do is realize that the goal is in November to maximize our numbers, because I've found in life and in politics one irrefutable rule, and that is the people who have the most votes win."

Cornyn faces a roster of primary challengers including firebrand congressman Steve Stockman, who despite earning news coverage for comments critical of Cornyn and Obama has remained largely unseen since declaring his candidacy. Another challenger, Dwayne Stovall, received brief exposure after a campaign video comparing Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to a turtle went viral.

Backed by the lion's share of business interests as well as many tea party groups, Cornyn's reelection campaign has served in part to illustrate the divide between fervent grassroots anti-incumbent sentiment and the state's business-minded, fiscally conservative party establishment.

"We're not interested in purity or ideological purity or partisanship," said Rob Engstrom, senior vice president and national political director for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "It's who are the Democrats and Republicans that can be conservative, if that's the state that they're from, and can help lead us on the issues. But the issue for us is do you support Obamacare or do you oppose it? Do you support American energy exploration or do you oppose that? Do you think that the private sector is the right way to lead the American recovery or do you think that more government solutions are the answer?"

While most GOP insiders don't consider the threats serious, Republican political consultant Matt Mackowiak says the incumbent is taking no chances.

"He's done everything he needed to do to take seriously a primary that's been run unseriously by congressman Stockman," said Mackowiak.

Yet even with a well-funded and well-organized campaign, anything can happen until the final ballots are cast. Cornyn will need to earn more than 50 percent of the vote in the March 4 primary to avoid a runoff.

"I think it's a little bit uncertain, because you just don't know what the primary turnout's going to be," said Mackowiak. "What's interesting is his challengers apart from congressman Stockman have really gotten virtually no attention and have virtually done no voter contact. And so all those other candidates are going to be in the 1, 2 [or] 3 percent range. What's really the question mark is what does Stockman get?"

The question will be answered in less than two weeks.