HOUSTON—A pattern was beginning to emerge: Sen. John Cornyn entering a room and discovering people who sound much more conservative than he sounds. On Tuesday morning, shortly after early voting began in his primary, the senior senator from Texas rolled into the offices of a local courier service to accept an endorsement from the National Federation of Independent Businesses. He shook hands and took his place at a table of job creators, asking them for ideas to bring back to Washington, apologizing for what the city had wrought.
“What I regret is that the federal government, instead of facilitating what you do—encouraging it, incentivizing it—is doing the opposite,” said Cornyn. “[Former Sen.] Phil Gramm used to talk about doing the Lord’s work in the devil’s city. Sometimes I think it’s like a forward operating base in hostile territory.”
Will Newton, the well-attired executive director of the NFIB in Texas, went with it. “One of the old leaders of the NFIB in Washington is famous for saying that he considered Washington, D.C., a ‘work-free drug zone,’ ” he said.
Everyone broke out laughing. So did Cornyn. A little while later, a trucking company owner named Darrin Forse went on a tear.
“You get people to come in and apply for jobs,” said Forse. “First thing they ask is, ‘What’s it gonna pay?’ The government’s giving them whatever they want anyway. A lot of them come up and sign a card and say, ‘OK, I can get another free check and whatever else.’ That’s what’s happened. They’re getting their insurance for nothing, and here we are, the working people.”
Cornyn’s eyes darted around the table, seeking someone else to talk to, finding him in another businessman who’d talk more generally about Obamacare. The roundtable only lasted 30 minutes, and the crowd wasn’t hostile. It just wasn’t satisfied as the senator explained that the GOP could finally deliver for them if it won six more Senate seats. It wasn’t quite satisfied with Cornyn. Still, Cornyn isn’t losing.
Observers outside Texas have not convinced themselves of this fact. Last week Cornyn joined GOP Senate leader Mitch McConnell and cast a vote for a one-year delay in the debt limit, punting the issue past the 2014 elections. In Washington this was portrayed as Frodo and Sam locking arms and walking to the mouth of Mount Doom.
“[Sen. Ted Cruz] had forced McConnell, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas and other Republicans to cast votes that could cause them to lose primaries to weaker general-election candidates,” wrote Dana Milbank.
“Mr. McConnell and Mr. Cornyn chose to expose themselves to primary attacks,” wrote two of the New York Times’ lead political writers.
The open secret is that Cornyn isn’t facing a typical primary challenge. He’s facing the sort of “threat” that used to meet incumbents in the Bush years, before the Tea Party, when a few candidates would put their name on the ballots, spend a few thousand dollars, and lose. McConnell’s consistently ahead of his primary opponent, but Cornyn is seen to be so far ahead of his field that the usual Texas pollsters haven’t even bothered checking. The void has been filled by polls paid for by conservative media. The latest poll, which suggested that Cornyn could win less than 50 percent of the vote in the primary and be forced into the runoff, ricocheted around a movement/Twittersphere/blogosphere that badly wants a race.
Cornyn’s opponents want a race, too, though it can be hard to tell. Hours before the filing deadline, four months before the vote itself, East Texas Rep. Steve Stockman entered the race. Few Texans have seen him since then. Stockman had won in the 1994 GOP wave, lost in 1996, spent nearly a decade caring for a father with Alzheimer’s, and returned in one of the new seats created by redistricting. He legislated by tweet and by press release, all crafted with care to get “likes” on the right and outraged reactions on the left.
That’s exactly how he’s run for Senate, a race he started nearly $100,000 in the hole. One campaign office was condemned. After he tweeted, “If babies had guns, they wouldn’t be aborted,” and it caught on, he started selling the recycled quip as a bumper sticker. Reporters don’t know where he’s campaigning, or whether he’s campaigning at all—when I asked a spokesman, he said, “We’re not interested.” On Tuesday, as Cornyn campaigned in Houston, Stockman’s campaign Twitter account claimed—five times—that Cornyn had declared Ted Cruz a “threat” to the nation.
Cornyn hadn’t even said that. It didn’t matter. The point was that he wasn’t Ted Cruz, that Cruz had managed to win a primary in 2012 by making it into a runoff, and that conservatives could force Cornyn into a runoff if they believed hard enough. The point is that every conservative knows at least a few people who want to protest Cornyn. Some of them even show up to his rallies.
“I can’t say I’m against the senator,” said Bud Johnson, a businessman who showed up at the NFIB roundtable. “I’ve just got a real problem with the growth of Washington. When I was in graduate school, I used to get the federal register delivered to my house. It was a few pages. I think it was 75,000 pages last year. When we start controlling the light bulbs in people’s homes, we’ve gone awry.”