John Cornyn and the Tiny Elephant in the Room

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Feb. 17 2014 1:35 PM

John Cornyn and the Tiny Elephant in the Room

LONGVIEW, TX -- "JOHN CORNYN RALLY," read the LED billboard outside the Maude Cobb convention center. "NEAL MCCOY CONCERT." After 3 p.m., around a thousand local Republican activists started lining up for all of it. For $25, they could watch a local hero country singer perform a full show, collect all the GOP swag they wanted (in Cornyn tote bags), crack open free peanuts and sodas -- oh, yes, and to meet Texas's senior senator. If they parted with four figures, they could talk to Cornyn and Karl Rove at a private reception before the show.

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The face time could come in handy. Cornyn is universally expected to win a primary that hasn't attracted much interest from pollsters. He was campaigning; Rep. Steve Stockman, who filed to run at the last minute, was not visible at all, in person or on the air. Six other conservative challengers had been even less visible, though a candidate named Dwayne Stovall had done enough legwork to win a local Tea Party group's endorsement. Early voting would start in two days, and the national media was already eyeing Texas to see how restive the GOP base had become.

The base had showed up in Longview. Cornyn's cloture vote last week, which cleared the way for a no-frills increase in the debt limit, was a disappointment that they could only rationalize.

"I'm sick of the whole mess of them," said Louise Daniel, an 86-year old retiree from Liberty City whose son was a Tea Party activist. "I'm ready to throw everyone out, everyone that's in office -- start over again. I'd put a bunch of housewives in there, because we know a budget."

But, upon reflection, she was fine with Cornyn. "He's voted more or less the right way on the things I believe in," said Daniel, citing her senator's opposition to a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. "We used to have a quota, how many from each country could come in. And I don't think they should be able to vote illegally."

James Johnson, another octogenarian who'd been "a lifelong Republican," gave Cornyn a pass on his recent heresy. "I wasn't too happy with the debt vote, but it's a political deal," he said. "It's a situation where the Republican Party has to do what they have to do to make people confident that they don't want to close up the government again."

What else could they say? Who'd show up at a Cornyn rally on a Sunday without at least some desire to vote for the guy? I was just surprised that none of these loyalists would actively defend Cornyn's vote. Upon his return to Texas, the senator had been explaining his debt limit vote as a no-brainer, convincing none of the doubters. "I think it would have been bad for the economy, bad for the American people, and I don’t think it would have been good politics either," he told the Austin American-Statesman. The paper framed it a Cornyn smackdown of Ted Cruz, who'd voted the other way then materialized on talk radio to deride the wobbliness of his colleagues.

At the Longview rally, Karl Rove took it upon himself to defend Cornyn. "Don't let anything keep you from voting for this man," he told the crowd. "I know what his colleagues think of him. They know him as a strong conservative. There's this group called National Journal magazine, which looks at every single member of Congress and how they vote. Two years ago, John Cornyn was ranked the most conservative member of the United States Senate. This year, he's fallen all the way to number two."

Rove waited for the laughs and returned to his point -- people he talks to "regularly" in Washington want Cornyn in the Senate. "They respect him enormously. They know he's an incredibly thoughtful guy." He didn't need to mention any of Cornyn's opponents. The adjectives for them were strongly implied.

Cornyn, clad in white khakis and a blue checked shirt, took the mic from Rove and delivered his own easily decoded analysis of his primary opponents. "The sense that most people have, probably most people in this room, is that this country's gotten terribly off track," he said. The choice we have is to be a spectator -- and self-government isn't a spectator sport -- or we can be in the fight. I'll tell you, there's nothing I want more than to be in the fight, trying to save this great country of ours."

(Picture by me, pixelation courtesy of iPhone 4.)

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.