As the 2010 campaign began to unfold, Sen. John Cornyn explained why he was wooing some moderates in his role as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
“We have to find those candidates who fit their states who can win as Republicans there,” he said in May 2009. “I need to constantly remind some of my very conservative friends who want to sort of purify the party and, in so doing, cast us in a permanent minority status that Ronald Reagan said the person who votes with me 80 percent of the time is my friend and ally, not a 20 percent traitor.” That philosophy has gotten the Texas senator into trouble with some GOP conservatives. Seven candidates openly backed, helped or otherwise favored by his panel have lost nominations to insurgents backed by tea party activists.
But as a campaign strategist charged with electing as many Republicans as possible, Cornyn was essentially correct. And he’s not backing down, despite criticism in Washington and in Texas, where some tea party groups have picketed him despite his solidly conservative voting record.
“My job boils down to basic arithmetic,” he said in an interview. “My goal is to add as many Republicans as possible. I looked for the most conservative candidate who can win in a state.”
A number of insurgents probably will win in November, because their states are solidly Republican or because a GOP “wave” may help most party candidates. But the election also is likely to validate Cornyn’s efforts. Indeed, had all NRSC-backed candidates won GOP nominations, the party would have stood a better chance at a Senate majority, a result Cornyn now says is possible but unlikely.
In Nevada, Sharron Angle’s upset victory over Sue Lowden turned the race against Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid from a likely GOP win to a toss-up. In Delaware, party-supported Rep. Michael Castle rated as an almost-certain winner. But though Cornyn called it “entirely possible” that Christine O’Donnell, who beat Castle, could win, he conceded “what happened in Delaware makes it harder” for the GOP.
Cornyn also drew conservative heat for backing moderate Rep. Mark Kirk for President Barack Obama’s former Senate seat in Illinois. But Kirk, in a close race with Democrat Alexi Giannoulias, was probably the only Republican who could win there.
Elsewhere, the situation looks relatively uncomplicated.
In Missouri and Ohio, where Republicans are retiring, NRSC-endorsed Rep. Roy Blunt and former Rep. Rob Portman are ahead. In Colorado and Kentucky, insurgents Ken Buck and Rand Paul lead, though more narrowly, after beating establishment candidates.
And in Republican Utah, one of two states where NRSC-backed incumbents lost nominations, Mike Lee is far ahead after unseating Sen. Bob Bennett.
In Alaska, GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski would have been a general election slam dunk, and tea party-backed Joe Miller became a strong favorite after beating her. But Cornyn conceded Murkowski’s decision to run as a write-in candidate “only helps to divide the Republican vote.” That could give Democrat Scott McAdams a chance.
Finally, there is Florida, where the NRSC goofed in prematurely endorsing moderate Gov. Charlie Crist. Conservative challenger Marco Rubio gained such strength that the panel backed away from Crist. When he decided to run as an independent, it endorsed Rubio.
Rubio now seems likely to win, but Crist probably would have won a two-candidate race against Democratic Rep. Kendrick Meek.
In the end, the 2010 election almost certainly will be a success for Cornyn, with GOP gains far beyond what looked likely when he took over. If he’d had his way, Republicans might have done even better.
— Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. firstname.lastname@example.org