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The resulting furor was intense. The Noriega campaign began spinning out press releases criticizing Cornyn’s vote. Even his allies turned on him. The Texas Medical Association, which has backed Cornyn in every election, withdrew its endorsement, and its national affiliate group, the American Medical Association, began airing television ads in San Antonio critical of his vote. “That [vote] really surprised a lot of people,” says Coppedge, who wrote Cornyn a strongly worded letter urging him to change his stance. Cornyn promptly flip-flopped on the Medicare bill, voting for it when it came back before the Senate in early July. He even voted to override Bush’s veto. Physicians once again have been some of Cornyn’s most loyal supporters this election cycle; he has received $597,088 from doctors, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Only lawyers and oil and gas producers have given him more. In all, the oil and gas industry has contributed more than $800,000 to Cornyn’s campaign as of March, including $50,500 from ExxonMobil Corp. Cornynalongside many Republican colleagueshas sided with oil companies in the recent debate over high gas prices. He wants Congress to allow offshore drilling and exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Though Cornyn has moderated some of his positions recently, there remains plenty of fodder for Noriega to contend that Cornyn has drifted too far rightward. Even Texas Monthly wondered, in a January story, if the junior senator hadn’t become too conservative for Texas. His record does aid his popularity with one key constituencythe GOP Senate leadership. Leadership positions in Washington are usually awarded to hard-edged ideologues. “He’s seen as one of the rising stars in the Republican party,” Allen says. “The future for him is bright in terms of Republican leadership:’ If Hutchison follows through on her promise to leave the Senate in 2010, Cornyn could soon become Texas’ most powerful voice inside the Beltway. That is, if he wins re-election. Cornyn’s ultraconservative record and ties to an unpopular president aren’t his only problems this election season. He must also contend with a restless public that’s fed up with GOP incumbents in Washington. On top of that, many pundits are expecting a wave of Democratic voters to flood the polls this year because of the excitement surrounding the presidential candidacy of Barack Obama. Some polls by independent firms show the Senate race is close. Internal polling by the campaigns indicates that Noriega is within 8 pointsstriking distanceof Cornyn. The question remains whether Noriega can take advantage. His campaign so far hasn’t inspired much confidence among Democratic insiders. Cornyn has the good fortune of facing a candidate who may be a more wooden campaigner then he is. Though incumbent Cornyn isn’t well known, mentioning the name Rick Noriega will more than likely return you a blank stare. At times, Noriega has seemed intent on introducing himself to one Texan at a time. In early July, he spent an entire campaign day in Loving County in far West Texas, not far from El Paso. Loving is the nation’s least-populated county \(67 traveled hours to give a speech on the courthouse steps. Five people showed up. Most damaging of all, Noriega lacks the money to introduce himself on television. He has $915,000 in his campaign account, according to the latest federal filings. It costs roughly $1 million a week to air television ads in Texas, which boasts two of the nation’s priciest media markets. Cornyn has more than $9 million on hand. The Washington-based Cook Political Report sized up the race in mid-July and deemed it “solidly Republican.” The GOP still has a built-in advantage in Texas that Cornyn would have to squander. He may not be the most exciting candidate, but he’s also known as a disciplined campaigner who rarely makes mistakes. The Cornyn campaign even believes the senator’s relative anonymity could actually benefit him. It hopes a disgruntled electorate that’s unfamiliar with Cornyn may not blame him for his party’s failings. Moreover, Cornyn, in his blandness and adherence to conservative orthodoxy, hasn’t alienated any large segments of the party. As one GOP insider pointed out in private, Hutchison, Gov. Rick Perry, and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst all have entrenched factions of critics within the party. Not so Cornyn. It may be a down year for Republicans, but the ones who do come out to vote will stick with the senator. Cornyn is vulnerable. 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