Our state’s senior senator continues to hitch himself to Trump’s wagon, even as things get rocky.
John Cornyn might as well fire his entourage of political consultants, advisors, and pollsters. President Donald Trump—the pollster of the people, the one who triumphed in the only poll that matters, Election Day—is confident the Texas senior senator’s political future is secure.
“I looked at your polls. Nobody’s beating you, John. Nobody,” Trump assured Cornyn on Wednesday at a White House event celebrating his administration’s numerous federal judicial appointments. “And you don’t have to worry about Beto anymore, that’s for sure.”
Beto O’Rourke ended his presidential campaign last week and has sworn that he will not enter the Democratic primary race to face Cornyn. That field is already crowded with contenders, though there is no clear frontrunner.
Trump is similarly confident in his own electoral strength in Texas. At a Dallas campaign rally in October, he declared that “Texas is not in play … Donald Trump is not going to lose Texas; I can tell you that.”
Trump has certainly had no trouble raising money in the state. During his swing through North Texas last month, he managed to vacuum up $5.5 million from uber-rich donors. And despite early polling showing that his Texas approval rating was underwater, his numbers have improved, at least according to the latest University of Texas-Texas Tribune poll. Trump led every potential Democratic challenger by at least five points, the poll showed. An earlier poll by UT-Tyler showed him trailing Joe Biden and Beto O’Rourke in a hypothetical matchup, with Bernie Sanders within the margin of error.
Meanwhile, the latest UT-Texas Tribune poll also showed that just 35 percent of Texans approved of Cornyn and 34 percent disapproved. More than 30 percent said they have a neutral opinion or none at all of their senior senator, which doesn’t bode well for someone who has served in Washington since 2003.
Indeed, Cornyn knows that he has nowhere near as powerful of a political brand as Trump—even in his home state. As he’s gearing up for reelection, he’s aligned himself as closely as possible with the president. His allegiance to Trump has only hardened as the president has become mired in the impeachment inquiry.
As the Dallas Morning News reported last month, Cornyn tweeted or retweeted criticism of the House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry more than 50 times in the course of a single week. He invoked Trump’s “fake news” accusations and said the press was “disinterested in gathering the facts.” The former state Supreme Court justice and Texas attorney general was “skeptical of anonymous allegations” from the White House whistleblower, whom he accused of harboring an “arguable political bias.”
Unlike many of his fellow Republicans, including fellow Texas Senator Ted Cruz and the House GOP leadership, Cornyn declined to distance himself from Trump’s withdrawal of troops from Syria that left the Kurds unguarded from advancing Turkish troops. “If Turkey was planning on coming into northern Syria and trying to ethnically cleanse the Kurds, and U.S. troops were caught in the middle, I am not completely convinced that it was a bad idea to get them out of harm’s way,” Cornyn said.
As I outlined in my recent profile on Cornyn, he and the rest of the GOP establishment have willingly jumped into the ring of Trump’s political circus. “I’m reminded that politics is the combination of show business and policymaking,” Cornyn told reporters ahead of Trump’s Dallas rally, “and the president revels in this sort of entertainment aspect of politics.”
This embrace is clearly a strategic reelection ploy for Cornyn. But it’s also a means to an end for the Republican Party that he’s loyally served for so long. GOP leaders have recognized that Trump summons and commands a politically powerful movement that is independent of the party apparatus, and they’ve worked to co-opt that energy to advance their agenda.
One of the biggest end goals is to secure as many federal judge appointments as possible. After stymying President Barack Obama’s attempts to fill judgeships for two terms, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Cornyn, his top lieutenant, have succeeded in jamming through a historic number of new judges across the United States. Just two years ago, there were more than 13 open judgeships in Texas. Now, as the Houston Chronicle points out, there are fewer vacancies on the Texas bench than since at least 2003.
While Cornyn may like to think that he is still in control of his own political agency, he has long been a servant to the party’s prevailing winds. When I was reporting my profile on Cornyn, a longtime Texas political reporter gave me his apt take on the senior senator’s career in politics. He compared Cornyn to Captain Willard, the passive character sent to kill Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now! In the famous scene, Kurtz asks Willard, “Are you an assassin?” “I’m a soldier,” Willard replies. He’s immediately cut down. “You’re neither,” Kurtz said. “You’re an errand boy sent by grocery clerks to collect a bill.” That about sums it up.
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