AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — One national conservative group produced an online video calling Texas Republican U.S. Sen. John Cornyn a chicken. Another held a “town hall” inside a Dallas hotel ballroom with a cardboard cutout of him, claiming he refused to show up in person.
Tea party and other grassroots activists are attacking the Senate minority whip as too moderate despite what most observers say are strong conservative credentials. But, so far, the groups that last year helped unleash firebrand Ted Cruz on the Senate can’t seem to manage a second act to challenge Cornyn in the state’s Republican primary set for March.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Cornyn said he’s prepared all the same to fight off any threat from the right. The two-term incumbent raised $4-plus million during the first half of the year — more than any other GOP senator up for re-election — and appears poised to coast to another term unless a legitimate contender emerges soon.
There may still be time, but the Dec. 9 candidate filing deadline is now barely three months off.
“Texas is always on our radar,” said Whitney Neal of FreedomWorks, the Washington-based political action committee that has spent millions of dollars promoting tea party candidates and helped propel Cruz to victory in 2012.
Neal said FreedomWorks hasn’t interviewed any challengers for Cornyn. The only conservative candidate to file against him is Iraq war veteran Erick Wyatt, who misspelled Republican on his election form and reported raising $25 as of April. In 2008, Cornyn’s primary opponent was Larry SECEDE Kilgore — who has since changed his middle name from Scott and made it all capital letters to emphasize his support for Texas breaking away from America.
Cornyn said the lack of challengers is a testament to his staunch conservatism since arriving in the Senate in 2002.
“I don’t know what else I can do to convince people that I’m a true conservative,” he said during a recent visit to Austin. “My record is about as solid as it gets.”
A former Texas attorney general and state Supreme Court justice, Cornyn was named by National Journal the 2nd Most Conservative Senator in 2012, and he has an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association and 100 percent scores from the National Right To Life Committee and Americans for Tax Reform.
Even FreedomWorks gave him a 92 percent rating for the 2013 congressional session, though Neal noted that Cornyn only has a lifetime rating of 81.
Cornyn has been targeted by some conservatives for opposing a Cruz-backed plan that would seek a partial shutdown of the federal government in an attempt to stop funding the White House’s signature health care law. The grassroots group ForAmerica posted an online video likening Cornyn — and others in the Republican senatorial leadership — to chickens. Freedomworks organized the Cornyn cardboard-cutout event in Dallas, which drew an overflow crowd of more than 600 last month.
Cornyn calls the health care law a “monstrosity” but also notes that shutting down the government won’t sever all funding to it. He instead favors derailing the overhaul by recapturing a Republican majority in the Senate next year.
“I’m taking the view that what we ought to do is try to set our sights on goals that can actually be achieved,” Cornyn said.
Katrina Pierson, a Texas grassroots activist, said Cornyn also angered some conservatives by voting to allow sweeping federal immigration reform to move forward in the Senate, where it eventually passed.
“The political paradigm is shifting; it just is,” Pierson said. “The old-timers who have a death grip on power are starting to see that grip slip, starting to realize that they can’t keep holding back young GOPers who aren’t afraid to buck the current.”
Cornyn’s office responded that while the senator voted to proceed with debate on the immigration bill, he ultimately opposed it and voted against it.
Still, Pierson said grassroots groups in Texas are excited about already elected conservative Republicans who may one day seeking higher offices, including Texas Supreme Court Justice and frequent tweeter Don Willett, as well as U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert, an East Texas tea party darling and gun rights advocate.
Neither has expressed interest in running for Senate this cycle, however. That’s especially surprising given that Cruz — a little-known former state solicitor general — used tea party support last year to upset mainstream Texas Republican favorite and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in the GOP primary to succeed retiring U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.
Cornyn said Cruz’s campaign taught him the importance of traveling the state to appeal directly to the grassroots. He also tapped a former FreedomWorks campaigns director as his campaign manager and had $6 million in campaign cash on-hand as of June 30.
Some of Cornyn’s GOP colleagues are in a much different situation, with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee all likely facing potential threats from the far right in the primary.
“I think people are so mad and upset with Washington that they’re not happy with anybody or anything and so they’re looking for fighters, and I’m all for that,” Cornyn said. “I’m also interested in being effective and actually getting things done. It’s one thing to give a speech, but it’s another thing to actually pass legislation or to block bad legislation.”
Since arriving in Washington in January, Cruz’s brash style has sent shockwaves through the Senate — so much so that he’s being mentioned as a possible presidential contender in 2016.
Asked about Cruz garnering so much attention after so little time in the Senate, Cornyn said, “I guess I view my role as a little different.”
“I’m now the No. 2 Republican in the Senate,” he said. “The last time Texans had somebody in that level of leadership was Lyndon Johnson.”
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