At last weekend's Texas Tribune Festival, the Tea Party lobbed a couple of cannonballs across Sen. John Cornyn’s bow. When asked if Texas’ senior senator should be challenged in the 2014 GOP primary, all six members of a lively Tea Party panel unequivocally answered yes. Earlier, Cornyn’s junior colleague, Tea Party hero Ted Cruz, offered a polite but definite demurral when offered a chance to endorse Cornyn in that primary.
The willingness of Cruz and his Texas Tea Party admirers to tread on Cornyn raises a question that has been bouncing around Texas politics for several months now: Is Cornyn vulnerable in next year’s primary?
The Tea Party’s lack of enthusiasm for the state’s senior senator was readily apparent in University of Texas/Texas Tribune polling in June. Certainly, his differences with Cruz on the recent effort to defund Obamacare haven't helped, as the events of TribuneFest illustrate.
To the extent that Cornyn has developed a Tea Party problem, its symptoms are tepid support rather than outright rejection. According to that June 2013 UT/TT Poll, 56 percent of Tea Party Republicans viewed Cornyn favorably. But among this majority of supporters, only about a third viewed him "very favorably"; the remaining two-thirds viewed him only "somewhat favorably."
Compared with other Texas GOP and Tea Party standard bearers, Cornyn’s numbers among this key primary constituency are decidedly cool. In the same poll, Cruz was viewed favorably by 88 percent of Tea Party identifiers — 32 points higher than Cornyn — and "very favorably" by most of them (80 percent). Rick Perry, while riding into the sunset of state politics, was viewed favorably by 73 percent of Tea Party Republicans, 42 percent of those "very favorably."
Cornyn, as an incumbent, isn’t in any immediate danger, especially because no serious alternative candidate has been offered. In the meantime, Cornyn seems focused on campaigning against the twin specters of President Obama and Battleground Texas.
But one assumes that Cornyn is also mindful of the saga of David Dewhurst’s star-crossed run for the U.S. Senate in 2012, against none other than Cruz — the case that currently casts the largest shadow over Texas GOP politics. In the May 2012 UT/TT Poll, Dewhurst was viewed favorably by 55 percent of Tea Party Republicans — in public opinion terms, about the same position Cornyn currently occupies. A year earlier, in May 2011, Dewhurst led Cruz 50 percent to 4 percent (that is not a typo) among the GOP primary voters who had an opinion at that stage of the campaign. The rest of the Dewhurst 2012 campaign story is either a cautionary tale or a game plan, depending on where one stands.
In the aftermath of Dewhurst’s defeat, the June 2013 UT/TT Poll found that only 31 percent of Tea Party Republicans viewed Dewhurst favorably — a 24-point drop that now leaves him on the brink of a competitive election for his 2014 re-election as lieutenant governor.
At this point, his numbers among the Tea Party GOP don’t mark a serious threat to Cornyn, a powerful incumbent who remains a strong favorite to retain his seat. The numbers do suggest, however, that there is a well spring of Tea Party support waiting should a legitimate challenger emerge.
These Tea Party supporters may not be influential or numerous enough to fuel a successful challenge to Cornyn — and they are certainly not going to abandon him for a Democrat in the general election. But as primary season gets to a rolling start, some quarters of the Tea Party seem willing to continue to take shots at the senator, without any apparent disapproval from Cruz, in the hope of finding someone to lead a charge in their name.
Long as the odds are against such a champion emerging to best Cornyn, recent events have shown that conditions on the ground can change the odds, with strange and unexpected consequences.