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Cornyn Tries to Make His Own Political Luck

The state's senior U.S. senator is up for re-election and drawing criticism from the Republican Party's right wing — but John Cornyn might get out of 2014 without serious opposition.

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John Cornyn seems like the luckiest fretful incumbent in politics right now. But it’s not all luck.

Cornyn, the senior U.S. senator from Texas, is not troubled by scandal or anything like that. His problem is that some of his fellow Republicans consider him — the No. 2 Republican in the Senate and a popular candidate in past elections — insufficiently conservative. His secret weapons, if you want to call them that, are a fat bank account, helpful allies and an electoral hourglass that is running out of sand.

His is the latest chapter in the Republican Party of Texas’ evolution. The party that dominates state politics has become internally competitive, with once sleepy March primaries turning into battlegrounds between establishment conservatives like Cornyn and populists who are unhappy with the status quo.

The outward signs aren’t all working. A strategic endorsement from, say, Ted Cruz, would let the populists know that Cornyn was a friendly candidate. But Cruz, without saying anything snarky about the senior senator, has declined numerous opportunities to endorse him. Tea Party folks are trying to recruit someone to run against him in next year’s primary, a somewhat noisy effort that has so far failed to produce any real electoral threat.

Time is on Cornyn’s side. Opponents have until Dec. 9 to file against him. Money and its uses are another matter. Federal races have campaign contribution limits, and primary voting starts on Feb. 18 — just a little more than four months from now.

In his most recent campaign finance reports, Cornyn reported raising $1.8 million and ending the Sept. 30 quarter with $6.9 million in the bank. He just started running commercials trying to position himself as the stopper for Democratic efforts to gain ground in Texas. (You will see a lot of that in this year’s Republican primaries, as other statewide candidates are playing with similar themes.) He has also been on the statewide ballot for years — as a Texas Supreme Court justice, attorney general and U.S. senator. Voters know his name and keep putting him back in office.

That’s a good head start, and with only 120 days or so remaining before the election — minus a couple of holiday breaks — catching up with him would require great expense, masterly political craft, terrific luck or some combination of the three.

The downside for Cornyn? A challenger from the right would have something to talk about. There is that Cruz endorsement. Republicans who took the hard line on the government shutdown were unhappy with Cornyn’s less than 100 percent support. Cruz went one way on a vote leading to the shutdown and Cornyn went the other, and that break has some conservatives calling for the senior senator’s scalp.

That is a conversation piece in conservative circles but may not matter to voters. Cornyn’s campaign emphasizes his conservative bona fides — and is running those commercials to shore up the argument before anyone formidable jumps into the race.

While Cornyn’s detractors plot away, some of his supporters have accumulated $2.25 million in the relatively new Texans for a Conservative Majority PAC, most of it from a $2 million contribution made by Houston homebuilder Bob Perry the month before he died last spring.

That PAC will support other Republicans if Cornyn isn’t in trouble, said Randy Cubriel, an Austin lawyer who set up the committee, but protecting Cornyn is the PAC’s top priority right now. He is watching that December deadline. “It just depends on how things shake out,” Cubriel said.

Cornyn has been shoring up his right flank for months, notably hiring Brendan Steinhauser from FreedomWorks, who helped Cruz get elected in 2012, to manage his campaign.

Texas Republicans are preoccupied with other races, like the impending contest for governor and contested races for nearly every other office on the statewide ballot. The Democrats are stirring, too, prompting Republicans to give some thought to November elections they have safely discounted for years.

It could all pay off. Cornyn could coast through his primary and the general election next year.

Call it luck, if you want to.

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