WASHINGTON — One is a steady 16-year veteran of the U.S. Senate, a well-connected elder in the Grand Old Party. The other is an energetic bomb thrower who in four short years has positioned himself as the only thing standing between the Republican presidential nomination and Donald Trump.
Together, John Cornyn and Ted Cruz represent Texas in the U.S. Senate. That means regularly working together in the best interests of their state.
Yet the widely held perception in Washington is that the pair are the two same-state senators who least like each other.
For years, their detached relationship has been little more than the subject of Capitol Hill gossip. Yet now, with their party at a crossroads and the presidential nomination at stake, Cornyn's and Cruz's fates may be unexpectedly intertwined.
In claiming victory last week in Wisconsin, Cruz touted how his campaign is unifying the Republican Party behind his bid for the presidency in an effort to topple Trump.
“We’ve got the full spectrum of the Republican Party coming together and uniting behind this campaign,” he said, name checking former rivals like former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
But not everyone in the party is behind him. Most noticeably, Cornyn and the vast majority of the U.S. Senate remain unwilling to publicly back Cruz.
In any other circumstance, it would be curious that a viable presidential candidate did not have the support of his fellow state Republican. But each man in this case represents the visceral divide raging in the party: Cornyn is the consummate establishment team player, while Cruz is the Tea Party insurgent.
To get this far, Cruz did not need Cornyn or much support from the Senate at all. But the junior senator from Texas is entering a new phase of the presidential campaign. After losing nearly two dozen states and many of their delegates to Trump, his base won’t be enough to secure the nomination. At some point, he could need the support of establishment Republicans to defeat Trump and any other potential contenders in a convention-floor fight.
That's where Cornyn comes in.
“For him to win a floor fight, he’s going to need more friends, not less,” said U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina.
“And I think he’s reaching out to people, and we’ll see how that goes,” Graham added.
A disconnected relationship
Cornyn promised early in 2015 he would stay neutral in the GOP fight for the presidential nomination. At the time, the race was crowded, and a remarkable number of candidates had Texas ties.
More than a year later, Cornyn hasn't changed his tune.
"My position is, I just don't think it's appropriate for a United States senator to be picking the nominee," Cornyn said on a Wednesday conference call with reporters. "I think it's the voters and the delegates, and I'm more than happy to support the nominee they choose."
Not one of the 20 or so Republican operatives and aides interviewed for this story confessed to surprise that Cruz did not have the backing of his colleague from Texas.
Cruz has yet to directly ask Cornyn for help, according to two Cornyn sources, and there is little evidence Cornyn will take the initiative.
There are no whispered tales in Senate circles about heated arguments between the two men or icy glares on the Senate floor. Instead, the most frequently used word observers use to describe the relationship is “disconnected.”
But Cornyn is not just any senator. A congenial force at the Capitol with deep donor ties, he is a former two-term chairman of the Senate Republican campaign arm. He is also the chamber's Majority Whip and the highest-ranking senator from Texas since Lyndon Johnson served as majority leader six decades ago.
Were they not from the same state, Cornyn and Cruz would probably rarely interact.
“You have one senator who is a prominent leader of his party and of the body, the No. 2 leader of the majority whose job is built around keeping the majority’s act together,” said congressional expert Norm Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. “And you have a second senator whose signature moment was calling the No. 1 leader of the party a liar on the floor of the Senate and who has reveled in throwing grenades in the party tent when they were putting the strategy together.”
The differences occasionally manifest in policy.
Cornyn, a former judge, focused his legislative energies over the past year toward remaking the criminal justice system.
But Cruz has since emerged as a chief opponent of Cornyn’s aim to overhaul sentencing policies and reduce recidivism rates, leading Cornyn to downplay expectations on reform.
And last year, Cruz pulled his support from a vote advancing a high-profile trade deal at the 11th hour. The move briefly injected uncertainty over whether the legislation would pass, complicating Cornyn’s vote-counting responsibilities as the majority whip.
That June vote perhaps most strikingly illustrated the tension between Cornyn's role in maintaining party discipline and Cruz's frequent inclination to buck the chamber's leadership.
To be sure, endorsements from Cornyn and his GOP Senate colleagues are not as pivotal to Cruz as they are likely to be for Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. While Democratic senators serve as “superdelegates” in their nominating process, meaning they have an outsized say in a delegate fight, there is no such provision in the Republican rules.
Moreover, the days of party bosses controlling delegates at a convention are long gone. Cornyn himself has downplayed his own power in this sphere.
"If party leaders would endorse one or the other of the candidates, I'm afraid it would be more likely to hurt than help," Cornyn said last month.
But this is a strange time in politics.
Trump has a prohibitive delegate lead, and Cruz is not expected to catch up to him in the primaries. But Trump likely cannot secure the nomination without a majority of delegates.
At the national convention in July, most delegates will be bound based on primary results in their states for only the first round of voting. If Trump falls short of the 1,237 delegates he needs, most delegates will be unbound. Under that scenario, Cruz or another contender has a strong chance of securing the nomination under subsequent rounds of balloting.
So Cruz needs the support of every delegate he can get, and sources say the campaign is utterly consumed with tracking and profiling delegates around the country.
He will likely have the Texas delegates locked down, and Texas insiders say Cornyn's opinion matters little to that lot. Cruz dominated the state in the March 1 primary, and his loyalists are expected to overwhelm the state delegation in Cleveland.
But Cruz has to win more than Texas. And some of those other delegates are likely to be U.S. senators or longtime party activists who have close ties to those senators.
“I think Cornyn has clout within the delegation of senators,” said a Texas Republican operative who asked to remain anonymous so he could talk freely about Cruz and Cornyn. “Where Cornyn’s strength is his relationships within the chamber. I think that if he endorsed Cruz, you would see more people endorse Cruz, which would help him in the delegate battle at the convention.”
Daniel Horowitz, a conservative writer and activist who is plugged into the Tea Party world, said those arguing that Cornyn could help Cruz ignore how Cruz has built his campaign on the notion that he is at odds with the Republican establishment.
“Why does he need them? Endorsements like Cornyn and [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell would only be a liability,” Horowitz said. “It would only serve to muddle his stature among voters who want to see something very, very different.”
Differences in style
Senators from the same state aren't always the best of friends. Yet in interviews, a few Republicans marveled that Democrat Harry Reid, the notoriously pugilistic Senate minority leader, has had better working relationships with his current and former Nevada senatorial colleagues — both Republicans — than the current pair from Texas.
U.S. Sen John Cornyn, Gov. Rick Perry and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz discussing Medicaid at the Capitol in April 1, 2013.
Ornstein cautioned that frequently, the split delegations get along better than those of the same party because the senators are often not competing in the same spaces.
Beto Cardenas, an ex-staffer to Republican former U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, whose seat Cruz won in 2012 when she retired, concurred that the differences between Cruz and Cornyn were largely tactical.
“They’re not arguing over who saved the military base,” Cardenas said. “It’s a difference of personality and style.”
Cornyn, on occasion, has publicly chided Cruz in the latter's most bombastic moments. Most notably, it was Cornyn who took to the Senate floor to address Cruz's accusation that McConnell is a liar.
“I have listened to the comments of my colleague, the junior senator from Texas, both last week and this week, and I would have to say that he is mistaken,” Cornyn told Cruz, an unusually biting comment by both Senate standards and for the rarely ruffled Cornyn.
Yet Cornyn also phoned Cruz after the Texas primary last month to congratulate him on his victory. Likewise, Cruz called Cornyn “a friend” in an interview last summer. Though, that description was in response to a question to Cruz about his memoir, where he repeatedly criticized “GOP leadership,” which includes Cornyn.
It's a sentiment Cruz's spokeswoman reiterated in a statement to The Texas Tribune.
"Sen. Cruz considers John Cornyn a friend, they worked in tandem on many issues important to Texas and the country, and will continue to do so," spokeswoman Catherine Frazier emailed.
A Cornyn spokesman declined to comment for this story.
But the most visible point of strain between the two men is that neither has endorsed the other in a Republican primary, and Cruz, as a candidate for U.S. Senate in 2012, hedged over whether he would support Cornyn in a leadership race.
Cornyn is far from alone in sitting on his hands as the GOP presidential primary lurches ahead. Most Senate Republicans are, after all. Cruz’s relationship with McConnell is reportedly toxic, and only two senators — Graham and Utah’s Mike Lee — have formally endorsed him.
Graham is now an enthusiastic Cruz booster after delivering some of the most vicious criticism of him in the last year. He makes his calculation plain: He agrees more with Cruz on policy and considers Trump an unmitigated disaster for the party.
Other Republican senators, however, shyly struggle to compliment Cruz to reporters at the Capitol, even when comparing him to Trump.
Capitol Hill leadership sources say Cruz may be pleasantly surprised by the response if he merely asked for these members’ support.
“People who are hostile to you are looking for a reason to support you because Trump is so bad,” said one aide. “But you need to throw an olive branch out there, and Cruz doesn’t seem to want to do that.”
Cruz appeared to offer his own version of an olive branch last week, sending the man Cornyn replaced, former U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm, to Capitol Hill as an envoy.
But Congressional insiders scoffed at Gramm as a bridge builder. Gramm was a powerful player in his day, but 13 years have passed since he served in the Senate. Most of his colleagues from that era are dead, retired or out of office after failed re-election efforts. Only 12 current GOP senators served substantial time with him.
It would seem that Cornyn could serve as a far more effective emissary for Cruz, if only the two had that kind of relationship.
And then there is money.
Cornyn has a deep well of donor relationships, both as the senior senator from Texas and in his past role as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, where one of his primary obligations was raising money across the country for Republicans. Even a Cruz source pointed to Cornyn’s donor network as his chief attribute.
If Cornyn picked up the phone on Cruz’s behalf, Texas sources say, donors would listen. That may include some deep-pocketed Republicans who have yet to sign with Cruz, such as beer distributor John Nau III.
While Cornyn remains couched on the sidelines, Graham, the South Carolina senator, insisted Cruz is the best option Republicans have. But, he conceded, he will need all the help he can get.
“I think he’s going to need as many friends as he can find,” said Graham. “If I were Ted, I would be in the friend-making business.”
Disclosure: John Nau is a major donor to The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.