National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn is taking great pains to stay out of his home state’s Senate primary. Other than granting informational meetings to some of the candidates vying to win the seat held by retiring Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Texas Republicans monitoring the primary agree that Cornyn has avoided taking any action that could be interpreted as manipulating or playing favorites — either personally or through surrogates.
Even Cornyn’s chief Texas consultant, Todd Olsen, is staying out of the race — at least for now. Olsen is a longtime adviser to primary candidate Michael Williams but is conspicuously absent from his Senate campaign team. However, Cornyn, Olsen and the Senator’s Texas finance team of major campaign contributors — which includes NRSC Finance Chairman John Nau, a wealthy Houston businessman —are far from absent in Texas politics.
Cornyn described his hands-off approach in Texas, where he might have been expected to play a key role given his NRSC chairmanship and success in multiple statewide races, as well as his work behind the scenes to increase the GOP majority in the Texas House of Representatives.
“It’s a little unique because no matter who wins the nomination, a Republican is going to hold the seat, so I’m not particularly anxious about who that person is. And the practical reality is, all of these people are my friends who I’ve worked with and who’ve supported elections,” Cornyn told Roll Call. “I just think it would be unseemly and inappropriate for me to get involved in that primary.”
But he was plenty involved at the state level.
“I was very concerned that the state Legislature — the House particularly, which was hanging on by a thread, I think a single-vote majority initially — that that wasn’t being paid enough attention to,” Cornyn said. “We had a good election, and that was important going forward in the redistricting process and the fact that Texas is going to get four new Congressional seats and drawing those lines.”
Cornyn indicated Olsen had declined to work for Williams as a part of the extra effort the NRSC chairman has made to ensure that his neutrality in the contest is unquestionable, although the Senator said it was ultimately Olsen’s decision. Corbin Casteel, a consultant for Williams, a Texas railroad commissioner, declined to discuss Olsen’s non-role in the campaign, but he confirmed the widely held view that Cornyn was not taking sides.
“From everything that I’ve seen, he does appear to be staying neutral,” Casteel said.
During the 2010 election cycle, Cornyn and his team were instrumental in laying the foundation for the huge gains that Republicans achieved in November’s legislative races through their overhaul of Associated Republicans of Texas, a formerly powerful state political action committee that had atrophied. Cornyn became involved in ART partly out of a concern that Republicans could lose their slim state House majority, and with it, their ability to dictate redistricting.
Cornyn recruited Dallas businessman George Seay, a Republican donor and activist, to run ART along with a board of directors that has also been helpful to the NRSC chairman over the years. The PAC recruited candidates and raised about $3.5 million, much of which was plowed back into legislative races. The Republicans flipped 22 state House seats on Nov. 2, giving them a strong edge in any redistricting battle with Democrats.
Cornyn plans to remain active in Texas politics at this level, and Olsen said the plan is to expand ART’s effect on the 2012 elections.
“Last cycle was the warm-up,” Olsen said. “Now comes the real challenge.”
This year Cornyn is trying to avoid intervening in Senate primaries across the country because doing so could spark GOP infighting or damaging candidates with the Washington label. That’s what happened during the 2010 cycle, when Cornyn had clear, if unofficial, favorites in several primaries. That stoked divisions within the party and among Members on Capitol Hill over disagreements about candidate recruitment. Additionally, some Senate candidates suffered in GOP primaries because of the perception that the Republican establishment anointed them. Republicans believe that divisive primaries cost them at least three seats last fall.
Cornyn made it clear that he would stay out of the Lone Star State’s Senate race until a nominee emerges from the March 2012 GOP primary. In Texas, the two top vote-getters in a primary advance to a runoff unless the winner surpasses 50 percent.
The crowded primary field in Texas features a cast of longtime friends and political associates, just about all of whom are familiar with each other — and many of whom have supported Cornyn’s multiple statewide races for Senate, attorney general and state Supreme Court justice.
Among the active candidates and potential candidates are Williams; attorney Ted Cruz, who worked for Cornyn in the state attorney general’s office; Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst; state Railroad Commissioner Elizabeth Ames Jones; former Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert; and former Texas Secretary of State Roger Williams, who served as chairman of the Lone Star State’s get-out-the-vote Victory Committee in 2008, when Cornyn was last on the ballot. (However, a right-leaning blogger noticed recently that Cornyn retweeted a tweet from Leppert.)
Cornyn said he has met with some of the candidates, including Dewhurst, Roger Williams, Cruz and Leppert, and is happy to talk to any candidate and offer the NRSC as a resource for advice on logistics, such as hiring campaign staff and consultant recommendations. But that will be the extent of Cornyn’s participation in the primary, he said.
Olsen described the candidate field as a “close pool of friends running against each other.” Casteel said their relationships would not stop the candidates from running hard against each other. “It’s a competition,” he said.
The Democrats have vowed to contest the open seat despite the challenges of competing in conservative-leaning Texas in a presidential year. Among the names floated as potential candidates are ex-Rep. Chet Edwards, who served for years in a solidly GOP Texas district before being ousted last year, and former state Comptroller John Sharp.
“This is clearly an important seat,” said Kirsten Gray, a spokeswoman for the Texas Democratic Party.