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Roll Call

Cornyn, DeMint Playing Nice for 2012 Cycle

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call
Sen. Jim DeMint angered many Republicans by picking sides in the 2010 Senate primaries.

Sens. John Cornyn (Texas) and Jim DeMint (S.C.) have reached a detente, mutually agreeing to sideline the feud that engulfed the two Republicans throughout the 2010 election cycle in favor of cooperation in 2012.

Cornyn, the National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman, and DeMint, influential in Senate campaigns through his Senate Conservatives Fund political action committee, were chastened by GOP failures in otherwise successful midterm elections. But each has adjusted his strategy somewhat for 2012, which —along with more regular communication between the two — has helped prevent sparring over their differing approaches to candidate recruitment and GOP primaries.

“The key is, is the Senate committee is not getting involved in primaries. I am. But John and I are talking,” DeMint said in an interview Tuesday. “And, the fact is, I’m vetting candidates more carefully. They’re vetting candidates more carefully, and so far, in a lot of cases, we’re on the same page.”

He added, “The Senate committee is doing what it’s supposed to: raising money to help us win general elections, not necessarily pick favorites in primaries.”

Cornyn, who immediately following the 2010 elections sought to establish an understanding with DeMint and avoid more infighting, agreed that conflicts between the NRSC and the SCF have been minimized.

Cornyn even declined to criticize DeMint for playing heavily in the Texas GOP Senate primary on behalf of candidate Ted Cruz. The NRSC chairman has remained steadfastly neutral in the race and is thought by some Texas Republicans to take exception to outsiders wading into his backyard.

“We had some differences last cycle. But this cycle, early on, we had breakfast and worked very hard, I think, to minimize any conflicts, and so far, I think we’re doing pretty well. At least, that’s my impression,” Cornyn said.

Republicans who have observed the Cornyn-DeMint relationship over the past couple of years confirm the improvement in their interaction since Election Day 2010.

Conversations occur regularly between the two Senators, as well as NRSC and SCF officials. Cornyn noted that he and DeMint often have occasion to talk on Tuesdays, during meetings of the Steering Committee. DeMint is chairman of the Steering Committee, made up of the more conservative Senators within the Republican Conference, and Cornyn is the only member of leadership to sit on the Steering Committee.

One former Senate Republican leadership aide said neither Cornyn nor DeMint was interested in continuing their feud into the 2012 cycle. Cornyn encourages Republicans thinking of running for Senate to meet with DeMint and as many GOP Senators as they can. “They’re both purposely trying to avoid conflict,” this Republican operative said.

Despite their successes, Cornyn and DeMint stumbled somewhat in 2009 and 2010 as each sought to influence GOP primaries.

Cornyn, seeking to recruit and help nominate candidates whom he deemed as most likely to win a general election, was rebuffed by DeMint and some in the tea party activist community for supporting Republicans who they believed were insufficiently conservative. DeMint, looking to promote candidates whom he viewed as principled conservatives, angered Cornyn and other Republican Senators who blamed the South Carolinian for, in their view, costing the GOP seats and possibly the majority.

Although DeMint backed some winners last cycle, including now-Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), he also endorsed Christine O’Donnell in Delaware. O’Donnell bested former GOP Rep. Mike Castle in the primary, even though Castle was expected to win the general election handily. Instead, Democrat Chris Coons disposed of O’Donnell easily to become the newest Delaware Senator.

DeMint also incurred the ire of his Senate colleagues when he appeared to be quietly helping now-Sen. Mike Lee defeat incumbent Sen. Bob Bennett in Utah’s 2010 GOP primary convention.

This cycle, Cornyn acknowledged he is taking a different approach to the primary process, exerting a lighter touch in response to a conservative base and political climate that tends to reject all things Washington. DeMint, who thus far has backed Cruz and Josh Mandel in the Ohio GOP primary, is hoping to pick better candidates.

DeMint said he’s researching candidates more thoroughly this cycle as he weighs whom to support, including more one-on-one interviews with candidates, opposition research on those candidates to vet their backgrounds and a request that they fill out a questionnaire to determine where they stand on issues. DeMint said he is also talking more with local conservatives and tea party leaders to get their view.

“It’s not a science because all Republicans make a good case in their campaign talk,” DeMint said. “We’re spending a lot of time trying to make sure we get a candidate that can win the primary, that can win the general and that once they get here, they’ll do what they say.”

Republican operatives say the anti-Washington political climate made it easier for Cornyn and DeMint to defuse their squabble. Congressional campaign committees traditionally attempt to influence primaries. In fact, their ability to do so has often been a way to gauge their success.

But with conservative activists and GOP primary voters holding Capitol Hill in low esteem, anointing a candidate is not on the NRSC’s agenda in 2012, especially if it wants a particular Republican to have a chance at winning a primary. Cornyn and DeMint are in agreement about the tea party’s influence on the electoral playing field, and the NRSC and the SCF might agree more often than they did in 2010 on the best candidate.

“It’s no secret that American politics shifted in a very dramatic way in 2010, and I think we’ve all learned how to adjust a little bit better,” Cornyn said. “The tea party and the people who are clamoring for change did not necessarily embrace Republicans, they were just rejecting what they saw from the Obama administration and Democrats.”

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