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Sen. John Cornyn (Texas) has seen enough of the perils of outside influence on elections in his two terms as National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman that he's now taking an unusual position for a GOP leader: Congress should consider campaign finance reform next year.
"I think it would be a worthwhile exercise, not now - not 46 [or] 47 days before the election - but next year, to look at our campaign finance system in light of the Supreme Court decisions and say, 'What makes sense in terms of accountability and with concerns to transparency?' That I think would be important," Cornyn told Roll Call last week.
Being the chairman of the campaign arm for either Senate conference has never been a coveted role. But Cornyn's two turns at the top of the NRSC have featured a shift in power from a playing field dominated by party structures to one where every Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) or Karl Rove with an overstuffed wallet can pursue their own campaign strategies on behalf of candidates chosen for ideological purity but not broader electability.
Because of that, GOP advantages in key states this cycle and in 2010 all but evaporated when primary winners skewed too far right or expressed views too far outside the mainstream.
That has put Cornyn in the unenviable spot of being the guy who could get blamed for the GOP's failure to win back the Senate majority, even if it isn't his fault.
It's rare for a Republican leader to express a "transparency" or "accountability"-based argument when it comes to campaign finance. And Cornyn by no means voiced support for the Democrats' DISCLOSE Act, which has failed multiple times to clear Congress and would force more disclosure from corporate-funded super PACs.
Cornyn expressed support for the right of groups to be engaged in the political process.
"The First Amendment is a fundamental value in this country, and the Supreme Court said as a constitutional matter, you can't suppress free speech. And we knew all along that McCain-Feingold carved out for organized labor and other groups, so it was really a lopsided deal in the first place," he said when asked if recent court decisions, such as Citizens United, which prohibits the government from restricting independent political expenditures by corporations and unions, have made the system worse.
Cornyn later clarified in a statement that his concern is primarily with how the political parties have been sidelined:"I believe we should strengthen the political parties, not limit free speech, and that starts with revisiting the federal fundraising restrictions and coordinated limits on both parties. Anyone who supports more campaign finance transparency should support a stronger political party system."
But any change to the current system at all, short of opening everything up to unlimited money, is likely to diverge from the views of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), one of the strongest opponents of campaign finance reform.
It's unclear whether that difference of opinion would affect Cornyn, who is the only candidate so far for the No. 2 Senate GOP leadership position. Minority Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.) is retiring at the end of the Congress, and Cornyn has been considered a shoo-in for the job, given his popularity in the Conference and the expectation of gains in November.
Traditionally, the NRSC and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee chairmen have enjoyed a significant amount of influence and a common trajectory to leadership if they maintain or win control of the Senate and use the Senators they helped elect to build a coalition of power within the Conference. But that model may be eroding, especially for the GOP.
The McCain-Feingold campaign law limited soft money to the parties, and a series of court decisions in the past few years has amplified the power of outside money. The result has been to legally constrain the party establishment while outside groups have freer rein.
"It certainly takes away some of the power of the NRSC not only [to] pick candidates but also to drive message," former NRSC Executive Director Scott Bensing said of the influx of outside groups.
Bensing noted that the "first evolution" of the NRSC happened in 2003, after McCain-Feingold passed. He said the campaign committee has become "a clearinghouse for best practices, specifically with online campaigns."
"It is more difficult to hold the Senate committee accountable for outcomes, for wins and losses, but I think there are still many ways to hold the committee accountable for how it spent its money, how it distributed its resources," Bensing said.
Cornyn himself said the "broken campaign finance system" has created a "cacophony" of political voices that sometimes drown out that of the NRSC.
It's a thesis that could be tested again soon if outside groups rush to the aid of Rep. Todd Akin, who has featured Cornyn's face in his own against-the-establishment fundraising pleas and whom the NRSC has vowed not to fund in his bid for Missouri's Senate seat.
After winning the primary to take on Sen. Claire McCaskill (D), Akin lost favor after making controversial statements about rape and rape victims.
"It makes it impossible for the candidates or the political parties, for that matter, to control their message because you have so many different people - I mean, if you look at these campaigns, how many different groups are funding those races? And they can't coordinate with the candidates or the party," Cornyn said. "It's this cacophony of just noise. So I think there's a lot we could do to make this a lot simpler, if we would, but the whole idea of trying, in McCain-Feingold, to limit the flow of money into politics, has been an abject failure. The only thing that's happened is that it's become a lot less
Of course, none of this is to say that Cornyn's time at the NRSC has been a failure, or that it would be even if the GOP does not reclaim the Senate majority. Cornyn cut the fundraising gap between the NRSC and the DSCC from $70 million in 2008 to $12 million in 2010 and is on track to raise 20 percent more this cycle than he did last cycle.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a co-sponsor of the original landmark campaign finance bill, believes change won't happen until a scandal rocks the system.
"I think that the flood of money, because of the Citizens United case, has destroyed the whole political system as we know it so I think we have got to go back. There will be scandals and then there will be reform," McCain said. "That's the history of the United States of America. ... Nothing is going to happen until the scandals take place."
Editors Note: The online version of this story has been updated from the print version.