Updated: Nov. 13, 12:05 p.m.
National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) said Friday that his aim is to avoid GOP infighting in 2012 Senate primaries, but he held firm that he would continue to recruit conservative candidates he believes are the most “electable.”
In the 2010 cycle, Cornyn and Senate Republican leaders were on opposite sides of conservative activists — and some GOP Senators — in a handful of primaries. Cornyn is hoping for greater party unity going forward, and he plans to ask the GOP Conference if there is a way to achieve this when he stands for election to another term as NRSC chairman on Tuesday.
Cornyn said the results of the Nov. 2 midterms proved that electability matters. While acknowledging an imperfect record, the Texan said Senators who take issue with his candidate recruitment strategy must better communicate what they’re looking for in a Senate nominee and be consistent. Last week, Republicans lost three Senate races that featured nominees opposed by the NRSC in the primary.
“I don’t know any other way to do it but to go out and try and recruit the best people. There’s too much at stake to let nature take its course,” Cornyn said by telephone from Dallas. “It’s not just about philosophy, but about electability. We had some problems with that this time.”
The fact that Cornyn would mount a second bid for NRSC chairman has been known for several months. The Senator is unlikely to be contested for the job. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen.-elect Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) are slated to deliver nominating speeches in his favor.
Those expected to back Cornyn in the internal Conference vote include Sens.-elect Rand Paul (Ky.), Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Rob Portman (Ohio). Meanwhile, Ayotte and Sen.-elect Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) have committed $50,000 in Member transfers to help the NRSC pay down its 2010 election debt, according to a knowledgeable GOP source.
Ayotte was a prized Cornyn recruit. Toomey, however, was initially shunned in favor of Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.). Prior to Specter’s decision to leave the GOP to run as a Democrat, the NRSC backed the incumbent against Toomey in the primary.
After flipping seven Democratic-held seats this cycle, including six on Election Day and one in a January special election in Massachusetts, Cornyn intends to keep his staff at the NRSC in place for the 2012 cycle. There are 23 Democratic-held seats up, compared with just 10 Republican-held seats. He has said the majority is attainable in two years.
As he looks for personnel continuity and doubles down on his recruiting strategy, Cornyn also suggested he would be more aggressive on Member giving. At the outset of the 2010 cycle, Cornyn made a point of saying he would not press Republican Senators to give to the NRSC, given the failure of previous chairmen to get anywhere with that approach.
But the NRSC raised $14.2 million in October, aided by sizable Member transfers from GOP Sens. Richard Burr (N.C.); Tom Coburn (Okla.); Chuck Grassley (Iowa) and John McCain (Ariz.). It was the NRSC’s best month since the 2002 enactment of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act.
In fact, Cornyn singled them out in emphasizing the need for increased participation from his Conference in fundraising over the next two years.
“We need all of our Members engaged,” Cornyn said. “They call it a committee for a reason.”
Still, Cornyn’s biggest challenge in his second term as NRSC chairman could be resolving intraparty conflicts over recruits. This past cycle, very public spats developed between Cornyn and Senate Republican leaders on one side and Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and conservative tea party activists on the other. They clashed in GOP primaries in several states, including Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Kentucky, Nevada and New Hampshire.
Within this group of states, only in New Hampshire did Cornyn’s recruit win the primary over the candidate backed by DeMint and the tea party. But in each case except for Delaware, the NRSC vigorously supported the party’s nominee in the general election , although the committee did invest around $100,000 in the First State. In Florida and Kentucky, the Republicans were successful in the general election; in Colorado, Delaware and Nevada, they were not.
The NRSC chairman said he appreciates the push for conservative nominees. But he said he was often mystified as to why conservatives he recruited to run for the Senate in 2010 were rejected by DeMint and tea party activists. In particular, Cornyn cited Ayotte, the New Hampshire Republican whom he described as among the most fiscally and socially conservative candidates to run this year.
Cornyn said the rejection of Ayotte, and some of his other recruits, was not always “based on empirical information, but on perception.” The NRSC chairman also made clear he would like to see the Republican Conference unified behind each of the GOP incumbents up for re-election in 2012, including Sens. Scott Brown (Mass.), Dick Lugar (Ind.) and Olympia Snowe (Maine).
All face potential primaries from the right for voting records deemed too moderate by some conservative activists.
“I’d like to spend all of my time and attention on offense,” Cornyn said. “I hope this is something we can discuss next week and get some clarification. It’s better when we’re not in a circular firing squad. ... The ultimate goal is to win.”