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Looking back on his role as National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee chairman, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said he believes Republicans will learn from this election cycle’s defeats to improve the way the party works with candidates and campaigns.
“If the question is, can we do better, based on what we learned the last four years, I think we can,” he said. “That’s going to be a combination of tactics, recruitment and policy. I think the Republican Party as a whole has learned some valuable lessons, many of which we are now digesting. But that shouldn’t be a short process. That should be a fully considered and deliberative process.”
As NRSC chairman, Cornyn lost a net of two seats in 2012 — failing to take advantage of a Senate election environment that appeared to favor the GOP. In fact, every Senate Democrat who stood for re-election won, and Republicans lost GOP-held seats in Maine, Indiana and Massachusetts. The only Republican pickup came in Nebraska.
Cornyn supporters have stressed that on his watch Republicans have gained a net of five seats, including two women and two Latino senators. The GOP conference voted Wednesday to elevate him to minority whip, the number two spot in Senate Republican leadership.
The culprit behind many of the NRSC’s problems is divisive primaries that selected lackluster nominees. In 2012, for example, GOP nominees in Indiana and Missouri faltered, paving the way for Democratic wins in those conservative states.
After all this, Cornyn says he’s “skeptical” there’s a better way for the national party to play in primaries in a more productive manner.
“I think there’s also recognition that it’s important to have principled conservatives, who not only have the philosophy, but also have the qualities as a candidate to run a very good and successful election in the general election,” Cornyn said. “I’ve learned a few things, and hopefully everyone on our side has learned a few things.”
But the Texas Republican cautioned that the answer to the GOP’s campaign woes is more complicated than just the primary. His Senate nominees, such as former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, lost because Democrats trounced the party in turnout. Cornyn said Thompson told him recently that when GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney lost his state by 7 points, “I didn’t have a chance.”
Cornyn’s successor, Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., will have his hands full in 2014. Democrats must defend 20 seats, many of which are in traditionally conservative territory, while Republicans need to hold on to 13 seats. On Wednesday morning, Moran tapped two of his colleagues, Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio and Senator-elect Ted Cruz of Texas to serve as his deputies at the committee.
“I was particularly encouraged to hear Sen. Moran say he was going to, or had, recruited Rob Portman and Ted Cruz to work in that effort,” Cornyn said. “It is a team effort. They don’t call it a committee for nothing. It’s supposed to be more than just a lone wolf effort. It’s supposed to be a conference wide effort. And I thought that showed a lot of wisdom.”
As whip, Cornyn hopes to present a united front in the Senate by keeping Republicans voting together as often possible. That, he believes, would maximize their input on legislation and the agenda.
“Its really important given the fact that we have 45 Republicans that we remain cohesive and united and that is going to take some work,” Cornyn said. “Not every state, as I have learned in the NRSC job, is like Texas.”
Cornyn said he also hopes that now that the elections are over, the Senate will return to regular order with a more open process for amendments on the floor under Democratic leadership.
“One of the things that I think characterized the Senate for the past two years is that the minority had been shut out by Sen. [Harry] Reid filling the tree and limiting debate,” Cornyn said. “That is not the Senate that our founders conceived in a way that allows us, even in the minority, to serve our constituents.
“I am hopeful we will have a new beginning and we will have a more open process where people will have the opportunity to offer suggestions based on the needs of their constituents and have debate and then vote and we’ll have the Senate work its will,” he said.
Cornyn added that the president would also play a role in whether the Senate can function.
“I do believe it depends a lot on the president because when the president takes a position, it provides political cover and it also sends a signal that its okay for Democrats to vote in support of a compromise,” Cornyn said, adding that he knows the minority will have a reduced role in the legislative agenda.
Nevertheless, “I do expect that our suggestions will be respected in the sense that they will be allowed to be heard and have votes on them,” Cornyn said.