Sen. John Cornyn watched with alarm when Beto O’Rourke nearly won Texas’ other Senate seat last year — alarmed that it could be him on the losing end when he’s up in 2020.
Determined not to get caught off guard by shifting demographics and fired-up Democrats, Cornyn is revving up his reelection campaign earlier than ever after O’Rourke’s near upset of Sen. Ted Cruz. Cornyn has already stockpiled more campaign cash than any other senator: $5.8 million. He’s filling high-level campaign jobs. And crucially, Cornyn secured early endorsements from Cruz and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, two of the most prominent conservatives in the state, in a show of force to prevent a primary challenge.
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It’s all part of Cornyn’s resolve not to become the first statewide Republican casualty in rapidly changing Texas. He won reelection by nearly 30 points in 2014, but the three-term senator saw Democrats reemerge as a force in the state last year — besides Cruz’s scare, two GOP congressmen in once-safe seats lost. And Republicans barely survived in another handful of House districts once safely in the GOP column.
Meanwhile, millions of new voters have flocked to the state in recent years, and reliably Republican areas in the suburbs outside Dallas and Houston — where Cornyn has racked up big margins in past elections — have shifted hard toward Democrats.
“We’ve gotten complacent,” Cornyn said in an interview. “The tectonic plates shifted in Texas in 2018 and I think everybody realized we need to do something different and to address those concerns or else we’re in trouble.”
Cornyn has already hired aides to start the process, long before it’s clear which Democrat he might face in 2020. John Jackson, who managed Gov. Greg Abbott’s successful reelection last year — when Abbott challenged his campaign to help him win a majority of the Hispanic vote but fell just short, according to exit polls — will manage Cornyn’s 2020 campaign. And the senator brought on Steve Munisteri, a White House aide with years of Texas campaign experience, to be a senior adviser.
Cruz is with him, too, after declining to endorse his colleague six years ago while Cornyn fought off a persistent primary challenge. Cornyn also said it’s “too early” to say with certainty whether he will avoid a primary this time around, but the Cruz and Patrick endorsements were efforts to unify the party behind him and focus on the general election.
Cruz’s race in 2018 was the most expensive in the country, totaling more than $125 million — $100 million more than Cornyn’s last race in 2014. More than $80 million of that flowed into O’Rourke’s record-shattering campaign. O’Rourke is considering running for president and hasn’t discussed running again for Senate in 2020, but he also hasn’t ruled it out. And the financial might he brought to bear against Cruz caught Cornyn’s eye last year.
“You could see why that might get my attention,” Cornyn said of the massive campaign spending, “and it certainly has.”
Cruz said Cornyn is, and should be, taking his own reelection seriously.
“It is clear that Texas faced an assault in 2018 unlike any we’ve ever seen from the Democrats,” Cruz said. “Over $80 million poured into the Senate race and the far left is angry and filled with rage at the president. All of that has produced a competitive political environment, so I think John is being prudent in doing everything necessary to win the race.”
The most significant difference between Cruz’s tight reelection and Cornyn’s upcoming race is that the senior senator will share the ballot with President Donald Trump, who won Texas in 2016 by the GOP’s narrowest margin in two decades.
Cornyn, who until last year served as the Republican whip, the second-highest position in GOP leadership, has been a reliable ally of the president.
“I’m not going to go out of my way to create any distance between me and the president because I think generally speaking his policies have been sound,” Cornyn said, citing Republicans’ tax cut bill, regulatory rollbacks and the confirmation of conservative judges. But he also cited areas in which he could disagree, including trade policy and national security. Cornyn was one of the large number of Republicans who voted for a measure last week expressing disapproval of Trump withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria and Afghanistan.
Democrats say that Trump is a big part of why Texas grew more competitive in the past three years, and that Cornyn’s ties to the president will be a weakness in the general election.
“Cornyn has wrapped himself around Trump from the very beginning and he will be wrapped around Trump in the general election in 2020 by Democrats every single day,” said Gilberto Hinojosa, chairman of the Texas Democratic Party. “It will be a competitive race and it’s a race we believe we can win even though we won’t be able to match the amount of money that he’s able to raise simply because it’s a presidential election, with Trump on the ballot.”
Democrats don’t yet have an obvious candidate to take on Cornyn. While O’Rourke weighs a White House bid, Julián Castro, the former San Antonio mayor and Obama Cabinet official, is already running for president. Hinojosa declined to speculate on those who are considering it at this early stage.
But the party is optimistic that another Senate race could surge onto the national radar next year.
“[Cornyn] was one of the first in the Republican Party to admit that Texas is not a reliably red state anymore,” Hinojosa said. “Mr. Cornyn is worried for good reason.”
Republicans, who were caught off guard by O’Rourke’s meteoric rise from the back benches of Congress to national political stardom, are preparing for a repeat, regardless of who emerges against them.
“I think the biggest lessons learned [in 2018] were that early contenders from the Democrat side and contenders with the Democrat side with little relevant experience should be taken seriously, regardless of the absence of objective reason to do so,” said James Dickey, the Texas GOP chairman.