John Cornyn’s effort to provide GOP with political cover on gun violence is a reminder that he is the last Bush Republican standing in Texas

Senator John Cornyn’s high-profile efforts to craft minimalist gun safety legislation in the U.S. Senate in response to the mass shooting in Uvalde has once again made the contrast between Texas’ two U.S. Senators catnip for editors and reporters as the media floods the zone with coverage of gun violence and the political response. Yet beneath the contrasts in style (a lot) and substance (a little, if you look at their voting records, especially on gun policy), the responses of Texans to each senator captured in public opinion polling throughout their shared times in office reveal stark differences in how voters, but especially Republican voters, respond to each of them.

It’s no great revelation that Cornyn and Cruz present contrasting profiles – two different kinds of Senators, two different kinds of Republicans, two very different personas. Their contrasting responses to the call for gun safety legislation in the aftermath of the mass shootings at Robb Elementary School have been widely discussed, including stories in both The New York Times and The Washington Post, as well as state media including The Texas Tribune and the Dallas Morning News

A closer look at the differences in Texans’ views of the two men suggests the arc of the Texas Republican party over Cornyn’s career, and, within that span, during Ted Cruz’s ascent to a much-sought-after national profile. More immediately, it sheds some light on Cornyn’s willingness to gesture in the direction of a lowest-common-denominator  response to the latest episode of gun violence in his state, while Cruz apparently remains determined to hold the line against any discussion of gun violence that seriously considers the role of guns.

While Cornyn has been a U.S. Senator since he was elected in 2002, Cruz remains the better known among the two, despite being elected to office a full decade after Cornyn. Cruz’s relentless effort to gain attention in Texas and beyond, and Cornyn’s consistently lower profile at home, are evident in the gaps in their evaluations among voters. When Cornyn is not engaged in one of his occasional forays into the public spotlight (and they are relatively infrequent), the most notable thing about his position vis-a-vis the Texas voters who continue to send him back to Washington D.C. is that most of the time, he’s out of sight and out of mind to a surprisingly large share of them.

Looking back over regular UT polling going back to 2015, no more than 23% of Texas voters in any of the 25 surveys conducted over that time said that they had no opinion (positive or negative) about the job performance of Ted Cruz (including no more than 18% since the end of 2018), while for the state’s senior senator, that share has been no less than 22%, with 30% of voters, on average, over that time span unwilling or unable to evaluate Cornyn’s job performance

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ApproveDisapproveNeither/Don't Know
November 201527%34%38%
February 201627%32%41%
June 201624%35%41%
October 201628%36%37%
February 201730%34%36%
June 201728%41%30%
October 201728%42%30%
February 201829%38%33%
June 201827%38%34%
October 201839%34%28%
February 201936%35%29%
June 201937%34%29%
October 201935%34%31%
February 202036%39%25%
April 202038%36%26%
June 202036%40%24%
October 202039%39%22%
February 202132%42%26%
March 202133%42%25%
April 202131%43%25%
June 202134%41%24%
August 202128%44%28%
October 202129%44%27%
February 202231%35%34%
April 202232%39%29%
June 202224%50%26%
August 202229%42%29%
October 202232%42%27%
December 202235%40%25%
February 202330%43%27%
April 202333%38%29%
June 202333%39%28%
August 202328%42%30%
October 202330%39%30%
December 202328%42%29%
February 202434%39%28%
April 202436%38%28%
June 202432%38%31%

While polarization makes it unsurprising that Democrats never quite warmed to Cornyn, we can aptly characterize GOP voters as damning him with faint praise. Looking at the trend in Cornyn’s job approval numbers among Texas Republicans, his ratings are consistently mediocre when compared to Cruz’s and in comparison to other major statewide officials and Republican presidents. Among Republicans, Cornyn has only mustered 70% job approval on two occasions since 2015 (70% and 71%), while Cruz has regularly found at least 80% job approval on most surveys conducted since 2018. Governor Abbott’s lowest overall approval ratings among Texas Republicans was 69%, but hasn’t dropped below that at any time in his Governorship, while GOP approval of Donald Trump’s time in office never dipped below 80%.

Selected Job Approval Ratings of Texas Elected Officials
(April 2022 UT/Texas Politics Project Poll)
  John Cornyn Ted Cruz Greg Abbott
Overall Total Job Approval 32% 43% 47%
Republican Total Job Approval 53% 78% 80%
Republicans "Strongly Approving" 18% 48% 41%
Strong Republicans "Strongly Approving" 25% 63% 54%
Conservatives "Strongly Approving" 17% 49% 40%
Extreme Conservatives "Strongly Approving" 20% 62% 56%

The comparative lack of intensity among those Texas Republicans’ who view Cornyn positively is another indicator of his faint presence among them. The most recent UT poll conducted in April found an even bigger gap in evaluations of Cornyn and other GOP officeholders when focusing on the intensity of their positive evaluations: 18% of Texas Republicans ‘strongly approve’ of the job Cornyn is doing, compared to 48% for Cruz, 41% for Abbott, and even 32% for the far lesser known Lieutenant Governor Patrick.

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CategoryDemocratIndependentRepublican
Approve strongly2%0%18%
Approve somewhat8%16%35%
Neither approve nor disapprove14%30%22%
Disapprove somewhat17%13%9%
Disapprove strongly48%26%8%
Don't know11%14%8%

Looking at a more finely grained measure of GOP voters’ commitment to their party, the share of the most loyal partisans who strongly approved of Cruz’s job performance was 38 points higher than for Cornyn. While the share of Republicans who strongly approve of Cornyn’s job performance increases to 25% when limited to the universe of those GOP voters who describe themselves as “strong Republicans,” the share saying the same of Cruz jumps to 63%. This leaves 27% of strong Republicans either unwilling or unable to offer an opinion of Cornyn, and 13% disapproving of his job performance (compared to 6% for Cruz in April polling).

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CategoryLean RepublicanNot very strong RepublicanStrong Republican
Approve strongly13%9%25%
Approve somewhat31%37%37%
Neither approve nor disapprove23%26%19%
Disapprove somewhat14%9%7%
Disapprove strongly14%4%6%
Don't know5%15%7%

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CategoryLean RepublicanNot very strong RepublicanStrong Republican
Approve strongly43%22%63%
Approve somewhat34%40%23%
Neither approve nor disapprove9%14%6%
Disapprove somewhat4%7%4%
Disapprove strongly8%11%2%
Don't know3%6%2%

Cornyn is also comparatively less popular among self-identified conservatives. While just under half of all self-identified conservative voters in Texas, 49%, strongly approved of Cruz’s job performance in April, only 17% felt the same about Cornyn. This gap only widens in evaluations of the state’s senators among Texas’ most conservative voters (those who describe themselves as “extremely conservative”), with 20% approving strongly of Cornyn compared to 62% who approve strongly of Cruz.

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CategoryLiberalsModeratesConservatives
Approve strongly3%4%17%
Approve somewhat8%15%35%
Neither approve nor disapprove11%26%20%
Disapprove somewhat15%14%11%
Disapprove strongly54%23%9%
Don't know9%17%8%

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CategoryLiberalsModeratesConservatives
Approve strongly2%7%49%
Approve somewhat5%16%29%
Neither approve nor disapprove5%18%8%
Disapprove somewhat7%9%5%
Disapprove strongly80%43%7%
Don't know1%7%2%

Cornyn’s comparatively low profile among Texas voters emerges as an understandable strategy given the skepticism expressed towards him among the faction of conservatives whose presence and priorities have come to dominate Republican politics in the state — primarily, though not entirely, through GOP primaries. That skepticism expresses how much the Texas Republican Party has changed since Cornyn’s first statewide run for office in 1990.  

Cornyn’s position as the most powerful odd-man-out in Texas Republican politics is rooted in his place in the history of the modern Texas GOP. Cornyn’s initial rise in state politics was buoyed by the same forces that propelled George W. Bush to the governor’s mansion as the Republican ascendancy in the state steadily pushed Democrats out of power, and sent Bush and Cornyn to Washington DC in tandem in 2000 and 2002.

By the time Bush’s presidency ended with a whimper in 2009, Cornyn had been easily re-elected to a second term. Yet the Texas GOP had moved away from the conservative but transactional orientation of a party on the ascendance to a party settled into its role as the holder of a de facto monopoly on state power. Activated by the GOP’s hold on state power, the election of Barack Obama, and the economic crisis and bank bailout of 2008, the reactionary forces that had long percolated within the Texas GOP became much more powerful, and brought the internal politics of the party to a boil.

As figures like Ted Cruz and Dan Patrick aligned themselves with the newly ascendant reactionary wing of the party now dominating Republican primaries, Cornyn laid low. His adaptation to these shifts at home reflected the institutional design of the Senate, with its long 6-year terms, as well as the world-unto-itself nature of Texas politics: he made himself scarce at home unless it was time to run for re-election, ducked the internal fights as much as possible (which was a lot), and focused on entrenching himself in the Senate and increasing his internal political capital. If this institutional focus was at odds with the rising anti-institutional fervor in his party, there were also much more proximate, and seemingly vulnerable, targets closer to home for Tea Party activists and their successor groups to focus on (above all, Speaker Joe Straus). They sniped at Cornyn, but never successfully mounted any serious effort to challenge him while enthusiastically becoming the base of support for Cruz, who chose the opposite strategy (particularly in his early years in the Senate). Cruz worked hard to draw attention to himself in an almost immediate expression of his desire to run for president, in part by alienating his Senate colleagues, including those in his own party. If their distinct goals and political tactics masked their broadly similar ideological orientation, they nonetheless have led them to take very different paths, both in the Senate and in the profile they cut among their voters.

Which brings us back to the minimalist gun safety bill Cornyn is now working to pass, and the at best cool response it is receiving among most Republicans in Texas (including Cruz). Both the bill and the response among most Republicans are emblematic of Cornyn’s position in the modern Texas GOP (and in a deeply polarized political system). The provisions of the bill as it stands now — enhanced background checks for those under 21, funding for mental health and school safety, and funds for states with "red flag" laws — are designed to avoid triggering Republican sensitivities to any form of consequential limitations on gun access, while forcing Democrats to accept a bill that accomplishes nothing they or their most active constituents want. Cornyn appears all too aware of these sensitivities, but he has deftly navigated such conditions in the past, and without electoral consequence.

While Cornyn is no doubt counting on getting some credit for trying, the bill’s chances appear slim. In a familiar pattern, even this most innocuous of legislative efforts has triggered absurdly venomous opposition among the would-be gatekeepers of “conservative orthodoxy” in Texas (whatever that means in 2022). One perpetually attention-seeking former Texas Freedom Caucus member Tweeted this week, “@JohnCornyn is a #traitor to our constitutional Republic,” among other outbursts — one of many signs that today’s Republican Party bears scant resemblance to the party that launched his political career. Ever-triangulating and accustomed to the predictable hyperbole from the reactionary right wing of his party, Cornyn has been quick to communicate what his bill is not.

 

 

The subtle contrast between, on one hand, Cornyn’s minimalist action and, on the other hand, state Republican leaders’ strategy of delay and diffusion amidst constant pot shots from far-right Republicans also underlines just how much Cornyn is yesterday’s Texas Republican. His Republican colleagues in state government have been pursuing a strategy similar to his, insofar as they are studiously avoiding any discussion of direct action related to gun access. With a general election looming (Cornyn isn’t on the ballot in 2022), and with the legislature not in session, state leaders have chosen to take advantage of the opportunity to delay taking any direct action. At the same time, state level Republicans have largely ignored Cornyn’s high profile position in national discussions as they navigate between the need to at least appear to be responding both to the shooting and to the apparent determination of far right Republicans to manically attack any effort to respond to Uvalde (or gun violence more broadly) with anything at all having to do with guns.

While other Texas Republicans, with higher profiles and significantly more political capital among GOP voters, continue to tip-toe around the issue in the expectation that the public moves on and another gun-related tragedy doesn’t occur (especially before November), Cornyn has stepped directly into the breach. It’s likely that the majority leader tapped Cornyn to lead the GOP response to Uvalde because he has survived, and thrived, for so long in the Senate, not because of the trust and goodwill he holds among Republican voters in Texas. Setting aside the merits of the bill Cornyn is trying to pass, his alliance with the majority leader validates the success of his political strategy.

Amidst the pain of the latest chapter in the ongoing history of mass shootings, there is a bitter irony in the timing of Cornyn’s efforts to provide Republicans with political cover. With Ken Paxton's defeat of George P. Bush, Cornyn remains the last artifact of Bush era Texas Republicanism — if not a member of the dynasty by blood, he may well nevertheless be the last elected Bushie still standing. Amidst the carnage of gun violence in Texas, and, more broadly, the retrograde record of his party, his is a bitter last gasp. The essence of the gun bill, should it pass, will closely resemble the character of Cornyn’s performance in the Senate: it’s the best we can expect at this moment from such a dispiriting political system, and a party driven by reaction, literally and politically, rather than responsiveness. Cornyn may remain out of step with the party at home, but from a broader perspective, his current efforts also underline how much he remains emblematic of something that is broken in our politics, both nationally and in Texas.

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