WASHINGTON — This is a legacy-making moment for Sen. John Cornyn.
The Texas Republican leveraged his A+ rating from the NRA and his credibility within the Senate to shepherd the biggest gun violence prevention measure in a generation through an evenly divided Senate.
It’s also a moment of unusual political peril for the four-term senator.
His collaboration with President Joe Biden and other Democrats has infuriated the most strident gun rights advocates and alienated grassroots activists. Texas Republicans drowned him out with boos at their state convention, though polling shows he retains broad support and has lost ground only among a segment of the party’s base.
“There’s a lot of misinformation,” Cornyn said during the final Senate debate.
Insisting the bill will protect school kids and constitutional rights alike, he said, “Unless a person is adjudicated mentally ill or is a violent criminal, no one’s Second Amendment rights will be impacted by this legislation, period.”
On May 24, an 18-year-old with a newly purchased AR-15-style rifle killed 19 children and two teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde.
The clamor for Congress to “do something” has rarely been as insistent as in the four weeks since the attack.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell tapped Cornyn, a trusted lieutenant, as the GOP point man on post-Uvalde talks.
The deal he crafted with Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and a handful of others from both sides would keep guns away from anyone convicted of domestic violence, leverage federal funds to encourage states to adopt and enforce “red flag” laws that let courts take guns from people deemed a danger to themselves and others, and add juvenile records to background checks to ensure that dangerous young buyers don’t have a clean slate when they turn 18.
From the White House down, Democrats wanted far more: bans on high-capacity ammunition magazines and semi-automatic weapons or, at the least, raising the age to buy such guns from 18 to 21.
“There’s also no mandatory waiting period” or “potentially unconstitutional requirement that gun owners store their weapons in a particular way,” Cornyn said during the Senate debate, defending the proposal. “Law-abiding gun owners are not the problem and that was a red line for me. … This bill does not infringe on law-abiding citizens’ rights under the Second Amendment.”
Gun rights advocates acknowledge the deal Biden signed into law Saturday morning could have been worse. But for them, that doesn’t absolve Cornyn.
“A compromise is when both sides give a little bit, and this is just gun control,” said Aidan Johnston, director of federal affairs at Gun Owners of America, which positions itself as a more unbending defender of the Second Amendment than the NRA.
Mental health reform and school security funding are uncontroversial, he said. The rest of the measure is “absolutely outrageous,” so to give Cornyn credit for rejecting a ban on AK-47s would be like forgiving the robber who steals a wallet but lets the victim keep $20.
“Senator Cornyn is engaged in the act of selling out his constituents’ constitutional rights. He has no authority to negotiate away the constitutional rights of Americans,” Johnston said. “There is no excuse for funding gun confiscation laws.”
Tucker Carlson called Cornyn “far left” on his Fox News show.
Trump called him a “RINO” — short for “Republican in name only” – and asserted that the deal he spearheaded “will go down in history as the first step in the movement to TAKE YOUR GUNS AWAY.”
Others were more generous.
“The leadership you’ve shown is admirable. You come from a gun culture. I come from a gun culture. We know the challenges,” Sen. Joe Manchin, a pro-gun Democrat from West Virginia who also worked on the bill, said on the Senate floor. “To one group of people it’s not enough. To other people, anything is too much. … This is a great piece of legislation for us to start protecting the children in America.”
Cornyn has had plenty of legislative achievements in nearly two decades in the Senate.
None before this one — the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act — joined the pantheon of laws known in shorthand by the authors’ names. This one might.
Think Gramm-Rudman-Hollings and balanced budgets, McCain-Feingold and campaign finance reform.
The Senate approved Murphy-Cornyn (or Cornyn-Murphy — the nickname hasn’t fully taken root) on a 65-33 vote Thursday.
Fifteen Republicans joined with Democrats. Texas’ junior senator, Ted Cruz, was not among them. He denounced the bill as a “misguided” attempt “to disarm law-abiding citizens rather than take serious measures to protect our children.”
The House approved the measure 234-193 on Friday. The only Texas Republican who supported was Rep. Tony Gonzalez of San Antonio, who represents Uvalde.
‘Calm, steady hand’
“While the rest of Washington shouts at one another, Texas has a calm, steady hand in Senator John Cornyn,” the narrator said in one of Cornyn’s 2020 campaign ads.
He struck much the same theme as he implored senators to “get a result” in response to Uvalde and so many other tragedies.
“People are questioning whether our institutions can work,” he said, and “whether it’s possible to come up with some bipartisan piece of legislation, rather than fail as we have so many times before.”
The success on gun violence and school security had Cornyn quipping that the bipartisan group could turn to another unresolved issue.
“First guns, now it’s immigration,” he was overheard telling California Sen. Alex Padilla on the Senate floor during an initial vote on the gun bill.
Backlash on the right was swift and intense.
Some accused Cornyn of caving on guns as a warm-up to caving on “amnesty.” Some said he’d cast his lot with Beto O’Rourke, Gov. Greg Abbott’s challenger, who has advocated both gun confiscation and looser immigration laws.
“What a weird way for (Cornyn) to announce that he never wants to become Senate GOP Majority Leader,” tweeted the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which wants to restrict immigration.
Aides noted that immigration talks are not underway and brushed off the senator’s comment as a joke.
Among conservatives, the antennae were up, for several reasons.
Early in his Senate years, Cornyn did support comprehensive immigration reform — a package approach to allow eventual citizenship for millions of people in the country illegally, in exchange for beefing up border security and enforcement.
Grassroots anger quashed several attempts, only some of which involved Cornyn. For the bulk of his tenure, he has shunned comprehensive reform in favor of a security-first approach more palatable to the GOP base. His change of heart has been a source of anger and mistrust among immigrant advocates ever since.
There’s also mistrust on the right, some of it dating to Cornyn’s two terms running the National Republican Senatorial Committee, in the 2010 and 2012 elections.
After he was elected by fellow Senate Republicans, his assignment was to protect incumbents and expand the caucus, just as the anti-Barack Obama tea party movement was bubbling up.
Grassroots activists valued ideological purity more than majority-building. They didn’t take kindly to meddling from establishment poohbahs.
Things got ugly.
In Florida, Cornyn promoted then-Gov. Charlie Crist over tea party darling and eventual winner Marco Rubio. After failing to win backing from the state GOP, Crist ran as an independent. He now serves in the U.S. House as a Democrat.
In Delaware, Cornyn resisted tea party activist Christine O’Donnell, best known for ads assuring voters she wasn’t a witch. Cornyn tried to steer the nomination toward a former governor who could have cruised to victory, if he’d gotten past O’Donnell in the primary. She got trounced in the fall.
The story was similar in Nevada, where Republicans squandered their best shot to topple then-Majority Leader Harry Reid by nominating a weak tea party candidate, Sharron Angle.
Cornyn shrugged it off as “stormy weather” in primaries that presaged a fall tsunami.
Eventually, he settled into a truce with tea party forces led by then-Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, who’d been gunning for GOP incumbents deemed insufficiently conservative.
Cornyn did well enough for promotion to party whip, the No. 2 leadership post. McConnell has kept him in his innermost circle long since the party’s term limit rules forced him out of that role.
“Cornyn is a good soldier, a good lieutenant,” said GOP strategist Brendan Steinhauser, who ran Cornyn’s 2014 reelection campaign after a stint at FreedomWorks, a group that helped to incubate the tea party. “McConnell can trust that Cornyn is not going to get the caucus in trouble. … He’s got good, broad political instincts” and credibility within the Senate.
Recruited by Rove
A former trial court judge in Bexar County, Cornyn joined the Texas Supreme Court in 1990.
Karl Rove, George W. Bush’s political guru, saw potential. At Rove’s urging he ran for Texas attorney general in 1998, defeating Jim Mattox, a Democrat who’d lost the job and was seeking a comeback.
When Phil Gramm retired from the Senate four years later, Cornyn jumped in.
Rove had been grooming him for just such an opportunity.
With the even demeanor of a judge and hair already silver, Cornyn looked and sounded like a senator from central casting, as out-of-state news media loved to say.
And he has a gift for framing conservative talking points in ways that convey affable grandpa more than hothead ideologue — a sharp contrast with Cruz’s incendiary style.
Cornyn scored a 12-point win over Ron Kirk, Dallas’ first Black mayor and a future trade ambassador under Obama.
He won his second term by the same margin, and coasted to a 27-point win in 2014. His 10-point margin in 2020 over MJ Hegar was significantly wider than Trump’s in Texas.
Support holding steady
Despite carping over the gun bill, there’s no provision that could lead to widespread confiscation of any sort of weapon. Cornyn ruled out such a step from the outset.
That didn’t protect him from a hostile reception when Texas Republicans gathered last weekend in Houston, as the deal was still coming together.
Many flashed thumbs down. Cornyn’s speech was barely audible through the jeers and chants of “No red flags! No red flags!”
“I’ve never given in to mobs and I’m not starting today,” he was overheard saying after he left the stage.
The National Association for Gun Rights, another tougher-than-NRA group that says the better response to Uvalde is to arm educators and eliminate gun-free school zones, demanded an apology.
The razzing didn’t occur in a vacuum.
Disapproval of Cornyn’s job performance has spiked since Uvalde among Texas Republicans, from 11% to 17% in Morning Consult Political Intelligence surveys.
But positive sentiment about Cornyn has held steady: 68% among Texas Republicans before and since the massacre, and 43% among all Texas voters.
In other words, Murphy-Cornyn hasn’t dragged him down overall.
But it did inflame parts of the GOP base whose support was tepid already.
Cornyn’s conservative rankings are strong: an 87 lifetime rating out of 100 from the American Conservative Union, well above average for Senate Republicans.
Cruz’s is 97.
For Cornyn’s first decade in the Senate, Kay Bailey Hutchison held Texas’ other seat. She left office with roughly the same lifetime score he has now, but she’d won her seat defending the right to terminate pregnancy into the third trimester.
At the 1996 state convention, anti-abortion activists not only booed Hutchison, they tried to block her from serving as a delegate to the national convention, an extraordinary slap at a U.S. senator.
When Hutchison retired and Cruz took the seat, Cornyn no longer looked like the more conservative Texas senator.
The Trump era only sharpened the contrast.
Cruz, after a nasty rivalry with Trump in the 2016 primaries, ended up a stalwart defender through two impeachments.
Cornyn took a more nuanced approach.
He distanced himself from Trump’s most inflammatory comments. He opposed tariffs on Mexican goods — “they’re not great policy,” he said — and called Trump’s border wall a “flawed” and naïve” idea. But he later defended Trump for sapping Pentagon funds to help pay for construction.
Cornyn’s solid record on gun rights earned him an A+ rating from the National Rifle Association, and its endorsement in 2020.
That gave him the credibility McConnell needed after Uvalde.
Cornyn has been a master of threading the needle on gun violence, helping his party project seriousness of purpose without running afoul of the Second Amendment.
After the church massacre that left 26 people dead in Sutherland Springs near San Antonio in November 2017, Cornyn partnered with Murphy to address the failure of the Air Force to enter the shooter’s criminal record into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
Their “Fix NICS” law added many millions of records to the database used to flag ineligible gun buyers.
That point of pride for Cornyn is a source of mistrust, too.
“We’ve been monitoring Murphy-Cornyn discussions for quite some time,” said Johnston of Gun Owners of America, which boasts that it quashed a deal last year much like the one approved last week. “We’ve been aware that the senator was looking to compromise with our rights for some time now and have been actively working to prevent that from happening.”
After a racist shooter at an El Paso Walmart killed 23 people in August 2019, Cornyn filed a bill to prod internet companies to share concerns about threats of mass violence, add funding for mental health and make it easier to prosecute unlicensed gun sales.
At each juncture, demand was intense to ban or restrict certain weapons.
And at each juncture, the push for alternatives from Cornyn, and others, relieved some of that pressure.
“Few have done more in Congress to defend the Second Amendment than Senator Cornyn, and this latest legislation is another example of that,” said Rob Jesmer, his longtime strategist.
Jesmer cited surveys showing overwhelming support for key elements of Murphy-Cornyn among the general public and, importantly, gun owners.
A small minority of absolutists believe that gun ownership is unassailable “regardless of mental health or criminal background issues,” Jesmer said. But that is not the prevailing view in the courts or among Republicans.
“They are loud, but as evidenced by Senator Cornyn’s election history, (they’re) a small group of people,” he said.
Cornyn’s next primary is nearly four years away.