Conservatives worried about Dems in Texas decide to leave Cornyn alone

Leaders of a deep-pocketed conservative group that spent millions in Texas last election cycle says the state is now at such risk of turning blue in 2020, it will consider helping moderate Republican incumbents once deemed potential targets for its primary efforts.

Despite floating the idea of funding a challenger to Texas Sen. John Cornyn the last time he was on the ballot in 2014, Club for Growth President David McIntosh told the Star-Telegram Friday his group is now concerned about the state’s political future, and would spend money on Cornyn’s behalf if the senator draws a difficult challenge from a Democrat.

“If we get a sense that Cornyn has a vulnerability, then we’ll come back to that and decide whether we should engage,” said McIntosh, whose group has already begun polling in Texas for 2020. “That would be Texas-specific,” he added of his group’s overall strategy for the Senate map this cycle. “Were mainly interested in three states where the Republican primary is key.”

The Club for Growth PAC and Club for Growth Action spent roughly $5 million in Texas in 2018, and considers the state fertile ground for its goal of electing conservative allies to Washington.

In the months following an election in which nine GOP members of Congress received less than 52 percent of the vote, however, it’s been huddling with Republicans of all stripes who are concerned about rapid Democratic gains.

Though the group can’t legally coordinate on strategy with campaigns or the state party, it now heads into the 2020 cycle in lock-step with the Republican Party of Texas, whose leaders it has huddled with in both D.C. and Austin.

“The November results were a reminder to everyone of what’s at stake if we focus too much of our attention inward and not toward the general election in November, so I certainly hope that everyone has gotten the message,” said James Dickey, chairman of the Republican Party of Texas.

“In any race we should be considering whether the potential benefit of a possible change is significantly outweighed by the potential risk of a much worse change,” said Dickey.

Despite its long history of waging primary battles against moderate Republicans, the Club for Growth has in recent years become more focused on helping conservatives through open primaries.

This year it will take that evolution a step further, using its resources to help a broad swath of Texas Republicans maintain their party’s dominance.

“The big question that we’re looking at in Texas is the shift in the last election,” said McIntosh, whose group has no plans to attack incumbent Republicans in Texas this cycle. “Was that a temporary one, or was that a permanent realignment in some of those suburban voters?”

Texas’ suburbs saw a number of close races that shocked both Republicans and Democrats alike last year, thanks to rapidly changing Demographics and diminishing support for the GOP among white college-educated voters. In Tarrant County alone, five Republican state legislators are now defending districts where Democrats’ Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke came within five percentage points.

Among the Club’s concerns for the state: they monitored O’Rourke closely in the race against Sen. Ted Cruz, and fear O’Rourke’s presidential bid could further accelerate political change.

Internal polling the group conducted at the end of January showed President Donald Trump taking 46 percent in a head-to-head with O’Rourke, who took 44 percent.

“We’ve invested a lot, and honestly there are few states around the country where the voters are more aligned with our policy agenda,” McIntosh said of his PAC’s unusual focus on Texas.

Dickey said the state GOP is aggressively targeting suburban voters with new voter registration efforts, and has placed field staff in both Dallas and Tarrant Counties for 2020.

The Club, which still plans to engage in open-seat primaries in Texas, has also taken up the cause of courting independents in the suburbs, to defend newly-elected allies and to help GOP-pickup efforts in the two Congressional districts Texas Republicans lost last year, in Houston and Dallas.

That closeness with the party establishment isn’t sitting well with some of the area’s still vibrant tea party groups, which say their mission remains accountability for both parties.

“I’ve not heard that there is a collaborated effort to not wage primary battles, but if there are, do not expect NE Tarrant Tea Party to fall in line,” said Julie McCarty, president of the NE Tarrant Tea Party. “The beauty of the tea party is that we hold everyone accountable. We are not merely an arm of the GOP.”

So far conservative leaders in the state have sided against that idea. In addition to the Club, Cornyn, who fended off a host of GOP opponents in 2014, has also picked up support from Cruz, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Trump.

That coalition of endorsements has freed the senator up to court moderate and independent voters he’ll almost certainly need in 2020, with tactics that irritate his party’s base.

Cornyn huddled with the leader of LULAC, a national Latino civil rights organization, earlier this month to discuss a Senate version of the Dream Act, which would provide permanent residency protections for people brought into the country illegally as children, according to LULAC President Domingo Garcia.

“Cornyn is an embarrassment to the State of Texas,” said McCarty. “I don’t know who will run against him, but conversations are being had.”

Andrea Drusch is the Washington Correspondent for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. She is a Corinth, Texas, native and graduate of the Bob Schieffer School of Journalism at Texas Christian University. She returns home frequently to visit family, get her fix of Fuzzy’s Tacos and cheer on the Horned Frogs.