WASHINGTON — Several words are missing from Sen. John Cornyn’s ad blitz hitting Texas TV viewers in the final weeks of his reelection bid: Republican. Conservative. Trump.
Instead, the three-term incumbent focuses on his concern for victims of sexual violence and the scourge of COVID-19, and his dismay that challenger MJ Hegar uses vulgarity in public.
One ad describes him as “calm, steady, effective,” another as “Common sense. Thoughtful. Proven leadership.” It’s all very reassuring and not especially partisan, befitting a campaign season overshadowed by a pandemic and urban upheaval, and largely in the hands of suburbanites who have been abandoning the GOP in droves.
President Donald Trump doesn’t appear in Cornyn’s ads. Nor do phrases like “liberal mob” — but that’s the TV image.
It’s a tightrope, as Cornyn tries to avoid alienating suburban voters while also projecting that he’s conservative enough for the hard right activists who control the Texas Republican Party.
“He’s really trying to carefully walk that middle ground to be, you know, not too far to the left, not too far to the right, just perfect. It’s the Goldilocks strategy,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a University of Houston political scientist.
The contrast is especially stark next to the state’s junior senator, Ted Cruz. Compared to him, Rottinghaus said, Cornyn comes off as “a kind of moderate choice in a polarized Texas.”
There’s a harder-edged version that comes through in the $2 million worth of digital ads Cornyn has placed through Google and Facebook, though. Such ads allow for more targeting, making it easier to present a sharper message without offending anyone outside the base.
“Defund the police? Abolish ICE? Not in Texas! I’m working to STOP the Liberal Mob,” reads one ad that ran on Facebook throughout the summer.
“Should we give free healthcare to illegal immigrants?” reads another online ad, part of a volley with slogans like “Stop the Radical Left.” One version showed a football player taking a knee and asked. “Should we stand during the national anthem?”
From May to July, Web surfers encountered a Cornyn ad that embraced Trump’s decision to pull out of the World Health Organization: “Will you stand with POTUS?” it asks.
In a short digital ad that ran this summer, Cornyn warned that “the liberal mob wants to defund the police, abolish ICE, remove conservative judges from the bench, and they want to start with Texas. I’m fighting back — standing up for the rule of law and the Constitution here in the Lone Star State,” he said.
Donald Trump Jr. taped a digital ad for Cornyn pleading for donations. “My father and I are counting on John Cornyn” to block Democrats from flipping Texas blue, the president’s son said.
His demeanor, and habitual aversion to inflammatory comments, makes him a tougher target for Democrats than the likes of Sen. Lindsey Graham, who is battling for survival this year in South Carolina, or Cruz, whose tea party tactics and demands helped to fuel the Beto O’Rourke surge.
“Being kind of in the mushy middle gives him cover for a long record in the Senate, and some fairly conservative positions,” Rottinghaus said.
Like any campaign, Cornyn’s ads reflect choices about how he wants voters to think of him, and the impossibility of summing up 18 years in Washington in a handful of 30-second teleplays.
The choices are especially critical this year, given how many voters still didn’t know much about Cornyn in the final stretch of the campaign.
A Dallas Morning News/University of Texas at Tyler poll in early September found that more than 1 in 4 Texas voters didn’t know enough about Cornyn to offer an opinion, good or bad.
That went double for Hegar, running her first statewide race. She’d made enough of an impression for barely half the electorate to have an opinion about her.
That gave Cornyn an opening. He has painted her as “too liberal for Texas” — and by implication, himself as more conservative, which of course he is. His ads accuse her of such radical goals as legalized prostitution, defunding the police and ending Medicare, all of which she denies.
One ad he’s aired in Waco, East Texas and Corpus Christi features a sheriff’s detective from McLennan County in white cowboy hat, badge hanging from his suit pocket, decrying politicians who want to defund police. Hegar is never mentioned but that’s the implication.
“The police will be there as long as I remain your senator. Saying ridiculous things to try and get attention is not this Texan’s style,” says Cornyn, wearing a Texas flag-style mask — a bit of virtue signaling and attention to science that his ally in the White House has avoided.
“The state is almost brand-new. You’ve got something like 3 million new voters in the six years” since Cornyn’s last election, Rottinghaus said, “so his play has been to make sure that they don’t know everything about him but they know enough about him.”
Data from the tracking firm Advertising Analytics shows that by far, the bulk of Cornyn’s spending has gone not into attacks but into image-building spots like one featuring Jenna Quinn. She grew up in the Dallas suburb of Carrollton, where she was abused by a friend of her father’s.
“I was sexually abused as a child,” she says into the camera. “You’re just a kid and no one believes you. But years later, John Cornyn did. … And working with Democrats, he passed a bill to help identify abuse early.”
The shot shifts to a close-up of Cornyn, this time in a disposable blue mask. “They call it Jenna’s Law, and she deserves the credit,” he says.
The ad, effective at cultivating an empathetic image that’s sure to appeal to suburbanites, began running days after the Senate approved the bill last month. Cornyn has spent nearly $2 million on it, on TV and online.
Nuance is key to understanding much of Cornyn’s record.
Through a summer of upheaval over police killings, Cornyn has rejected that racism is systemic in law enforcement, drawing some criticism. But he’s also gone out of his way to meet with stakeholders across the divide. He touts his work with Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., on the JUSTICE Act, which would ban chokeholds, curb no-knock warrants, and make lynching a federal crime.
Cornyn led a push to create a Smithsonian museum honoring American Latinos.
He has proposed making Juneteenth a national holiday marking the end of slavery in 1865.
He assures voters that he wants to protect coverage for pre-existing conditions — despite an unblemished record of opposing and voting to scrap the Affordable Care Act, which conferred that protection for the first time.
He touts efforts to bring COVID-19 relief to the Rio Grande Valley, and his support for free trade, a lifeblood of the Texas economy — all broadly appealing stances.
“While the rest of Washington shouts at one another, Texas has a calm, steady hand in Senator John Cornyn,” the narrator says in an ad aired this month in South Texas. Another spot that Cornyn unleashed Thursday, bashing Hegar for cussing, jibes with the effort to appeal to voters who prefer genteel behavior, regardless of their political views.
“He’s emphasizing his personality, the moderate centrist approach that sells in a clubbish U.S. Senate, and hoping that won’t end up sinking him with one constituency or another,” Rottinghaus said.
A six-page, single-spaced list of the senator’s legislative efforts and achievements provided by his campaign covers a far broader range of topics than his ads could.
On natural disasters, for instance, Cornyn notes that he secured $147 billion to help Texas recover from Hurricane Harvey, and a provision allowing $5 billion in tax deductions for hurricane-related costs.
He also pushed the Federal Emergency Management Agency to give churches access to disaster relief funds.
Cornyn lists 13 priorities on his website, including two that dovetail with his media message: victims’ rights and human trafficking.
Cornyn spent years shepherding a law to provide funds needed to test evidence from sexual assaults. The rape kit backlog stymied countless prosecutions and left victims in limbo.
“The bill I sponsored cleared up that backlog and brought justice and hopefully some peace to those victims,” he says in one ad with about $1 million behind it.
He also highlights his support for school choice, Texas’ energy and agriculture industries, military and veterans.
Cornyn holds an A+ rating from the National Rifle Association, and the group’s endorsement, reflecting that he’s been a staunch defender of Second Amendment rights.
After the massacre at a church in Sutherland Springs near San Antonio in November 2017 that left 26 dead, calls for gun control spiked as they always do after such tragedies.
Cornyn, working with Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut and Rep. Henry Cuellar of Laredo, both Democrats, addressed the failure of the Air Force to enter the shooter’s criminal record into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. By last December, their Fix NICS law yielded 6 million new records in the database used to flag ineligible gun buyers.
After an El Paso rampage that cost 22 lives in August 2019, Cornyn filed a bill that would 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.
Cornyn touts $20 billion in federal relief he’s secured for Texas hospitals, first responders, schools, local governments, businesses and households.
He backed the $2.2 trillion CARES Act, the huge stimulus plan that included $1,200 payments and extended jobless benefits that expired in August. Talks on a fresh round of relief have stalled for months.
Cornyn’s stance has been to caution some fiscal restraint. His team boasts that he’s “the chief architect of legislation that will provide common sense liability safe harbors for businesses” — a proposal that would give businesses legal immunity unless they wantonly disregard safety guidelines.
Unions and consumer advocates say it’s tilted heavily against workers and customers who might be put at risk.
Cornyn considers it a common-sense solution to spur economic recovery, and he’s hardly been strident in calling for businesses and schools to reopen fast, a balanced approach reflected in an ad featuring “Becky from Austin” saying she wants her kids back in the classroom “but only after it’s a safe place to be. John Cornyn gets it.”
Congress has provided more than $3 trillion in #COVID19 relief, but after speaking with countless Texans I know how critical it is to get more relief passed. That’s what we tried to do yesterday with The Continuing Paycheck Protection Act, but Democrats blocked it. pic.twitter.com/5jWrU3VVwM
— Senator John Cornyn (@JohnCornyn) October 21, 2020
Cornyn has argued for more relief but the sides remain at an impasse.
Cornyn’s record on immigration and border security is complicated, and it has evolved.
Early in his tenure, he was a forceful advocate of comprehensive immigration reform — a big deal that would pair security and enforcement measures with a path to citizenship for people already in the country illegally.
When pushback from the right torpedoed that approach, Cornyn switched gears, focusing on a security-first approach and repeatedly opposing comprehensive deals.
In the campaign, he has insisted that he “strongly supports legalization of Dreamers,” an oft-stated position but one that immigrant advocates cynically call misleading.
One English-language ad Cornyn aired in the Rio Grande Valley this month includes the line that “while Senator Cornyn is for secure borders, he strongly supports legalization for Dreamers.” On screen, the image of a tall fence guarded with barbed wire shifted to two adorable Latino children reciting the Pledge of Allegiance with hands over their hearts.
Cornyn aides defend the claim on Dreamers. He supports legal status for immigrants brought into the country illegally as children, as long as it’s paired with other provisions.
He voted against a standalone Dream Act in 2007, and a number of measures that included the protection. Among the many GOP versions he supported: Trump’s offer in early 2018 to protect 1.8 million young immigrants in exchange for $25 billion for border wall construction.
It’s a straddle.
“It is definitely disingenuous, but it’s also smart politics,” Rottinghaus said.
Like many GOP lawmakers, Cornyn has distanced himself from the president’s most inflammatory comments while taking care not to antagonize.
When journalist Bob Woodward reported last month that Trump admitted to downplaying the pandemic to the public, Cornyn said he could have been more forthright without sparking panic.
In the closing weeks of the campaign, Cornyn has sent mixed messages.
He defended the president’s response to the pandemic by telling The News’ editorial board that “we’ve all tried to do our best.”
Pressed by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram editorial board for examples of disagreements with Trump, he said he’s been careful to keep such differences private, to remain effective.
He cited his opposition to a border wall as extensive as Trump wants. And he claimed that he’d opposed siphoning defense funds to pay for the wall, which contradicted numerous public statements defending Trump for doing just that.
But when the national news media noticed that he was distancing himself from Trump, Cornyn disputed that.
And, for his targeted audience of GOP voters, he has emphasized his loyalty.
“He’s always been there for us, whether it’s voting for judges, fighting against China or supporting President Trump,” says Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor who served as Trump’s U.N. ambassador, in one digital ad pleading for donations.