Feb 29, 2024 - Politics

Cornyn's Paxton-shaped Achilles' heel

Sen. John Cornyn (left) and Attorney General Ken Paxton (right)

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton took the gloves off. Photos: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images and Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

John Cornyn, the senior senator from Texas, has a Ken Paxton problem.

Why it matters: Republicans have a strong chance of retaking the Senate, and Cornyn announced Thursday he wants to succeed Mitch McConnell as GOP Senate leader.

  • "Throughout my time I've built a track record of listening to colleagues and seeking consensus, while leading the fight to stop bad policies that are harmful to our nation and the conservative cause," Cornyn said in a statement Thursday announcing his bid.

Behind the scenes: MAGA is eager to fill the void.

  • Cornyn and South Dakota Sen. John Thune — McConnell deputies whom former President Trump has shamed as "RINOs" — Republicans in Name Only — face an uphill climb in their quest to become the next GOP leader.
  • Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) enters the race as the most MAGA-friendly of the "Three Johns."
  • Trump, for his part, is pushing Republican Sen. Steve Daines of Montana to run for the job.

Yes, but: A sizable number of Republican senators still want their leadership to function as a bulwark against Trumpian excesses, especially given the far-right chaos that has plagued the House GOP majority.

The intrigue: After Trump won the New Hampshire primary in January, Cornyn kissed the ring, publicly declaring his support for the former president.

What they're saying: "It will be difficult for Cornyn to be an effective leader since he is anti-Trump, anti-gun, and will be focused on his highly competitive primary campaign in 2026," Paxton tweeted on Wednesday.

  • "Hard to run from prison, Ken," Cornyn, who is a former Texas attorney general, shot back at the indicted Trump surrogate.

Between the lines: "I expect the intra-party battle for party leader will — in this time when fealty to Trump matters more than fidelity to an ideology — be a display of who can best front the Trump agenda," Andrea Hatcher, a politics professor at the University of the South and the author of the book "Majority Leadership in the U.S. Senate," tells Axios.

  • "Will it be as overt as the battle for Speaker in the House? Probably not. But you can be sure the next party leader in the Senate will campaign for Trump's approval as a way to get his or her colleagues' approval."

Worth noting: Cornyn voted with Trump's position 92.2% of the time during Trump's presidency, per an analysis by FiveThirtyEight.

💭 Our thought bubble: Cornyn is a savvy operator, and to get the Senate leadership job his constituents will be the other 50-odd GOP members.

  • In this clubby group, Paxton is something of a hinterlands novelty — which is probably why Cornyn feels emboldened to dish out the retorts.

What's next: This could be building to a Republican primary battle royale in 2026, when Cornyn will be up for re-election.


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