A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

How ‘Liberal’ Is Sen. Cornyn?


Republican Rep. Steve Stockman of Texas says he’s running against Sen. John Cornyn in the state’s 2014 primary because the incumbent is a backstabbing “liberal” who only votes with Republicans “temporarily” when an election approaches. But Cornyn’s voting record shows otherwise.

Actually, Cornyn is rated among the most conservative of all senators, and for years he’s voted in line with fellow Republican senators more often than all but a few of his GOP colleagues.

In a “Dear Patriot” fundraising letter posted on Stockman’s campaign website Dec. 10, the congressman began: “You are in a foxhole fighting to save our constitutional Republic … … and the last thing you need is a Republican bayonet in your back.”

‘Liberal’ Cornyn?

The phrase “liberal John Cornyn” appears 20 times in the text of the letter and in the headline as well, as though constant repetition would make it true. For example, he says, “liberal John Cornyn is now doing what he always does, spending four years voting like a Democrat, then spending the two years before an election pretending to be Republican.” The sentence is underlined for emphasis, in the breathless style used by partisan fundraising appeals.

The fact is, however, that Cornyn was rated the second most conservative of all incumbent U.S. senators by the nonpartisan National Journal, based on his voting record in the last Congress, which sat during 2011 and 2012. He scored 93.8 percent on the Journal’s “composite” conservative scale, which melds ratings on economic, social and foreign policy votes. He even edged out South Carolina Republican Sen. Jim DeMint, a Tea Party leader who has since left the Senate to head the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Other conservative groups also rate Cornyn highly. The American Conservative Union scored his votes as 90 percent conservative in 2011, and 88 percent conservative in 2012 — both well above the 78 percent conservative average for all incumbent GOP senators during the two-year period. Cornyn’s “lifetime” ACU rating — covering his entire Senate career since 2002 — is 93 percent conservative.

Similarly, the anti-tax group Club for Growth has consistently rated Cornyn among the most conservative GOP senators over the years. His ranking has varied from third most conservative in 2010 to 19th most conservative in 2008. His lifetime CFG rating stood at 87 percent. Based on that, Club for Growth announced Dec. 10 that it wouldn’t be supporting Stockman’s primary challenge to Cornyn.

The anti-abortion National Right to Life Committee gave Cornyn a rating of 100 percent in the last Congress, and also 100 percent in the current Congress to date.

Also in the current Congress, DeMint’s Heritage Action for America rates Cornyn’s voting record as the ninth most conservative among current Republican senators, giving him a rating of 86 percent.

In his fundraising letter, Stockman claims to have a “perfect 100% lifetime conservative rating,” though he doesn’t say what group might have awarded him that score. The American Conservative Union actually gave him a “lifetime” rating of 92 percent in 1996 — based on his single previous term in Congress. (Some news reports have put his ACU lifetime rating at 100 percent, but that doesn’t square with the actual rating posted on ACU’s website. Stockman did have a perfect score in 1995, but then he scored 83 in 1996 — resulting in a 92 “lifetime” rating.)

To be sure, Stockman’s Heritage rating in the current Congress is a bit more conservative than Cornyn’s, although based on different sets of votes and not precisely comparable. Heritage rates Stockman’s 2013 record as 90 percent conservative and Cornyn’s record 86 percent. Stockman ranks tied for 14th among all House members in the Heritage ratings, compared with Cornyn’s ninth-place rating among senators.

But whether or not Stockman is truly more conservative than Cornyn, calling the senator “liberal” is far from accurate by any standard measure.

Harry Reid’s Republican?

The same can be said for Stockman’s preposterous claim that Cornyn votes with Democrats except during elections:

Stockman: You see, liberal John Cornyn is only in office because he does two things.

First, he’s Harry Reid’s Republican until before the election, when he temporarily starts voting Republican.

That’s false. In the 112th Congress (2011-2012), Cornyn voted more consistently Republican than any other senator save for GOP Leader Mitch McConnell. Both voted with the majority of fellow GOP senators 92 percent of the time, according to the U.S. Congress Votes Database maintained by the Washington Post.

Previously, Cornyn voted Republican 94 percent of the time in the 111th Congress. That was edged out by only three other incumbents, who scored 95 percent.

And the claim that Cornyn is “temporarily” voting more Republican as the 2014 primary approaches is also false. In fact, he’s voting a bit less Republican this year. His party-line voting has fallen to 88 percent since January. But that’s still a solid number. It’s precisely the average for all 45 incumbent Republican senators, according to a running tabulation by the Sunshine Foundation.

Cornyn is actually voting more consistently Republican than Texas’ other senator, Ted Cruz, who voted the party line 83.6 percent of the time. That’s of interest because Stockman is appealing to Cruz supporters.

Cornyn ‘Betrayed’ Cruz?

Stockman claims in his letter that Cornyn “betrayed” Cruz by “abandoning Republicans during the Obamacare filibuster” and by “voting to fund Obamacare.” Both those claims are off base.

In fact, the Cruz “filibuster” — actually a 21-hour speech against the Affordable Care Act that didn’t actually block or delay any vote — wasn’t supported by most Senate Republicans, who (like Cornyn) stayed on the sidelines. The Cruz tactic was supported on the floor by just nine fellow senators: David Vitter of Louisiana, Mike Lee of Utah, Jeff Sessions of Alabama, Pat Roberts of Kansas, Mike Enzi of Wyoming, James Inhofe of Oklahoma, Jim Risch of Idaho, Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky. So Cornyn didn’t “abandon Republicans,” he was with the majority of GOP Senate members.

As for “voting to fund Obamacare,” Cornyn actually voted — along with Cruz and 42 other Senate Republicans — against a Democratic amendment that restored funds for the Affordable Care Act to the version previously passed by the GOP-controlled House. That was as close as the Senate came to a straight up-or-down vote on “defunding” Obamacare. Cornyn also lined up with Cruz and other GOP senators in voting against the amended bill to fund the entire federal government. It passed with only Democrats voting in favor, leading to a House-Senate standoff that produced a 16-day partial shutdown of the government.

And later, Cornyn was among only 18 senators — including Cruz — who voted against the spending bill that reopened the government.

For the record, Cornyn’s critics point to his vote in favor of proceeding to consideration of the House-passed funding bill before Democrats restored funding for the health care law. Cruz was among 19 Republican senators who voted to block consideration, while Cornyn was among 25 Senate Republicans who voted in favor (two did not vote).

What’s wrong with voting to consider a measure lacking Obamacare funding? “Although Cornyn did vote against the final bill, he and all Republicans knew that voting for cloture to end debate would allow Senator Harry Reid to fund ObamaCare by a party-line vote, and thus a vote for cloture was a de facto vote to fund ObamaCare,” argues a legislative affairs assistant for FreedomWorks, in an article re-posted on Stockman’s site. But that’s just an argument, not a fact.

Stockman’s Need for Funds

Cornyn had nearly $7 million in campaign funds on hand as of the most recent reports, while Stockman had $32,000. So Stockman needs to open a lot of conservative purses and quickly if he is to have any hope of matching Cornyn’s ability to spend in the coming primary campaign. The primary is March 4.

Judging by his fundraising letter, Stockman isn’t letting facts stand in his way.

— Brooks Jackson