Could Paxton have his sights on Cornyn’s Senate seat in 2026?

The two represent dueling wings of the Texas Republican Party.

By David BrownMarch 15, 2024 1:33 pm,

In the world of Texas politics, few politicians represent what might be considered the old guard of pro-business, consensus-oriented Republicanism more than the senior senator from Texas, John Cornyn.

Then again, in the world of Texas politics, few politicians represent what might be considered the new way, pro-Trump, RINO-bashing right wing of Republicans more than the attorney general of Texas, Ken Paxton.

What happens if these two worlds collide at the ballot box?

Veteran politics writer Gromer Jeffers of The Dallas Morning News seems to think we may get a front row seat to just such a spectacle in the not too distant future, and he joined Texas Standard to discuss. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Well, it’s a very interesting proposition that you are raising in the Dallas Morning News here. What makes you think that we might be getting a sneak peek at a possible matchup between Ken Paxton and John Cornyn?

Gromer Jeffers: A couple of things.

One, Ken Paxton is super ambitious, and he’s always eyed a premier statewide office to run for after attorney general – either governor or Senate. And it looks like Senate is his best choice, because Abbott has established himself as being super popular, not just with general election voters, but also in much of the primary.

But in John Cornyn, he sees sort of the last of the Chamber of Commerce Republicans. He calls Cornyn a [Republican In Name Only] RINO. People will dispute that, but that’s how he casts it.

And it’s a perfect scenario where he can get in there, make a run, and sort of use his credibility with primary voters that tend to be the most hard-right activists in the party and use that form and use that arena to knock off the long term senator.

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Very interesting, because John Cornyn has, historically speaking, had a lot of support in the background from some of the big money contributors. Of course, Ken Paxton appears to have scored some victories in this last primary by backing some hand-picked candidates, right?

Right. And I think it’s all about the primary because let’s face it, if this was sort of like a November election and it was Cornyn against Paxton or an election where you had the entire Republican Party voting, Cornyn would probably win and win easily. But when you’re talking about the primary and only like 10 to 12% of folks voting, that’s when it gets kind of dicey.

Let me take you back to state conventions. The last one in 2022, John Cornyn was booed roundly and loudly by activists there for his work on that gun compromise bill.

And so that’s what he faces – that arena where you have the hard right voters dominating a process. Can he bring his moderate conservatives to the table in order to beat Paxton, who’s popular with the hard right?

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Well, now you’re suggesting that if there were to be such a showdown, we’d be looking at 2026 when Cornyn is up for reelection. But now I’m thinking a few things could happen.

We have Ken Paxton, who is facing state charges over allegations of financial misdeeds which actually pre-date his time as attorney general. They’ve just been stretched out for many, many years. And then you also have John Cornyn, who’s thrown his hat into the ring for Senate leadership position. Now, how could that affect the balance of power as you see it? 

Two things to look out for: One, does Cornyn become, Republican leader? If he becomes Republican leader, then he will certainly run for reelection in 2026. If he does not, you know, he was first elected in 2002. So I think he’ll think about retiring. He probably was thinking about that anyway. So a lot of it depends on if he does become Republican leader.

And on the Paxton side, does his legal problems take him down? Does that federal investigation bear fruit? And then there’s some sort of indictment and trial and all of that. So he has to concern himself with that as well.

Running in a federal arena is not like the state arena where you can have unlimited contributions. The contributions are capped on the federal level. So Paxton has to do some polling, figure out his fundraising situation. It’s not a slam dunk. It’ll be a challenge for him, just like it’ll be a challenge for Coryn.

So I think those things have to be sorted out. But the first and foremost, will Cornyn even run again? I think he does if he’s the Republican leader.

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