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DSCC: Right Candidate Could Upset Cornyn

Feeling as though they have the political winds at their backs and armed with a new poll, Democrats are feinting as though they intend to target Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) next year in a state that is still seen as a safe bet for Republicans in 2008.

They are mentioning Rep. Nick Lampson, former state Comptroller John Sharp and 2002 nominee Ron Kirk as potential challengers.

Cornyn in an interview was confident that he is both politically and operationally well-positioned for his first re-election bid as Senator, though he vowed not to take anything for granted. But Democrats, on the heels of a survey commissioned by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, are floating the names of six potential challengers they’re describing as viable, while contending Cornyn is unexpectedly vulnerable.

In 2006, “people weren’t lining up to run against [Sen.] Kay Bailey Hutchison [R-Texas]. You didn’t hear any talk like this last cycle,” said one Democratic operative based in Texas. “I think it’s a demonstration of John Cornyn’s vulnerability that people are looking at this race.”

The results from the DSCC poll that have Democrats particularly excited include one statistic showing that 39 percent of voters aren’t familiar enough with Cornyn to rate him positively or negatively, even though he has been in statewide elective office for more than a dozen years. He previously served as state attorney general and as an elected state Supreme Court judge.

Another of the survey’s findings showed Republicans with only a 2-point edge — 43 percent to 41 percent — when respondents were asked generically whether they’d prefer a GOP or Democratic Congress. The Hamilton Beattie and Staff poll was conducted April 11-15 and surveyed 800 likely voters. The margin of error was 3.5 points.

“The recent [DSCC] poll numbers, while not definitive, certainly show progress for Democrats relative to polls we’ve seen at this point in ’06 or ’04,” said Matt Angle, director of the Lone Star Project, an advocacy group sympathetic to Texas Democrats. “Cornyn spent four years carrying water for national Republicans, so his own reservoir of support is low.”

Cornyn aides countered that the same poll showed the Senator with a 41 percent to 19 percent favorable/unfavorable rating. And the DSCC did not release any head-to-head poll numbers testing Cornyn and any of his potential challengers.

While even Cornyn himself acknowledged his name identification was not on par with that of 2006 election winners Hutchison and Gov. Rick Perry (R), both the Senator and his aides dismissed any notion that the Lone Star State is less Republican than it was in the previous three cycles.

“Texas is still a pretty conservative state,” Cornyn said Wednesday. “I’ve lived in Texas virtually all of my life, and I feel I understand the values of the people in my state and feel like I reflect those values as best I can in the Senate.”

Echoing a sentiment expressed by several Republican operatives, Cornyn said Democrats don’t actually believe they can pick him off.

What Democrats are really doing, Cornyn said, is promoting his supposed vulnerability to motivate Texas Democrats to donate money to national Democratic Party committees — money that ultimately will be used to target Republicans in other states. On the same day this week that they released the poll, DSCC officials also e-mailed a fundraising solicitation to potential donors, touting the poll.

Democrats, though admitting there is a kernel of truth to Cornyn’s accusation, say they believe Cornyn is beatable against the right candidate.

The top three individuals being eyed by the party to challenge the Republican are Sharp, the former state comptroller; Lampson, who holds the Republican-leaning 22nd district in suburban Houston; and wealthy trial attorney Mikal Watts (D) of San Antonio.

Watts last weekend hosted a DSCC fundraiser at his home that brought in $1.1 million and is described as someone who could partially self-fund a Senate run. Sharp was appointed by Perry to lead a state commission on tax reform and is considered a conservative Democrat. Lampson is a proven fundraiser who might have trouble winning re-election to his current post and therefore is seen as someone who could be convinced to challenge Cornyn.

Sharp did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesman for Lampson declined to address the Congressman’s thoughts on running for Senate, saying simply that he is focused on doing his job. Watts was in trial and could not be reached.

Meanwhile, Democrats also are talking up as potential Senate candidates state Sens. Rick Noriega and Kirk Watson, as well as Kirk, the former Dallas mayor and the Democrat who lost to Cornyn in 2002. In a brief interview, Watson, a former mayor of Austin, said he was inclined to remain in the Legislature. A spokesman for Noriega declined to comment on his boss’s interest in running for Senate. Kirk did not return a phone call.

Any Democrat who runs will have a steep hill to climb.

Texas is an expensive state, and while Democrats have yet to find a candidate, Cornyn raised $930,000 in the first quarter of this year to close the period with $3.8 million on hand. Cornyn said he expects to improve upon his first-quarter fundraising performance as the election draws nearer.

One Republican strategist with experience in Senate races said the Democratic candidate is going to have to spend anywhere from $15 million to $20 million to seriously compete for the seat.

This operative said that even if the Democrats’ argument that Cornyn’s name identification is weak is correct, recognition of the Senator is still likely to surpass that of the eventual Democratic nominee at the outset of the race. This is significant because Cornyn is the incumbent and begins the race with a significant financial edge.

Additionally, this strategist said, Cornyn has a law and order background that plays well with the Texas electorate, and is likely to be a better ideological fit for voters than his eventual competition.

“Sen. Cornyn is a very strong candidate,” the GOP strategist said. “He’s a hard campaigner, good at raising money and he’s articulate.”

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