Young Guns Rise Up

Cornyn, Ensign Staking Leadership Ground

Posted May 6, 2009 at 6:34pm

Republican Sens. John Cornyn (Texas) and John Ensign (Nev.) appear from the outside to be locked in a behind-the-scenes duel to fill the GOP’s leadership void, but the conservative Senators’ separate ambitions could ultimately head off a direct confrontation between the two.

Cornyn, the National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman, and Ensign, the Republican Policy Committee chairman, have each become a ubiquitous presence on the national airwaves, pushing back against President Barack Obama and Congressional Democrats on hot-button issues while promoting their party’s agenda. But with Cornyn interested in advancing his position in the Senate and Ensign interested in the national stage, a future struggle between the two for control of the Senate Republican Conference is not necessarily in the offing.

“Cornyn at his core is all about rebuilding and maintaining Republican majorities, and he understands that there’s a political component to that,— a senior Republican Senate aide said. “With Ensign, I don’t think his skill set is fit for a Senate leader as much as maybe a national stage.—

Speculation about a budding Cornyn-Ensign rivalry is fueled by the fact that Cornyn succeeded Ensign as NRSC chairman this cycle. Individuals close to both Senators say that their relationship is solid and that their staffs work together well.

As the 111th Congress opened, Ensign was coming off a tough election in which Republicans lost at least seven Senate seats. And, although few blamed Ensign given a Senate map that heavily favored Democrats, many saw Cornyn — the 2010 cycle chairman — as more energetic, particularly in terms of fundraising and recruiting.

But talk of tensions quickly waned as Ensign found his footing as the new GOP Policy Committee chairman. For his part, Cornyn has been credited with implementing an aggressive communications effort out of the NRSC, and Ensign has won plaudits for how he has used the Policy Committee to advance the Conference’s prerogatives on key issues.

“You have two extremely talented leaders who are coming into their own and being recognized for their talents in different ways. And each will be rewarded as the older bulls move out and younger bulls move up,— said Ron Bonjean, a former Senate GOP leadership aide.

Ensign agreed to helm the NRSC last cycle after a heavy lobbying campaign by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Cornyn, meanwhile, moved early to secure the post for 2010 and has indicated he would be willing to continue on for the 2012 cycle.

The NRSC post is often a key steppingstone in the Senate Republican leadership chain, with both McConnell and former Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.) having run the committee. Ensign, a staunch conservative and product of the 1994 Republican revolution, always preferred to run the Policy Committee and next month is heading to Sioux City, Iowa, to deliver a speech as part of a series featuring conservative leaders.

Ensign said Wednesday that his goal as Policy Committee chairman is to promote positive, practical solutions to problems that Americans are facing today, solutions that are consistent with the party’s philosophical principles on issues like health care, energy and government spending.

“We’ve had some great people be chairman of the Policy Committee, and I wanted to just follow in that,— Ensign said. “Because you get some really talented analysts to be able to help do the research and everything on putting policies forward.—

Cornyn, re-elected to a second term last year, spent his first six years on Capitol Hill immersed in policy. The former state Supreme Court justice served as the Senate Republican Conference Vice Chairman but generally focused on issues involving the judiciary, energy, government transparency and fiscal matters. But his foray into politics as NRSC chairman reveals broader ambitions.

As conservative as Ensign, Cornyn over the next 18 months must balance his personal politics with his responsibility as the head of the NRSC. Cornyn’s job is to flip Democratic-held seats in swing and Democratic-leaning states while holding onto Republican open seats in territory that has become increasingly more competitive.

Although Cornyn has the potential luxury of running against Obama, the 2010 Senate landscape appears more difficult than what Ensign faced just more than two years ago. But if Cornyn succeeds in picking up seats, he’ll acquire several chits to cash in down the road as leadership opportunities open up in the GOP Conference.

Cornyn agrees that the results of the 2006 and 2008 elections have created a leadership vacuum in the GOP but said that for now, his main role is to help the GOP win Senate seats. Individuals who follow Senate Republicans tend to support Cornyn’s claim, saying he does not have the same designs on being a national fixture as Ensign does.

“I’m trying to do my part,— Cornyn said. “The most effective thing I could do is be chairman of the NRSC — try to help us recruit good candidates and help them get elected.—

Meanwhile, the talk of a Cornyn-Ensign rivalry persists with some, if for no other reason than Cornyn and Ensign are relatively young, ambitious, aggressive and blooming in their Senate careers.

Although most of the high-level Republican Senate aides interviewed for this story dismissed talk of a future Conference power struggle between Cornyn and Ensign, a few conceded that the two Senators could be on track for wrestling match down the road.

“They’re two aggressive, ambitious Senators who want to be running the show,— one Senate aide said.