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Cornyn Shifts to Phase 2 of Majority Battle Plan

Sen. John Cornyn volunteered for a second consecutive tour of duty as National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman to finish the job of reclaiming a GOP majority in 2012.

In a 30-minute interview with Roll Call Thursday, the Texas Republican declined to predict the outcome of elections 23 months away. But he made clear only one result is acceptable heading into a cycle that has a favorable map for the GOP.

Cornyn said it would be a “disappointment” if Senate Republicans are still in the minority in 2013. “I think we’ve got very good opportunities for pickups in ’12, and another reason I decided to stay on was I think we have an opportunity to turn the corner and get in the majority,” he said.

The 2012 map features 23 Democratic-held seats, many in Republican-leaning states or in territory that could be favorable to the GOP based on 2010 results. These battlegrounds include Florida, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio and Virginia. Only 10 Republican seats are up in 2012, and most are considered safe for the party.

Cornyn plans a few key adjustments in strategy heading into the next cycle, although his blueprint calls mostly for refining and building on Republicans’ seven-seat net gain in 2010, a number that includes the special election win in Massachusetts. In particular, Cornyn intends to further involve his GOP colleagues in the candidate recruitment process to prevent Conference infighting and a rash of divisive primaries that in some cases resulted in weak general election candidates this year.

Cornyn acknowledged learning the lesson of having candidates deemed as the national party pick in a cycle marked by the rise of the tea party. Candidates initially recruited and touted by the NRSC who never became the party’s nominee included most notably Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, but also Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson, former Colorado Lt. Gov. Jane Norton and former Nevada GOP Chairman Sue Lowden.

“It’s not necessarily an advantage for a candidate, particularly in a contested primary, to be known as the person recruited by a national committee. I think we need to be conscious of that,” he said.

Sen. Jim DeMint, who endorsed several candidates in GOP primaries perceived as more conservative, said he expects better cooperation in the 2012 cycle and that Cornyn will show more deference in the candidates he recruits and more subtlety in how he attempts to influence primaries.

But the South Carolina Republican also appears to share the NRSC chairman’s philosophy on recruiting electable candidates.

DeMint raised $5.6 million for Republican Senate candidates during the 2010 cycle through his Senate Conservatives Fund political action committee and plans to build on that effort over the next two years.

“We want to make sure we get not only conservatives, but people who can run a good campaign and know what they’re doing,” DeMint said. “I think we’re going to work much better together and I would be surprised if we ended up on different pages here, just because I don’t think they’re going to be as likely to pick a candidate early in a race.”

Cornyn said he is encouraging every candidate he meets with to consult with as many GOP Senators as possible — rank-and-file Members as well as leadership.

Unlike 2009, when he at times struggled to recruit top-tier contenders, Cornyn expects a flood of potential candidates to emerge in 2011 unprompted.

“One of the things I learned from the last cycle is that people sort of form impressions of candidates, maybe without getting to know them or really knowing what they’re like,” Cornyn said. “I still believe that the quality of the candidate makes a difference, it’s not just about their philosophy — and that different states are going to be more likely to support Republican candidates who fit their state. But I do think we can sort of de-conflict a lot by sort of getting more people engaged in the process.”

Cornyn will be going up against Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.), who agreed to serve as Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee chairwoman after intense lobbying from party leaders. She was DSCC chairwoman in the 2002 cycle.

“This isn’t a direct competition between the two of us,” Murray said Thursday, referring to Cornyn. “This is about who’s going to represent the people of this country, and I will be speaking out loudly on behalf of thousands of families across our country and the people that represent them to make sure the priorities that we have here meet their needs.”

Cornyn’s top five takeover targets are Democratic-held seats in Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio and Virginia. The NRSC chairman declined to list which of his own Members are most vulnerable in 2012, when the presidential election could have a significant effect on the battle for the Senate.

But Cornyn said he has already offered crucial advice to every Republican up for re-election that year.

“What I told all of our incumbents is, I said, you will have a primary opponent, and the best thing you can do now is get ready for that,” Cornyn said. “You need to start raising money, you need to go home and you need to engage your potential critics.”

What Cornyn is not doing is asking Republican Senators to donate personal campaign cash to the NRSC. Continuing a tactic he employed last cycle, he is asking instead for his members to help the committee raise money by being generous with their time. The DSCC outraised the NRSC by $15 million for the 2010 cycle largely because of the Member-transfer receipts.

Republican Senators, historically averse to transferring campaign funds to the NRSC, responded well to Cornyn’s strategy. Cornyn also tapped nine Senators last cycle to chair six separate NRSC fundraising programs, with Sen. Orrin Hatch (Utah) serving as committee vice chairman.

Cornyn was not prepared to reveal his picks to helm those programs this cycle. Hatch is running for re-election, but there has been no word yet on whether he will step away from his role at the NRSC. Meanwhile, Cornyn was quick to tout his fundraising accomplishments at the NRSC. The committee raised $110 million for the cycle.

According to NRSC statistics, just under 375,000 new donors were added last cycle, most of them small contributors. Individuals that gave $25,000 or more grew 18 percent. Cornyn raised $14 million in Texas alone, and he expects his home state to be a resource again. Cornyn’s take in Texas was decent considering that the National Republican Congressional Committee, chaired by a fellow Texan, Rep. Pete Sessions, also raised $14 million in the Lone Star State.

“We were able to shrink the gap between the DSCC and the NRSC substantially. Part of that was by aggressively reaching out to some of the folks who had been supporting Democrats,” Cornyn said. “Part of it’s just grinding it out on the telephone.”

Kyle Trygstad contributed to this report.

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