Cornyn, Cruz share spotlight as Barrett hearings begin
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee begins four days of hearings Monday on Supreme Court nominee Judge Amy Coney Barrett, with both Texas senators expected to play high-profile roles in a high-stakes gamble that could ensure a 6-3 conservative majority on the court for a generation.
Republicans are pushing to confirm Barrett before the presidential election — just 22 days away.
“It’s Willy Wonka’s golden ticket for many conservatives,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, political science professor at the University of Houston.
The coronavirus has injected uncertainty into the GOP’s would-be speedy process. U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, a member of the Judiciary Committee, is quarantining himself in his Washington apartment and will participate in the hearings remotely because he has had recent interactions with Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, one of two judiciary committee members who have recently tested positive for COVID-19. Cruz said he has not tested positive. GOP Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina is the other judiciary panelist who has said he has tested positive.
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, also a member of the committee, will attend the hearings in person, a spokesperson said.
Both Cruz and Cornyn are strong supporters of the nominee.
“I’m confident that Judge Barrett will be confirmed and confirmed by the end of the month before Election Day so that we ensure we have a full nine justice Supreme Court available to resolve in any election disputes that could come of this,” Cruz said on Fox News.
Cornyn said on the Senate floor of Barrett, “She has an unquestionable character, a brilliant mind and the kind of temperament needed to serve on the court and I'm eager for the American people to see that for themselves as we begin the public confirmation process.”
Cornyn is one of the players with the most to lose: His reelection battle is tightening against Democrat MJ Hegar, who has just posted a strong third-quarter fundraising haul, and he needs to prove to the GOP base that he can deliver.
Cruz has been an outspoken advocate for a more conservative Supreme Court — he has just published a book, “One Vote Away: How a Single Supreme Court Seat Can Change History” — and is staking his goal of running again for president on aligning himself with President Donald Trump and confirming conservative judges.
“Cornyn doesn’t have enough signature wins as a Republican in office (in the Senate) for nearly 20 years,” Rottinghaus said. “Filling the court with conservatives is his saving grace and a recent brag point for wavering conservatives frustrated with few policy victories.”
“Cruz’s entire argument for backing Trump was about filling the court with conservatives,” he said.
Cornyn’s reelection campaign
In a University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll released Friday, Cornyn leads Hegar by 8 points, but Jim Henson, director of UT’s Texas Politics Project told the American-Statesman that the race isn’t a lock for Cornyn: “Hegar has room to grow.”
“He (Cornyn) is ahead, but can only be so comfortable, and can't afford to lose any Republicans,” Henson said.
The senior Texas senator will be getting a lot of attention during the confirmation hearings — both from Republicans who support him and Democrats looking for him to make a mistake.
“Given that Cornyn needs every iota of Republican support to hold the line in the face of the countermobilization Trump inspires among Democrats, his only option in this circumstance is to support Trump's nominee,” Henson said.
No downside for Cruz
Republicans supporting the Barrett nomination faced harsh criticism for rushing to fill the seat of liberal icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died last month, so close to the presidential election. Democrats and even some Republicans said the Senate majority should wait until after the election to ensure that the voters’ choice for president, either Trump or Democratic nominee Joe Biden, was able to select a justice for a pivotal seat.
Republicans, including Cruz, were tagged as hypocrites by critics because of the GOP stall imposed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in 2016, also a presidential year. President Barack Obama nominated Judge Merrick Garland after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February 2016 but Garland never got a hearing and Trump filled the seat when he was elected.
Cruz has led the GOP argument that the current circumstances are different because the president and the Senate are held by the same party, unlike in 2016.
“The Coney Barrett hearings should help Cornyn by focusing attention away from an unpopular Donald Trump, an ailing economy, and the COVID-19 pandemic, and focusing attention toward key policy differences that separate Republicans and Democrats, a focus that can only help Cornyn, who only needs Republican voters to turn out and then vote for him in order to insure his reelection,” said Mark Jones, political science professor at Rice University.
“For Cruz, the hearings provide him with an opportunity to bolster his conservative credentials by serving as a forceful and visible advocate for Coney Barrett’s confirmation, with little to no downside,” Jones said.
Democrats are focused on Cornyn who they think they have a chance to defeat.
“Cornyn is definitely squeezed between the off-the-edge Trumpers who drive the Texas Republican base and more centrist voters, especially women,” said Matt Angle, a Democratic operative who directs the Lone Star Project, a Democratic political action committee. “He’s paying a price, and MJ Hegar is benefiting, from Cornyn’s squishy, passive nature.”