Cornyn Flashes Pragmatism

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It's been a big news day for Sen. John Cornyn, the Republican responsible for winning Senate seats in 2010, one in which he twice repudiated the conservative wing of his party.

Cornyn (R-TX), who chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee, criticized Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh on NPR for accusing Sonia Sotomayor of racism, and he offered a vision of electoral pragmatism in a post this morning on RedState, in which he explained his decision to endorse Gov. Charlie Crist in Florida's 2010 Senate race over conservative Marco Rubio.

Cornyn took some heat from conservatives (including RedState's top blogger, Erick Erickson) for backing Crist earlier this month. The crux of the criticism was about party identity, and whether the GOP should strive for principled conservatism or the cultivation of moderate ideas, candidates, and votes.

Today, Cornyn basically said it's about winning:

Some believe that we should be a monolithic Party; I disagree. While we all might wish for a Party comprised only of people who agree with us 100 percent of the time, this is a pipedream. Each Party is fundamentally a coalition of individuals rallying around core principles with some variations along the way. My job as Chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee is to recruit candidates who have the best chance of winning and holding seats - and to do so in as many states as possible. Earlier this month, two Republicans candidates emerged for the open Senate seat being vacated by Mel Martinez in the Sunshine State: Marco Rubio, the young and talented Hispanic former Speaker of the state House, and Charlie Crist, the state's popular Governor.

There is no doubt both of these candidates have a bright future in the Republican Party. But with his record of leadership and astronomical approval ratings, including strong numbers among Republicans, Democrats and Independents, Charlie Crist represents the best chance for Republicans to hold this seat in Florida. That is why I endorsed Governor Crist for the U.S. Senate. That is also why Governor Crist was endorsed by Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, outgoing Florida U.S. Senator Mel Martinez, U.S. Senator John McCain, and other leaders within the Republican Party.

While Cornyn gives multiple nods to conservative principles, it's clear that he falls on the side of ideological expansion, when it gives the party a chance to win. His reason is a pragmatic one: Crist has better name ID (a fact Cornyn mentions) and a better chance of winning. It's easy math, Cornyn said.

Cornyn is in a different position from conservative pundits, as many have noted: he's got Senate seats to win, and they don't. Crist's candidacy offered the GOP a flagship candidate for the time being: a high-profile one who could hold a seat in a big swing state like Florida--a sign of GOP competitiveness. Perhaps Crist's flagship status made conservatives more concerned about the endorsement.

Cornyn's disputes with conservatives show that the question over GOP identity is not one question confronting one unified party: Limbaugh, Gingrich, RNC Chairman Michael Steele, National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Pete Sessions, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and Cornyn might all come up with different answers. Consequently, Republican media talking points, Senate campaigns, House campaigns, and legislative strategy might differ.

Most GOP elected officials have sought to tread water on the identity issue, keeping their moderate options open while advocating principled conservatism at the same time. Cornyn did some of that in his RedState post, but, in two instances today, he articulated quite plainly where he stands.

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Chris Good is a political reporter for ABC News. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and a reporter for The Hill.

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