One is a senator from central casting, with the white hair and the soft face, a former judge who looks at ease in a suit or a golf shirt. An establishment guy, second in the U.S. Senate’s Republican hierarchy, the go-to guy for the White House during the Bush years and now a leader in the resistance to the Obama White House. He is a corporate type — the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.
This other fellow’s hair is jet black. He’s younger, but did all of the things an establishment politician might do: Princeton, Harvard Law, a clerkship at the U.S. Supreme Court, a stint as an appellate lawyer for the state attorney general’s office. Son of an immigrant, great student, debater and so on.
But he is a firebrand, an unlikely pinup for populist conservatives, a hero to them as much for whom he beat and the way he won as for his politics.
Their ideologies are pretty much in sync, though they have their differences. The two are split on whether military sexual assault cases should be left in the chain of command (Cornyn) or handled by independent prosecutors (Cruz). Cornyn was critical of the strategy to shut down government over the budget for the Affordable Care Act, a strategy Cruz championed. Cornyn is up for re-election next year, and Cruz has pointedly avoided an endorsement of his colleague.
A lot of this is style. Independent scorecards generally rank Cornyn among the most conservative senators — a point he is insistently invoking in the run-up to the March primaries.
But while Cornyn has taken a methodical path to the top of the heap, Cruz has stormed the hill, flashing a rhetorical flamethrower and a knack for getting in front of the cameras.
The contrasts between Cornyn and Cruz aren’t exactly the same as those between the former Texas senators Lloyd Bentsen and Phil Gramm, who were from different parties and had bigger substantive differences, but there are parallels.
Cornyn succeeded Gramm. Cruz occupies the seat once held by Bentsen.
Gramm bucked the Democratic Party in support of Ronald Reagan’s economic policies, switched parties, quit his U.S. House seat, won it again and then won the Senate seat he held for 18 years. He was a camera hustler, especially early in his career. He had a flair for grabbing national attention on issues that more experienced colleagues considered their turf.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Cornyn isn’t the patrician Bentsen was, but he has the manner of a boardroom regular. If Cruz’s success is in his edginess, Cornyn’s is based on an ability to be congenial and confrontational at the same time.
Cornyn, first elected to the Senate in 2002, rose very quickly to a top position. In seniority, he’s right behind the minority leader, Mitch McConnell, who is facing a serious re-election challenge. Cornyn could be at the top in a year, if things go wrong for the Kentuckian.
Cruz, unknown two years ago, is now the state’s most popular Republican. He’s a national news figure, a contestant in the current prospecting phase of the 2016 presidential contest.
Cornyn, like Bentsen, worked his way into the club. Cruz, like the early Gramm, is a noisy phenom.
In the 1980s, the two political parties were competitive in statewide races. Democrats had the edge, but Republicans were starting to win some statewide contests. With the competition confined to the Republicans for the last two decades, the most important distinctions are being made in that party’s primaries.
Cruz’s politics might be like Cornyn’s in many ways, but other things are important. Cornyn waited for an open seat to run for the Senate after working his way up from a district judge to the Texas Supreme Court to state attorney general. Cruz jumped the line, famously elbowing Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst out of the way in a primary that was supposed to be Dewhurst’s to lose. Dewhurst, after all, had worked his way up the old-fashioned way.
The elections next year could bear odd and unexpectedly powerful fruit, leaving Texas with the hottest Republican in the Senate and the highest-ranking one, too.