Senator John Cornyn. Political Dodo: In Danger of Extinction?

Senator John Cornyn

We've all seen the pictures. Majestic, gargantuan birds living an idyllic existence on their island home free from predators and other external dangers.

- Getty Images

We've all seen the pictures. Majestic, gargantuan birds living an idyllic existence on their island home free from predators and other external dangers. That is, until under pressure from a changing environment (principally human hunters), coupled with an absence of fear of those hunters, the Dodo Bird was driven into extinction.

Similarly, Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas has led a fairly idyllic existence in the politically safe, reddest of red states, being re-elected in 2008 without serious opposition. Like the Dodo, he is unafraid. He has had no serious competition from the Democrats in years, and his Senate sinecure seems safe.

But all is not well in the land of Cornyn, who may not be quite as safe as he once was.

The growth of the Latino electorate has led some demographers to predict that Texas will go the way of California – where an ascendant Latino electorate has now become the Republican Party's single biggest impediment to winning statewide office.

Cornyn would do well to study the recent history of Ronald Reagan's home state. The rise of the Democrats in California was caused not by the Democrats' electoral strategic brilliance – but by the political harakiri committed by the GOP in the 1990s.

In 1994, Gov. Pete Wilson, until then a rising star in the national GOP, got behind a very unfortunate voter initiative – the now infamous Proposition 187 that was backed by leaders of the anti-immigrant movement. This popular measure called for, among other things, denying access to public education to undocumented kids. 

Millions of American Latinos in California who had never before participated in politics took notice. Not surprisingly, the shock of having your friends' and neighbors' kids targeted by a mean-spirited law, pushed by a governor using the dog whistles of racial division, was a disaster for the California GOP. Latinos started to register to vote in droves. Many long-time green-card holders became American citizens – with the express purpose of voting. Latinos today make up 38 percent of California's population – and it is the critical pivot vote for any statewide office.

Today, thanks to Wilson's Proposition 187 and the effect it had on American Latinos, there is not a single statewide GOP elected official in California. Like the Dodo, the functional extinction of the state's GOP has occurred.

In Texas, a not dissimilar process is under way. Share of the Latino vote grew from 20 percent in 2008 to 25 percent of total votes cast in 2012. Should this trend continue, and demographers say it will, American Latinos will be a crucial voting bloc in elections in 2014, 2016 and beyond. Former Gov. Jeb Bush, rumored to be considering a run in 2016, has already predicted that in fact Texas could be turning purple as early as 2016.

But with a Republican lockdown on the white vote, the Texas GOP remains dominant in the state. Another shoo-in re-election victory for John Cornyn in 2014, right?

Unless Cornyn is a modern, human equivalent of a Dodo.

And his recent maneuvering to try to blow up immigration reform could be the trigger, like Pete Wilson's Proposition 187, that motivates millions of Latino Texans to register and vote. Sen. Cornyn, along with his Texas colleague Ted Cruz, have been at the vanguard of trying to block the passage of immigration reform. In the last few days, the senators from Texas joined some of their other anti-immigrant colleagues to slow down the drafting of an immigration reform law.

Cornyn's re-election prospects in 2014 could very well hinge on the Latino vote. Should Cornyn's efforts to kill reform – something that would earn him big credit with the Tea Party wing of the GOP, which was recently instrumental in electing Ted Cruz – be successful, his re-election prospects could be doomed.

Moreover, if the California pattern holds for Texas, Cornyn, like Pete Wilson, will serve as the catalyst for a political revolution in his state. As I've written before, immigration reform is more than a policy issue for Latinos – it is a litmus test. Should Cornyn become even more identified with anti-immigrant positions, Texas Latinos, already overwhelmingly Democrat, will hold Cornyn and the Texas Republican Party responsible.

Of course, unlike the Dodo, Cornyn can “evolve” and “adapt” to the new reality. Instead of being an impediment to immigration reform, as he is now, he could have one of those fantastic moments that only politicians seem to have – the dawning realization that their political survival requires an 180-degree about-face. Anti-immigrant yesterday, pro-immigrant today.

Today, schoolchildren peer through dusty museum glass at the stuffed carcasses of the Dodo Bird. By actually supporting comprehensive immigration reform, John Cornyn can avoid casting his political career and the future of the Texas GOP into an equally fascinating, but ultimately irrelevant museum relic.