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Cornyn optimistic about 2010 midterms

From NBC's Mark Murray
Earlier this year, Texas Sen. John Cornyn, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, couldn't catch a break.

Several GOP senators (including Kit Bond, Judd Gregg, Mel Martinez, and George Voinovich) announced they were retiring. Arlen Specter then switched parties. And the GOP was finding its standing at all-time lows in polls -- even after George W. Bush and Dick Cheney were no longer in office.

But today, Cornyn held a pen-and-briefing with political reporters to emphasize how things have turned around. Republicans have recruited top prospects (Charlie Crist in Florida, Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire, Mark Kirk in Illinois) to run for the Senate next year. Fundraising is up compared with a year ago. And President Obama's poll numbers are beginning to come back down to earth.

"Who would have even thought six months ago we would be where we are today," he said. "So I am optimistic" about 2010.

During the Q&A, Cornyn was asked if he would endorse John Ensign for re-election in 2012, especially if he continued to chair the NRSC in the '12 cycle. While noting that Ensign was going through a "tough time," he declined to answer the question. "I'm not going to comment on 2012."

Video: July 28: WashingtonPost.com's Chris Cillizza and Voto Latino's Maria Teresa Kumar discuss whether Republicans voting against Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor are courting rejection from Hispanic voters in the next election.

Cornyn also was defensive when asked if Senate Republicans were alienating Latinos by voting against Sonia Sotomayor. First, he said that Democrats didn't suffer a Latino backlash after they filibustered Court of Appeals nominee Miguel Estrada. Second, while Hispanics voted for Obama by a 2-to-1 margin in last year's presidential election, he noted that Hispanics are culturally conservative and have the chance to come back into the GOP fold.

And when asked about his reaction to the new DNC Web video criticizing conservative "mobs" at congressional town halls, Cornyn replied, "I think they are American citizens exercising their 1st Amendment rights." 

*** UPDATE *** Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Eric Schultz emails First Read: "The Republican strategy of stopping every effort to fix the economy, and stopping every effort to lower health care costs, shows that not only have they not learned any lessons from the past elections but also that they may be a little presumptuous to start singing happy days are here again."

Below are Cornyn's comments on the 2010 Senate contests…..

CONNECTICUT.
After saying words of encouragement about Chris Dodd's (D) early-stage prostate cancer, Cornyn said, "His poll numbers are miserable."

FLORIDA.
On Charlie Crist: "I'd like to clone his fundraising ability."

ILLINOIS.
Touted Mark Kirk's entry into the race, and noted how Obama and Rahm Emanuel were unable to convince their top candidate, Lisa Madigan, to run for Obama's old Senate seat. "She said, 'No thank you, Mr. President."

MISSOURI.
Said Roy Blunt (R) came back "like gangbusters" with his second-quarter fundraising, after a disappointing first quarter. Remarked that Robin Carnahan (D) "seems to be unheard of and nowhere to be found."

When asked whether Blunt being from DC would be a problem for the GOP in the race, Cornyn argued that Blunt is now running in an environment that no longer looks as friendly for the Democrats.

OHIO.
Cornyn said that Rob Portman "is the best candidate we could have hoped for."

NEVADA.
On the GOP's inability to find a candidate to run against Harry Reid. "One thing is certain: Harry Reid's poll numbers are abysmal." More: "I think we have time to find the right candidate," adding that money won't be a problem for the ultimate GOP candidate.

On Rep. Dean Heller (R): "We'd love to have him run... He could and would beat Harry Reid." But so far, they don't have a candidate.

NEW HAMPSHIRE.
Said state AG Ayotte "will be a great candidate." Argued that Paul Hodes (D) has voted with House Democratic leadership 96% of the time, and said those votes on spending could be problematic in New Hampshire.

Denied that a current Ayotte fundraiser the NRSC is sponsoring amounted to an endorsement of Ayotte. "I respect the right of people to select a candidate," he said. "We are glad to help her, and we are glad to help any candidate."

NORTH CAROLINA.
Proclaimed that Richard Burr (R), despite his sagging poll numbers, is already winning re-election by chasing away any challengers (so far).

NORTH DAKOTA.
Mentioned that he had a recent conversation with Gov. John Hoeven (R) to encourage him to run for the Senate. During the Q&A, Cornyn said Hoeven is listening to the NRSC's overtures, but there is no timetable or hints where he is leaning on the matter.

PENNSYLVANIA.
Noted how Pat Toomey (R) had erased a 20-point deficit against Specter (D) to a one-point deficit, according to one poll.

TEXAS.
Regarding Kay Bailey Hutchison's expected retirement to run for governor -- and the special election that would set off -- said he was "very confident that we will hold on to the Senate seat." But he admitted that a special election could make things more competitive for the Democrats, noting that a special election to replace LBJ in the Senate enabled Republican John Tower to win that seat in 1961. "I think a special election is a different animal," he said. "It does present opportunities for people who are better known" -- like, say, Houston Mayor Bill White (D).

But said that he, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and Hutchison are all working together to keep the seat in GOP hands.