WASHINGTON -- Admitting he had no evidence, Sen. John Cornyn, who runs the Senate GOP political operation, suggested Thursday that the White House may try to force Democratic U.S. Senate nominee Alexi Giannoulias out of the race -- speculation that was flatly denied by White House Senior Advisor David Axelrod.
When I asked Cornyn, a Texas Republican, why he thought the White House would do that, he said: "I don't know. Giannoulias is a flawed candidate and they are realizing it and I think they are worried. . . . I hope they respect the choices of Democratic primary voters and don't engage in some sort of back-room shenanigans."
A Giannoulias campaign spokeswoman said Cornyn's comments were "ridiculous."
Cornyn's comment came a day after President Obama, in Downstate Quincy, gave a shout-out to Giannoulias, calling him the "soon-to-be senator" in a remark I think was calculated to quiet talk about distancing himself from Giannoulias.
"No one here is trying to 'muscle' him from the race. That should have been clear from the president's comment yesterday," White House senior adviser David Axelrod said Thursday. "Kind of ironic that on the day that Gov. [Charlie] Crist was forced out of the Florida Republican primary that Sen. Cornyn would be suggesting we would muscle someone out of a Senate race."
Crist, who is running for the U.S. Senate, announced Thursday he would drop out of the GOP primary and run as an independent.
At a reporters breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor, Cornyn tried to inject an element of uncertainly about Giannoulias, who faces a tough race against GOP Senate nominee Rep. Mark Kirk for the seat Obama once held. Cornyn called the contest "one of our trophy races."
Giannoulias, the state treasurer, is in a rough patch because his family-owned Broadway Bank was seized last week. Giannoulias is a former bank officer.
I asked Cornyn, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, to assess Kirk and about what kind of resources the NRSC was going to pour into Illinois. Cornyn was in Chicago on April 6 for a fund-raiser to benefit the NRSC and Kirk.
"We will do whatever it takes to help Cong. Kirk win that Senate seat. I am not prepared to quantify that yet," Cornyn said. "The choice could not be more stark; Mark Kirk the reformer and Alexi Giannoulias... with all of his manifold problems that he has."
What Cornyn said next was surprising:
"I just hope that the Democrats in Illinois respect the rights of Democrat primary voters to select their nominee and we don't see some backroom shenanigans that this White House has been very active in, in trying to force him out of the race and disrespect the vote of the Democratic primary voters there," Cornyn said.
Alexi campaign spokesman Kathleen Strand said Cornyn's comments were "Ridiculous. With all evidence to the contrary including the President's supportive words just yesterday, it sounds like Senator Cornyn is as out of touch with what's happening in Illinois as Congressman Mark Kirk is. Next thing you know, he will be agreeing with Mark Kirk that unemployment isn't a big issue."
Hari Sevugan, Democratic National Committee National Press Secretary said, "Rather than spending his time on something he has no evidence of, we think Senator Cornyn should be more focused on the hard reality of his hand-picked Republican Senate candidates being chased out his party - from Florida to Kentucky to Utah - just because they are willing to work in a bipartisan manner or won't sign on to the far right's purity test."
Maybe Cornyn was just stirring the pot. Said Cornyn, "I feel very confident that Mark Kirk will be the next United States senator from Illinois."