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The threat of a GOP primary takes a severe toll

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On the eve of Chuck Hagel's confirmation hearing, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) made a curious statement on the Senate floor. "Chuck Hagel's nomination as secretary of Defense," Cornyn said, "has already done damage to the security of the United States."

Got that? The Texas Republican doesn't just believe Hagel would do a bad job at the Pentagon; he also believes it undermines our national security to even talk about Hagel for a few weeks.

Obviously, it's tough to take rhetoric like this seriously. But there's a larger point to this: what's going on with John Cornyn? Sure, he's never exactly been a moderate, but since when did he go completely off the deep end?

Just this month, Texas' senior senator wrote an ignorant screed on the debt ceiling, voted against emergency relief for Hurricane Sandy victims, and yesterday, was one of just three senators to oppose John Kerry's Secretary of State nomination.

It's easy to figure out why Inhofe would oppose Kerry, as the two of them are staunch advocates on polar opposites on climate change policy. (Inhofe said as much in a statement explaining his vote). Inhofe also is not in significant danger of a primary challenge or losing the general election if he runs again.

Cornyn, however, does have reason to look over his shoulder, as home state conservatives are vowing to contest his re-election. And voting against Kerry certainly won't hurt Cornyn in Texas.

Remember, Cornyn voted to confirm Hillary Clinton four years ago, but that was long before reports surfaced that the senator might face a GOP challenger in 2014. Indeed, right-wing activists are reportedly already eyeing Texas Attorney General Greg Abbot as their preferred candidate.

And so, we hear bizarre claims from Cornyn, such as the contention that Hagel's mere nomination has "already done damage to the security of the United States."

It's become something of a ritual of late -- Republican senators fear a primary opponent from the even-further-right wing of their party, so they transform into the least reasonable, least sensible version of themselves possible. Last year, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) became a rather extreme example of the phenomenon.

And this year, it's happening all over again. Lindsey Graham is afraid of a primary in South Carolina, so he's gone completely mad on Benghazi. Cornyn is worried about Texas, so he's become the chamber's newest extremist. Saxby Chambliss was fearful of a challenge in Georgia, so he decided to retire.

When political observers lament the fact that governing seems impossible and congressional Republicans seem to have abandoned a willingness to compromise, I hope they'll remember why -- it's not because Democrats are asking too much; it's because Republicans are too afraid of their own base.