Former Air Force Pilot Wins Texas Primary to Take On GOP’s Cornyn

A voter, right, signs with a covered finger before voting Tuesday, July 14, 2020, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

SAN ANTONIO (CN) — Texas Democratic voters on Tuesday narrowly chose retired Air Force pilot MJ Hegar as their U.S. Senate nominee, setting up a General Election matchup with three-term Republican John Cornyn in what is likely to be one of the nation’s most-watched Senate races.

“We’re going to turn the direction of this entire country from right here in Texas and let’s be honest that’s how it should be right because we’re Texas,” Hegar said Tuesday night during a virtual party via Zoom. “I’m very excited, we’re going to defeat Cornyn, and we’re going to get the action we need finally.

With 87% of polling places reporting in Tuesday’s primary election, Hegar was in the lead with 52% of the vote, to West’s 48%.

Hegar’s campaign declared victory in a press statement late Tuesday.

“I am humbled by the support we have received from all across the state, and am confident we have a decisive victory,” Hegar said in the statement. “Together, we are mounting a Texas-sized winning campaign that will take down Senator Cornyn and deliver real results on health care, racial justice, economic opportunity, climate change, immigration, and gun violence”

West, meanwhile, said on Twitter that he would release a statement Wednesday morning after evaluating vote totals again.

“Still many boxes out in urban centers,” West wrote.

West, an attorney who has spent the last 27 years in the Texas state Senate, took a thin early lead but trailed Hegar as Election Day totals rolled in.

Hegar, who has called Cornyn “a Mitch McConnel bootlicker who lives on top of an ivory tower,” served three tours in Afghanistan as a helicopter pilot, winning a Purple Heart and a Distinguished Flying Cross. She successfully challenged the Pentagon’s ground combat exclusion policy in 2012, which excluded women from certain positions and promotions, before nearly unseating Republican Congressman John Carter in 2018.

Hegar, 44, was the first high-profile candidate to jump into the U.S. Senate Democratic primary, vastly outraised her 11 other opponents, and came in as the top vote-getter in both the March primary and runoff election Tuesday night, delayed from May because of concerns over the Covid-19 pandemic.

Both Hegar and West, who has called himself the “true Democrat” in the race, had been locked in a bitter primary battle since the two advanced to the runoff in what began as a crowded 12-person race. They have clashed over experience, electability and party devotion, issues brought out at a June 29 debate that quickly spilled over into social media charges of racism, sexism and possible ethics violations.

Hegar, a former Air Force helicopter pilot and Purple Heart recipient, has been aided by national progressive groups pumping millions of dollars worth of ad buys in the state’s four major media markets, and she enjoyed the backing of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and national progressive groups including EMILY’s List and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

West, who hoped to become the state’s first Black U.S. Senator, had been relying on his long list of high-profile endorsements and large-scale social media and get-out-the-vote strategies. He questioned Hegar’s Democratic credentials, making an issue of her vote for Carly Fiorina in the 2016 Republican primary, and her lack of political experience as somebody who has never held elected office.

“Experience does matter,” Hegar said at a debate last month. “And I don’t know about you but I’m tired of career politicians condescending to me that my 12 years in uniform, bleeding for our constitution on foreign soil, five years working in health care, or my experience as a mom of a 3 and 5-year-old are not important enough to consider.”

Democrats and progressive groups have made traditionally red Texas a major 2020 target, providing staffing and funding resources for candidates up and down the ballot in hopes of a massive shift in the political landscape in the era of Donald Trump.

Presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s campaign launched his first General Election TV spot this week in the state that Trump carried by nine percentage points over Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson leaves a Senate office building on April 24, 2018. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

GOP primary voters in Texas Tuesday picked former White House physician Ronny Jackson over Josh Winegarner in the solidly conservative 13th Congressional District seat being vacated by Congressman Mac Thornberry, who is retiring. Former Congressman Pete Sessions’ political comeback became a little clearer after fending off a runoff challenge from Renee Swann in the 17th Congressional District. He will face Democrat Rick Kennedy, who won his party’s runoff Tuesday.

More than a million Texans voted during the state’s two-week period of early voting, according to a Texas Secretary of State spokesman, with a large majority — 763,326 — voting in-person despite the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

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