SAN ANTONIO (CN) — In a runoff election that veered into personal attacks in the closing weeks, Democratic voters on Tuesday will decide between a retired Air Force pilot and a longtime state senator, both of whom think they’re the right candidate to defeat Republican Senator John Cornyn in November.
In a year upended by the Covid-19 pandemic and nationwide protests in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, decorated combat veteran MJ Hegar and state Senator Royce West have been locked in a bitter battle for their party’s nomination for a chance to unseat Cornyn, a three-term incumbent.
Lifted by powerful forces in the party, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and national progressive groups, Hegar, a retired helicopter pilot and Purple Heart recipient, enters Tuesday’s runoff with an edge. Her fundraising advantage over West and support from groups including the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and Emily’s List have allowed her to buy TV spots in the final stretch of the campaign in the state’s four major media markets: Houston, Dallas, Austin and San Antonio.
Hegar, who nearly unseated Republican Congressman John Carter in 2018, came out on top in the March primaries among a crowded field of 11 other candidates, bringing in over 143,000 votes more than West, an attorney who’s spent the last 27 years in the Texas Senate.
But West, who hopes to become Texas’ first Black U.S. Senator, insists he is the “true Democrat” in the race who can mount a serious general election challenge to Cornyn. West and Hegar have continued to clash over experience, electability and party devotion, issues brought out at a June 29 debate that have since spilled over into social media charges of racism, sexism and possible ethics violations.
Mark P. Jones, a political science fellow at Rice University’s James A. Baker III Institute of Public Policy, said while the aftermath of Floyd’s tragic death at the hands of police helped West’s chances of winning the nomination, Hegar is still considered the frontrunner based on her financial resources and ability to advertise in the large, traditionally expensive state.
“But it certainly is not a lead that is insurmountable in the sense that both Royce West and MJ Hegar have a realistic prospect of victory, only the probability that Hegar wins is still higher than West,” Jones said in an interview. “They pretty much have to get personal because there isn’t much difference between them ideologically in that they’re both centrist Democrats, relatively pragmatic, reasonable…so they’re going to differentiate themselves based on personal factors.”
Hegar, 44, has accused West of being a career politician who has used his decades in office to enrich himself by securing lucrative contracts for legal work to public entities such as local school boards and municipalities. She’s also made an issue of his dealings as a quasi-lobbyist, which, while legal under Texas’ lax ethics laws, could also be used as a line of attack by Cornyn in November.
West, 67, claims Hegar, who has never held public office, is not a real Democrat and lacks the experience needed to deliver on issues like climate change and voting rights in a state that has not elected a Democrat to statewide office since the 1990s.
“I didn’t want to go down this road, Royce,” Hegar said at their last debate.
“Let’s go,” West said. “I’m from the projects of Dallas and if you’re taking a shot at me because I have been a successful lawyer, basically providing job opportunities for people in my community, then take that shot. I have no problems with that.”
“If you’re going to demonize every Democrat who has voted in a Republican primary…then you’re going to have a hard time building a coalition Royce,” Hegar responded about her vote for Carly Fiorina in the 2016 Republican primary.
“This is a hard fought campaign,” said Sherri Greenberg, a professor of practice at the University of Texas at Austin’s LBJ School of Public Affairs, adding there are several dynamics in play that make this runoff election “an atypical situation in so many ways.”
“A runoff is difficult to begin with in ordinary times,” she said. “Now you have Covid-19 and we don’t have the mail-in ballots here for everyone in Texas, it’s 65 and over and with disabilities, so what does that mean for turnout? And of course, then we have the racial justice and equity issues that have come to the forefront over the past few months, so how those dynamics play into this particular runoff remain to be seen.”
Texas Democrats lost their months-long battle to expand access to mail-in voting last month after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to force the state to let all eligible Texans vote by mail because of the virus. A judge on Friday also rejected an emergency lawsuit filed late Thursday by Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan, who sought a court order to allow as many as 10,000 quarantined voters who tested positive for coronavirus after the state’s vote-by-mail deadline passed to be allowed to submit ballots by email.
But that hasn’t kept Hegar or West from hitting the virtual campaign trail.
“We are recognizing that we’re going to win this runoff,” Hegar said Thursday during a livestreamed interview with the Texas Tribune. “I’m very confident about that and then on July 15 we expect a barrage of attacks on us from John Cornyn and from his allies.”
Vince Leibowitz, communications director for West’s campaign, said Friday that West feels optimistic heading into Tuesday’s runoff, which he says will potentially have the third biggest turnout of any Democratic primary runoff in Texas history.
“We know this is going to be an extremely close race and that it is imperative that every person vote because this will be one of those statewide races where every vote counts,” Leibowitz said, before adding that Hegar “has probably peaked in terms of the votes that she’s going to get.”
“We don’t see that she’s being able to persuade a lot of core Democratic primary voters who look for candidates that actually reflect true Democratic values,” he said.
GOP Congressional Runoffs
Republican primary voters in the Lone Star State will also choose nominees in a handful of still-undecided congressional races, including a divisive runoff election pitting the candidate backed by retiring Congressman Will Hurd, President Donald Trump and other leading Republicans against Senator Ted Cruz’s pick.
“Tony Gonzales will be a GREAT Congressman for Texas!” Trump wrote on Twitter last week. “A Navy veteran, he is Strong on the Economy, Life and the Second Amendment. We need him to defeat the Radical Left in November. Tony has my Complete and Total Endorsement!”
Trump’s endorsement came days after Cruz announced he would throw his support behind conservative firebrand Raul Reyes in the GOP runoff for the San Antonio-based 23rd Congressional District, one of the state’s true swing districts that became even more competitive with Hurd’s retirement.
The eventual Republican nominee – Gonzales or Reyes – will go up against Democrat Gina Ortiz Jones, a retired Air Force intelligence officer who came just 926 votes short of defeating Hurd in 2018. Jones announced Wednesday that her campaign brought in more than $810,000 during the second quarter of the year, bringing her total cash on hand to more than $3 million.
Gonzales and Reyes reported a combined cash on hand total of $457,500, according to federal campaign finance reports.
President Trump also looms large in a north Texas runoff, where former White House physician Ronny Jackson and Josh Winegarner are battling for the solidly conservative 13th Congressional District seat being vacated by Congressman Mac Thornberry, who is retiring.
Along with Trump, Jackson has the backing of South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, former Texas Governor Rick Perry and prominent conservative groups including The Club for Growth and SEAL PAC.
Winegarner, the director of industry affairs for the Texas Cattle Feeders Association, was the top vote-getter in the March primary in a 15-candidate race. He has the support of Thornberry, former U.S. Senator Phil Graham, and a slew of agricultural organizations and Republican officials.
“The liberal left used lies against Ronny Jackson to attack President Trump,” a narrator says in a Jackson ad. “Now anti-Trump lobbyist and Democrat donor Josh Winegarner is using those same liberal lies to help his friends in the swamp. Texas voters know better.”
Former Congressman Pete Sessions is hoping voters in a district 100 miles south of his old Dallas-based seat that Democrats flipped in 2018 will give him the political comeback he needs to return to Washington. He faces Renee Swann in the 17th Congressional District runoff, a Waco small business owner who has been in quarantine since announcing July 2 that she and her husband tested positive for coronavirus.
The July 14 runoff had been delayed from May 26 because of fears over the Covid-19 pandemic. Election officials are encouraging voters to take hand sanitizer and wear masks, but Republican Governor Greg Abbott’s latest mask order includes several exemptions, including for voting.