Texans Head to Polls to Decide Competitive Runoff Races

The governor delayed Tuesday’s election, originally set for May 26, due to concerns over the virus but Texas has since become one of the nation’s top hotspots.

A vacant commercial space in Wonderland of the Americas, a regional mall near the Balcones Heights neighborhood of San Antonio, was outfitted with a half dozen voting machines for Texas runoff elections on Tuesday. (Courthouse News photo/Daniel Conrad)

SAN ANTONIO (CN) — Fears over the Covid-19 pandemic didn’t stop Texas voters from flocking to the polls Tuesday to pick nominees in competitive runoff elections after record early voting turnout, including the race to decide which Democrat will challenge Republican Senator John Cornyn in November.

The U.S. Senate Democratic primary pitting retired Air Force pilot MJ Hegar and longtime state Senator Royce West against each other was on top of most voters’ minds as they trickled into voting sites from South Texas to the Panhandle, where masks were encouraged but not required.

Voters at the Bexar County Elections Department in downtown San Antonio were asked to sanitize their hands before being offered a disposal glove and pencil with instructions to use the eraser to tap their selections. Elections officials made the decision late Monday to close three of the county’s 217 voting sites after workers pulled out because of fears over the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Please keep in mind that the average judge’s age is 72, so we certainly understand their concerns,” Bexar County Elections Administrator Jacquelyn Callanen said in a statement in reference to election judges.

“We understand that although the masks are not mandatory to vote, it would be a way of showing respect for our judges and election personnel,” Callanen added.  

State leaders have continued to move ahead with in-person voting after legal challenges to expand mail-in voting failed, and Republican Governor Greg Abbott did not make mask-wearing a requirement while voting in his latest order.

Abbott delayed Tuesday’s election, originally set for May 26, due to concerns over the virus but the state has since become one of the nation’s top hotspots, with some hospitals reporting a shortage of beds, ventilators and staff as emergency rooms are being overwhelmed with people suffering from the respiratory illness.

But the pandemic hasn’t stopped more than 1 million Texans from voting 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. And while candidates have been forced to campaign mostly virtually in the last few months, campaign volunteers still came out Tuesday to support their candidates.

Outside Brook Hollow Library in San Antonio, one of Bexar County’s busiest early vote locations, a group of campaign workers camped under a canopy as an elderly man in suspenders waved bright red whirligig fans at passing motorists, while a sign for a state education board candidate hung from his neck. Voters were permitted to vote at any location in the county where they reside, a post-pandemic change.

Campaign activists are seen outside Brook Hollow Library in San Antonio on Tuesday as voters cast ballots in Texas runoff elections. (Courthouse News photo/Daniel Conrad)

GOP primary voters will also decide nominees in a handful of still-undecided congressional races, including a seat in retiring Congressman Will Hurd’s San Antonio-based swing district, and two safe Republican seats where the GOP nominee will most likely be heading to Washington in November.

But all eyes will be on the U.S. Senate Democratic primary race.

Hegar, a former helicopter pilot, and West, a state legislator who hopes to become Texas’ first Black U.S. Senator, have been engaged in a bruising race that turned personal in the closing weeks as the two candidates attempted to differentiate themselves to voters.

While Hegar has been aided by national progressive groups pumping millions of dollars worth of ad buys in the state’s four major media markets, West is relying on his high-profile endorsements and large-scale social media and get-out-the-vote strategy.

“I would not be surprised to see it come down to less than 10,000 votes being the decision maker. I would not be surprised to see it come down to less than 2,500 votes,” said West spokesman Vince Leibowitz.

Whoever Texas Democratic voters choose on Tuesday, the general election matchup against Cornyn “is likely to be a highly competitive race,” according to a Public Policy Polling survey.

The same poll found President Donald Trump’s approval rating has dropped to 46% in the Lone Star State, and a series of recent surveys have placed presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden ahead of him in the traditional GOP stronghold of Texas.

“As we move toward November, it’s relatively clear that Senator John Cornyn would prefer to face Royce West rather than MJ Hegar,” said Mark P. Jones, a political science fellow at Rice University’s James A. Baker III Institute of Public Policy. “Cornyn has a high probability of re-election, but his probability goes higher if Royce West is his opponent and it goes lower if MJ Hegar is his opponent.”

A Republican primary voter in Houston named Julian, who declined to provide his last name or age, said he supports Cornyn because of the three-term senator’s track record but added that he didn’t know much about Hegar or West.

“He’s been in office a long time,” Julian said of Cornyn. “He’s a conservative guy. He’s my senator and I’m going to support him.”

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