While there’s been plenty of ink spilled over the showdown between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden and whether or not this could finally be the year that historically blood-red Texas turns blue, there hasn’t been nearly as much buzz around the contest that shows up second on every Texan’s ballot: the U.S. Senate race between incumbent Republican Sen. John Cornyn and his Democratic challenger, former Air Force pilot MJ Hegar. While Cornyn is still in the lead, Hegar is giving him the toughest challenge he's faced in defending his seat, even though she hasn't won the support of her biggest primary rival, Dallas State Senator Royce West.
Although Cornyn still has a solid polling advantage on his Democratic challenger (he's ahead of Hegar by a smidge under eight points according to Real Clear Politics’s average of multiple polls), that lead has fallen by almost three points since Hegar locked up her party’s nomination in July, so it looks like Hegar has some momentum on her side. Whether or not that’s enough for an upset that would help give Democrats control of the U.S. Senate is still unclear.
Despite Cornyn’s consistent lead over Hegar, the nonpartisan Cook Political Report last week shifted its forecast of the race from “Likely R” (for Republican) to “Lean R.” And the campaigns’ third quarter fundraising stats show Hegar is raking in way more dough from her supporters than Cornyn is.
Hegar raised $14 million between June and August and had $8.5 million on hand as of last Thursday. Her fundraising haul is nearly double that of Cornyn’s, who raised $7.2 million over the same time period, and she has half a million more dollars on hand than the $8 million Cornyn reported.
Sensing an opening, the Democratic Senate Majority PAC made a $8.6 million pro-Hegar ad buy last week to hammer Cornyn on his continued support for gutting Obamacare despite the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Twitter last Thursday, Cornyn downplayed the move as “More $ from my opponents [sic] recruiters and donors in DC, NY and California.” The Cornyn campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment from the Houston Press for this story.
Cornyn's challenger is betting that the debate around health insurance is what’s going to motivate undecided Texans to hop on the Hegar train.
“This is really an election about healthcare… nine out of ten Texans will tell you [that],” said Amanda Sherman, the Hegar campaign’s communications director. Sherman said Cornyn’s claims that he wants to keep protections for people with preexisting conditions in place don’t jibe with his opposition to the Affordable Care Act, and criticized Cornyn for not pushing harder to get additional coronavirus relief passed in recent months.
She also downplayed the fact that Hegar is still behind Cornyn in the polls with less than two weeks before Election Day, and claimed that the massive number of Texans voting early has the Hegar campaign bullish about its chances.
“Beto [O’Rourke] outperformed the polls in 2018. Texas is a hard state to poll. We’re way more focused on what we’re seeing on the ground,” Sherman said. “When you see four million Texans turn out to early vote in a week and two days, that says something.”
That may be true, but despite Hegar's recent fundraising success, it’s clear that Texans aren’t as fired up about this Senate race as they were about the 2018 contest between O’Rourke and Sen. Ted Cruz. Looking at how popular each race’s debates were helps make that clear: The sparring match between Cruz and O’Rourke in 2018 racked up 493,955 views on YouTube, and two years later, Cornyn and Hegar’s debate had only been watched by a comparatively paltry 57,722 people as of Wednesday afternoon.
Hegar simply hasn’t been able to capture the same level of enthusiasm and social media attention that made O’Rourke a household name in 2018. It also doesn’t help that she’s running against Cornyn, who’s far less reviled than Cruz. Plenty of Texans don’t feel that strongly about Cornyn at all: an October poll from UT Austin’s Texas Politics Project pegged Cornyn’s statewide approval and disapproval rates at an identical 39 percent each, and 22 percent of Texans polled said they were ambivalent about the senior Senator from Texas.
It’s probably because Cornyn is an old-school, generally milquetoast Texas conservative who has seemingly tried to avoid the spotlight over the years, unlike his constantly showboating fellow Texan Cruz. A lawyer by trade, Cornyn served on the Texas Supreme Court and as the state attorney general before getting elected to the Senate in 2002.
He’s been a reliable Senate vote for conservative policies like corporate tax cuts and slashing government spending for nearly 18 years now. During the Trump administration, Cornyn helped lead the failed fight to outlaw Obamacare in 2017, but he’s tried in recent weeks to recast himself as someone willing to stand up to Trump, albeit usually only behind closed doors. He told the Houston Chronicle editorial board earlier this month that Trump “let his guard down” on COVID-19, and that the president’s handling of the pandemic was “a lesson to all of us that we need to exercise self-discipline.”
Cornyn also swore that he told Trump in private that he didn’t want legislation protecting Dreamers — the undocumented U.S. residents brought over by their parents as kids — to be used as a bargaining chip to force through a broad, restrictive immigration bill, but never made that position public until this month out of fear that it’d piss off the president and die-hard Trump supporters which would reduce his clout within the GOP.
One thing Cornyn and Hegar have in common is that they both voted against Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 for president. Hegar — an Air Force veteran who served as a rescue pilot in Afghanistan and earned a Purple Heart after she was shot at by the Taliban — said she realized she had more in common with Democrats after the 2012 election. She officially switched parties after she faced pushback from Republicans when she lobbied Congress to make it easier for women to serve in military combat positions.
Hegar now holds pretty standard Democratic policy positions: She supports a Medicare-esque public option for health insurance, ending family separation at the border, expanding background checks for gun buyers and banning assault weapons. And despite Cornyn’s attempt to brand her with the nickname “Hard Left Hegar,” she’s hardly a firebrand policy-wise. Hegar doesn’t support the Green New Deal or a ban on fracking, and has rejected calls to defund police and to disband the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.
The Hegar campaign isn’t just dealing with broadsides from Cornyn about being “too liberal for Texas” as a recent ad of his put it. She’s also trying to deflect attention away from her main Democratic primary opponent, West, who has publicly refused to endorse her.
On October 7, West proclaimed that Hegar hadn’t personally called him to ask for his endorsement, which clearly rubbed him the wrong way. He’s also probably still frustrated that Hegar insinuated during the primary that West had used his office to enrich himself, after West accused her of being a conservative in Democrat’s clothing due to her past support for Republicans.
When Hegar was asked why she hadn’t reached out to West during her debate with Cornyn on October 9, she said “A lot of people express frustration that I don’t engage in politics as usual,” and explained that she believes “personal endorsements tend to come with quid pro quo that I believe are a big part of what’s broken in politics.” Despite that, Hegar said she expected West would end up pulling the lever for her in the end.
“She has never reached out, and it is what it is with her, and I’m not voting for her; I’m not voting in that race,” West said to the Austin American-Statesman on October 9, shortly after the debate. West, who is Black, also told the Statesman that Hegar has “had a problem all along with Black folks.”
Cornyn took West’s non-endorsement and ran with it, featuring his quote in a Hegar attack ad that started running statewide after the debate. Last Tuesday, West issued a statement criticizing Cornyn for the move.
“I urge my fellow Democrats to not let John Cornyn’s antics and new television ad shift our focus from voting for Democrats from the top of the ballot to the bottom; we must turn Texas BLUE,” West said, after he said Cornyn had "done nothing for African Americans." But nowhere in the statement did West mention Hegar by name, let alone say that he’d be voting for her.
When asked about Hegar’s relationship with West, Sherman said “they’ve spoken” after his non-endorsement became public, and that both Democrats “agree that it’s John Cornyn who is the problem.” At this late stage in the race, it seems safe to assume a full-throated (or even a half-throated) endorsement from West isn't coming any time soon.
On Wednesday, Hegar’s campaign released a new minute-long radio ad starring former President Barack Obama “which will air on Black radio stations across the state,” according to a press release. In the ad, Obama said that Hegar will “fight to protect the Affordable Care Act” and made the case that “MJ is firmly committed to making the reforms we need to address systemic racism and create a more fair and equitable America.”
A few minutes after the Obama ad came out Wednesday morning, Cornyn spokesman Travis Considine took to Twitter to mock Hegar for what the Cornyn camp clearly thinks is pandering.
“Still on damage control eh?” Considine tweeted.