John Cornyn’s place in the Senate was supposed to be safe. Until recently, it was a sure bet that the Republican would hold onto the seat he’s easily held onto in Texas for the past 18 years.
This time around, against the backdrop of a pandemic that’s devastated his state and a deeply unpopular president, he’s facing a centrist Democrat who’s focusing squarely on healthcare — air force veteran and former healthcare worker MJ Hegar. And she’s making significant gains in both fundraising and polls in recent weeks.
“Some people might say the economy. I say that healthcare is the economy,” Hegar said in an interview with BuzzFeed News this week. “Number one, healthcare provides jobs in rural areas. Number two, healthcare is a small business barrier where people don't want to quit their jobs and lose their health insurance to start a small business.”
“A lot of people are one illness or injury away from bankruptcy,” she added.
Texas hasn’t been considered competitive in presidential elections in decades — the last time a Democratic nominee won the state was Jimmy Carter in 1976. But the state is changing, diversifying and getting younger, and after Democrat Beto O’Rourke’s close Senate loss in 2018, Democrats think the state’s 38 electoral college votes and Cornyn’s Senate seat could both be theirs to win, shifting the Senate and the White House to Democrats along the way. What’s happened in Texas in the last ten months could be a big part of why.
Texans account for close to 10% of all COVID-19 cases in the US, and about 12.5% of recorded COVID-19 deaths, according to the New York Times’ coronavirus data tracker. Some 898,000 of the 8.5 million people in the US who have had COVID-19 were Texans, and 17,800 of the 223,948 Americans who have died of the virus came from Texas. In recent days, cases are beginning to rise sharply again in parts of the state.
At the same time, Texans are less likely than people in any other state to have health insurance — and that was before the sweeping job losses that they endured as a result of the pandemic. One study found that just between March and May, even before the COVID-19 spike hit Texas in late July, around 1.6 million Texans likely lost health insurance after losing their jobs.
The Supreme Court case challenging the Affordable Care Act, which will be the first case justices hear after the election, was filed by Texas Republicans. Cornyn took on a central role advocating for the Senate GOP’s ACA repeal bill in 2017, which narrowly failed to pass. As a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he has also played an important part in Trump’s court nominee Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation process this month.
The fight in the Senate over Coney Barrett’s confirmation comes to a head next week, providing Hegar with another clear line of attack over an issue that’s been central to her campaign for months: healthcare, the Affordable Care Act, and how Texans have suffered from COVID.
Although Hegar said she thinks healthcare and the economy are generally more pressing issues for Texas voters than what’s happening with the Supreme Court, healthcare is central to what’s at stake with SCOTUS.
As a result, there’s a third figure whose influence in the race neither candidate can ignore: Coney Barrett.
“It’s ACA vs. ACB, I guess,” Cornyn joked during one confirmation hearing for Coney Barrett last week, suggesting that Democrats were raising the Affordable Care Act in the hearings without a real basis for concern.
Hegar’s campaign clipped the remark and tweeted, “Your little line isn’t cute, John, it’s potentially deadly for 5 million Texans with pre-existing conditions.”
“People clearly see that it's about tearing down the Affordable Care Act,” Hegar said this week, of the Senate GOP push to confirm Coney Barrett.
Senate Republicans’ push to get Coney Barrett quickly confirmed further stands in contrast to how they’ve resisted passing a new COVID-19 relief bill, Hegar said.
“I wish that they would show some urgency, the same type of urgency they are around the Supreme Court, around getting us, you know, relief for small businesses and getting the pandemic under control,” she said.
Hegar, who is trying to turn out Texas Democrats but also draw moderate Republicans and independents away from Cornyn, has been making unexpected gains both in fundraising and polls in recent weeks. Hegar’s fundraising in the first two weeks of October propelled her past Cornyn, with $3.7 million to Cornyn’s $1.3 million, leaving her with $6.9 million cash on hand to Cornyn’s $3.8 million.
But Texas has been here before. Two years ago, O’Rourke came close to ousting Ted Cruz from the Senate seat he’s held since 2013, but ultimately lost out. Part of what’s different this time, Hegar argues, is that Cornyn’s approval ratings have hovered around 38% in recent months, lower than Cruz’s 52% at election time in 2018.
Cornyn has recently tried to distance himself from the president and his flailing approval ratings: In one University of Texas at Austin poll this month 43% of Texans said they strongly disapprove of how Trump has handled the pandemic, while 27% strongly approve.
In a separate interview with BuzzFeed News in July, before she won the runoff primary election, Hegar said the question she was asking herself was why Texas voters appear more likely to approve of Ted Cruz than John Cornyn.
“The answer lies in the independent voters, and the independent voters are not moderate, they are not between the two parties. They have removed themselves from the system and they are looking for someone who is going to put them first,” Hegar said at the time.
She added this week that she thinks the outcome in Texas on Election Day could be key to a smooth transition of power if Trump loses the presidential election to Joe Biden, because the state has limited mail voting — one point Republicans are already using to attack the veracity of the election — and because the results are likely to be in relatively early.
“I feel like Texas is the key to healing the nation and to moving on quickly and having an election result that isn't easy to challenge in the courts from some sort of conspiracy theory without evidence, because our votes have been so suppressed in Texas. We're one of only six states that hasn't eased restrictions to vote by mail,” she said.
“So if we can work, people working our tails off, to give our 38 electoral votes to Biden which would mean there's not a mathematical victory for Trump, then that’s really the key to kind of moving on.”