Texas Democrats, in the throes of a COVID-19 outbreak, will vote on Tuesday in a tensely personal Senate primary that will begin to answer what the future of their party should look like in a state that suddenly appears to be moving their way.
The contest between Air Force veteran MJ Hegar, who describes herself as an “ass-kicking working mom,” and state Sen. Royce West, a Dallas native who has talked at length about his experience as a Black man both being stopped by police and working with them as district attorney, has ignited in recent weeks as each candidate has tried to define the other as anathema to what Texas should become. Hegar, West says, is not a real Democrat; West, Hegar says, is a corrupt establishment politician.
The outcome of Tuesday’s election will be an indication of what kind of candidate Texas Democrats are putting their faith in — a Texas political insider or a relative newcomer with national support — at what could finally be a pivotal time in Texas politics. Democrats have flipped seats in recent local and federal elections; Joe Biden is pulling ahead of President Donald Trump in some recent presidential election polls and is, as of Tuesday, running coronavirus-focused TV ads across the state; and Beto O'Rourke's loss to Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018 weighs heavily in the background — the closest Texas Senate race since the 1970s.
“[Cruz] had a 52% approval rating when Beto went up against him. Cornyn has a 36. And they are both exactly the same,” Hegar said in a call with BuzzFeed News last week. “So why are Texans more likely to vote for and approve Ted Cruz than John Cornyn is the question that I have to answer if I’m going to beat him.”
She answered her own question. “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.”
The stakes for Texans in this election are also especially high in the midst of two crises that disproportionately impact Black and Latino communities: a surging COVID-19 pandemic and protests over police brutality and racial inequality.
For months leading into the first vote in early March, Hegar was the frontrunner in a crowded race, with the backing of several national Democrats and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and a substantial lead in fundraising over any of her competitors. She won the initial race with 22% of the vote, with West in second with just under 15%, both short of the majority needed for an outright win. EMILY’s List endorsed Hegar soon after she came out ahead in that vote.
In the last weeks of the runoff election, especially in the wake of nationwide protests over police brutality and reporting on the outsize impact of COVID-19 on Black and brown communities, West has made gains on her — in part by speaking directly to those issues. And he's recently picked up some big endorsements of his own, including from Reps. Jim Clyburn and Joaquin Castro.
“I think that candidates need to make certain that people know what their background is on these issues so they can then decide who is best equipped to address these issues … look at both of our pasts and look at the people we surrounded ourselves with. Is it a diverse group of individuals who look like America?” he said.
West spoke about his own experience as a Black man being stopped and searched by police, as well as his time as a district attorney, as a defense attorney, and 10 years on the state Senate criminal justice committee where he played a role in pushing through bipartisan bills requiring police body cameras in Texas.
“I’ve been dealing with this issue for a long time,” he said. “It gives me a different type of sensitivity, not only that I've had friends who are stopped, not only that, I have friends who are police officers also … it gives me sort of a unique perspective on these issues, and recognizing that we need to sort of balance it out, but making sure we have trust and transparency in law enforcement, which we don’t really have at this point.”
Hegar, by contrast, emphasized her experience as a working mother and advocate for women in the armed services — she traveled to DC in the past to lobby for women to be included in combat roles.
“I just want to argue that my set of experiences and my problem solving, what we don’t need more of is career politicians in DC. We’re good there. That group is well represented in DC,” she said. “We need more ass-kicking working moms that understand how to actually get shit done and actually put the vision first instead of our own self-interest.”
She said her 2016 Republican primary vote, which West has made a campaign issue, was a protest because she wanted to help defeat Donald Trump. West also brought up a small-dollar donation Hegar made to Cornyn’s campaign in 2011, which Hegar says she donated because she couldn’t get time with the senator to advocate for women in combat zones unless she was on his donor list.
West accuses Hegar of attacking his integrity only because he’s a successful Black man, pointing out that she has not pointed to specific examples of the corruption she’s accusing him of.
“It rings of an attempt to say because I’m an African American male and a business owner with a law practice, she’s making accusations that I've benefited from being in the legislature. How have I benefited? I've done everything the right way,” he said.
West added that if Hegar wins the runoff, he thinks she is in danger of losing voters of color as a result of her attacks against him.
“I want to make certain that they understand that if they begin to impugn my integrity in these ads, they can be sure that African American Democrats will not stand for it, and will not be supportive of her in the fall. Not only African Americans, but Latinos also,” he said.
Hegar, asked about West’s response to her criticisms, told BuzzFeed News just that she was “focused on unifying our party” and talked again about her qualifications as a working mom and veteran rather than a career politician.
Cornyn, with an approval rating that dropped a few points from 41% in November to around 37% in a June Quinnipiac poll, released an ad last week attacking West as a “liberal,” after spending on ads that attacked both West and Hegar previously.
Both Hegar and West in turn attacked Cornyn last week for spreading misinformation about the pandemic — on the same day that Texas reported 550 cases of the disease in children 9 years old and younger, Cornyn said in an interview, "We still don’t know whether children can get it and transmit it to others.”
Hegar and West, aligned in ridiculing Cornyn’s pandemic response, are also not far apart on most policy issues.
“[I am] very focused on the person who is the actual barrier to reform, because Sen. West and I, actually there’s not much that differentiates us on our plans and our policies,” Hegar said. “I’ve shown that I can go to DC and take on the system that is not working for Texans instead of working within that system and largely losing time and time again.”
West, for his part, suggests that Hegar is very much within the system in the sense that she’s the candidate who has received national backing from major Democratic groups and prominent Democratic leaders including Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer — while also repeating that he is “a true Democrat,” a reference to Hegar’s 2016 vote.
Democrats in the state are, either way, hanging their hopes on a centrist candidate. The more progressive candidates in the race, like community organizer Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, who ran after encouragement from former advisers to Beto O’Rourke, were knocked out in the first round of the primary.
Ramirez’s approach was to take a clearly progressive stance and focus on turning out young voters and voters of color — heavily based on the demographic shifts in Texas, with rapidly growing Latino communities and a growing population of young people eligible to vote, who turned out in force for the 2018 primary off the back of O’Rourke’s campaign.
But other groups, with historically higher voter turnout rates, show promise for Democrats in Texas, too: white suburban women, particularly around big cities like Dallas and Houston; independents; and moderate Republicans who may be convinced to vote for a centrist Democrat.
Texas Democrats have debated for years which approach is the better bet for the future: focusing on moderate Republicans and independents who can be convinced, or focusing on turning out likely Democratic voters of color and younger voters.
Hegar and West each have a clearer path to appealing to those independents and moderate Republicans in a general election, and that may be where more of their attention goes in a race against Cornyn. Hegar is making a clear case to white suburban women that she’s one of them, while West could rely on his centrist record in state government and his Dallas roots for influence in that key area for potential swing voters.
Both candidates have said that reaching voters of color and younger voters also has to be part of the picture if they’re going to serve the changing population of Texas and have a chance of defeating Cornyn, who national election analysts still view as a significant favorite in the race.
“I think the fact that people have thought of that as a choice is why we have not been successful in the past,” Hegar said. The solution, she said, is to “raise enough resources, and build the right path, and build the right team, and put in enough work so you don't have to make those choices.”
The Texas Democratic Party points to high turnout in early voting in the runoff election so far as a sign that despite COVID-19, or perhaps in part because of the mishandling of it by Republican leaders, there is a good chance that Democrats will also turn out in November for whoever becomes the candidate against Cornyn.
The party is investing heavily in Latino outreach, especially to young voters in the Rio Grande Valley, Abhi Rahman, the Texas Democrats’ communications director, said. That’s partly because national investment is already pouring into the cities and suburbs of Texas, which have shown gains for Democrats and vulnerable spots for Republicans.
“We feel very confident that the suburbs and the cities, that they’re going to continue to be Democratic. We think to win the state, though, there are two things: keeping the margin down in rural areas, and then it’s bringing out the vote in the Rio Grande Valley,” Rahman said.
The party has hired a Latino organizing director focusing especially on the Rio Grande Valley, along with two Spanish language press staffers, and they’re developing an outreach plan that looks at how to target different Latino communities, rather than treating them as a monolith with uniform messaging.
“In 2018, had Beto O’Rourke gotten to Hillary Clinton levels in the Rio Grande Valley, he would have won the state, because he actually underperformed there,” Rahman said. “So we believe the path to victory is holding the gains that Beto made in the suburbs, and then also getting some of the Latino vote out in the Rio Grande Valley.”