Texas Democrats settle in for crowded U.S. Senate primary to decide who challenges Cornyn

Texas Tribune News

State Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, announces he's running for the U.S. Senate against John Cornyn, in Dallas on July 22, 2019.
State Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, announces he’s running for the U.S. Senate against John Cornyn, in Dallas on July 22, 2019.
Leslie Boorhem-Stephenson for The Texas Tribune

DALLAS — Two days after longtime state Sen. Royce West launched his U.S. Senate campaign here, one of his primary rivals swung through the city with an unequivocal pitch.

“I’m the fighter that it’s gonna take to beat John Cornyn,” MJ Hegar declared at a Dallas County party luncheon, speaking just several feet away from a table that included West’s wife, Carol. “I think that Texas is tired of voting for politicians. They want to vote for one of us.”

The scene illustrated just a couple of the emerging battle lines — experience and geography, for starters — in the suddenly crowded primary that will decide who challenges Texas’ incumbent Republican U.S. senator. West entered the race Monday with an event that showcased the statewide relationships he has built over 26 years in the Texas Senate, as well as his stature in one of the state’s biggest and bluest cities.

Four days earlier, first-term Houston City Councilwoman Amanda Edwards jumped into the primary emphasizing her youth and representation of Texas’ largest city, embracing the “millennial” label and noting she represents 2.3 million Texans as an at-large council member.

Taken together, the past week has represented a pivotal moment in the primary, extinguishing any remaining hopes that it would be quick and easy while illuminating a slew of initial candidate contrasts. Absent a field-clearing candidate like San Antonio U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro — who considered a run earlier this year but passed — Texas Democrats are now settling in for a wide-open primary that could go to a May runoff, further delaying the party’s ability to fully focus on Cornyn.

West alluded to the “long road” ahead as he launched his bid Monday, calling the primary “healthy for the Democratic Party.” It’s a sentiment that other candidates are at least publicly echoing while Republicans are hardly concealing their glee at the possibility of a drawn-out primary that hurts Democrats in the long run.

“There’s going to be a lot of folks running,” Cornyn told reporters Wednesday, “and frankly I’m happy to have as many get in that primary as would like to.”

For now, Cornyn’s campaign looks to be most interested in West as a foil. It responded to his launch with a website and digital ad attacking him as too liberal for Texas, part of what it described as a “week-long advertising campaign.” And Cornyn labeled West a “serious challenger” in a subsequent fundraising email after rattling off some of the other Democratic hopefuls.

Hegar, the 2018 U.S. House candidate and retired Air Force pilot, was among the first Democrats to announce against Cornyn, launching her campaign in late April and joining a field that already included Sema Hernandez, who got a stronger-than-expected 24% in last year’s Senate primary. Hegar racked up a couple early national endorsements, hired a campaign manager with battleground Senate race experience and raised over $1 million in the second quarter, establishing herself as a serious contender. But not serious enough to dissuade a trio of subsequent entrants that began with Chris Bell, the former Houston congressman and 2006 gubernatorial nominee.

Speaking with reporters after the luncheon here, Hegar said she was “so thrilled to see so many people in the race,” arguing the crowded primary proves how ascendant Texas Democrats are and how vulnerable Cornyn is. Asked if she missed an opportunity to clear the field, she said, “Oh, no, I absolutely expected it to be a lot of people in the primary.”

While national Democrats see Texas as winnable in 2020, they appear unlikely to intervene in the primary in the near future, leaving the field to sort itself out after a spring in which at least three candidates — Hegar, Edwards and West — met with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. EMILY’s List, the influential organization that works to elect Democratic women who support abortion rights, has not ruled out getting involved in the primary but is impressed with both Hegar and Edwards and is waiting to see how things unfold for now.

West’s launch introduced several new dynamics to the race, beginning with a sharpening of the geographic divisions. The primary now features major candidates representing three out of the state’s four biggest metropolitan areas: Dallas (West), Houston (Bell and Edwards) and Austin (Hegar).

Of course, their name ID in each city varies. For example, West has been on the ballot in parts of Dallas regularly since 1992, while Edwards has been on it just one cycle in Houston — in 2015 — but it was citywide.

In any case, the specter of a regional primary looms large.

“I think that the goal should be shoring up one of the urban areas and then cutting in somehow to a demographic” elsewhere, said Jenn Char, a Houston-based Democratic strategist unaligned in the U.S. Senate primary but close to Edwards. “Basically the primary’s won in the urban areas. So, for somebody like Amanda, I would take Harris County as the base — that’s probably a quarter of the primary electorate — and then I’d go after African American women in Dallas, Austin, San Antonio.”

For better or for worse, Char knows what she is talking about — she managed Andrew White’s 2018 campaign for governor. Powered by his foundation of support in Harris County, he made it to the primary runoff against Dallas’ Lupe Valdez, where he lost by 6 points as she was able to outpace White in expanding beyond her home base.

The candidates’ urban bases could make the state’s rural expanses up for grabs — and they seem aware of it. Hegar said Wednesday that Democrats “need a candidate statewide that can connect with rural districts,” while West has turned to Mike Collier, the 2018 lieutenant governor nominee, to help him with rural messaging, among other things.

West has suggested he is optimistic that he can be more than just a Dallas-centric candidate by tapping into his legislative relationships throughout the state. He wasted little time proving that after his announcement as he earned endorsements from state Sens. Carol Alvarado and Borris Miles, both from Houston. And his announcement itself was attended by state Sens. Jose Menendez of San Antonio and Jose Rodriguez of El Paso.

Rodriguez, chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus, confirmed Wednesday he is personally endorsing West, saying all the candidates are “good Democrats” and he’ll support the nominee — but West’s “vast experience is incredibly valuable and needed to replace” Cornyn.

Of course, as the Democratic Party writ large grapples with generational change and the rise of insurgent stars, West’s opponents may not mind a contrast with a 26-year-incumbent backed by a long list of fellow elected officials. But Rodriguez dismissed the notion that West’s long tenure could be a vulnerability.

“I think people want someone with experience,” Rodriguez said. “It’s one thing to be a fresh face, it’s another thing to actually have a record of accomplishment as Royce West does.”

Bell is also centering his campaign on experience, noting he is the only candidate who has served in Congress before and rose quickly as a freshman in the 2000s before falling victim to redistricting.

Then there’s ideology. In their limited policy pronouncements so far, Edwards, Hegar and West have staked out relatively moderate territory on major issues, at least in tone. Bell has been something of the outlier — for example, he is the only recent entrant to explicitly state support for Medicare for All, the single-payer health care plan championed by Bernie Sanders, the independent U.S. senator from Vermont and Democratic presidential candidate.

“I think I’m the best choice for everyone because I have a lot to offer, but certainly if folks are interested in a progressive agenda — and that’s the only way we’re gonna see real change — then obviously I think I’m the best choice,” Bell said.

On Wednesday, Hegar declined to embrace a priority of the party’s progressive wing: the Green New Deal, an ambitious and far-reaching plan to fight climate change spearheaded by freshman U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. Asked by an audience member what she thought about the Green New Deal, she voiced support for “aggressive action” on climate change but said she does not “support the type of policies like the Green New Deal because I feel like so often we are attaching so many things to the key thing we’re trying to accomplish that it politicizes it.”

That response drew critical responses from both Hernandez and Our Revolution Texas, the state chapter of the national organization that grew out of Sanders’ 2016 White House bid.

Hegar, for her part, appears more intent on running a campaign that appeals to independent voters with her military background, working mom credentials and strong performance last year in the traditionally Republican 31st Congressional District. Edwards, by comparison, has put an emphasis on mobilizing the Democratic base, particularly the parts of it that did not turn out enough last year even as Democrats had a breakthrough election cycle in Texas.

More than any political label, though, Hegar and her supporters are talking up how she appeals to a timeworn Texas value. On Wednesday, she spoke of how “a third of the state is not that interested in policy nuance — they want to see toughness, they want to see who’s gonna go and fight for them.”

“We need somebody who can stand up to that kind of pressure and who has broad enough shoulders to carry the expectations of not just her state but her party and her country, and MJ’s that person,” said Aimee Boone Cunningham, a top Texas Democratic donor from Austin.