As Cornyn and Hegar take the stage, has the script for the U.S. Senate campaign in Texas changed?

Bereft of a candidate with statewide stature and drowned out by the roar of the COVID-19 pandemic and the related economic calamity, the statewide run-off election to choose a Democratic nominee to challenge John Cornyn’s bid for a fourth term in the U.S. Senate limped to a conclusion Tuesday night, when self-declared outsider M.J. Hegar defeated longtime State Senator Royce West of Dallas by about 4 percentage points. In an election year assured to be first and foremost a polarized partisan referendum on Donald Trump and his presidency, Cornyn and Hegar occupy a side stage, two vague personas in a drama defined by sweeping themes and a dark anti-hero in the White House looming over everything.

The Democratic primary felt familiar in many ways: run-off candidates with no statewide profile, a largely inattentive public, and negative attacks in the final weeks in efforts to draw distinctions between two candidates whose differences were much more about persona, positioning, and, largely unspoken until the end of the campaign, race and gender. But not everything was business as usual: There were also signs of the increased competition in the Texas political system – the initial Democratic field was crowded with contenders who sensed opportunity in the environment.

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CategoryLean DemocratNot very strong DemocratStrong Democrat
Mary "MJ" Hegar38%21%33%
Chris Bell24%17%23%
Royce West17%13%23%
Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez15%22%16%
Sema Hernandez15%10%15%
Amanda K. Edwards10%12%13%
Michael Cooper7%10%12%
Annie "Mamá" Garcia8%7%7%
Victor Hugo Harris6%5%8%
Adrian Ocegueda4%8%7%
Jack Daniel Foster, Jr.2%2%8%
D.R. Hunter3%4%3%

Even amidst a general lack of attention to the details of the race among most Democrats, turnout was comparatively high for a run-off election: 955,735 voters voted in the run-off, and Hegar earned almost half a million votes (498,180). (Though for a reality-check on overinterpretation of an isolated data point, when David Dewhurst and Ted Cruz faced off in a structurally similar, dead-of-summer, though non-pandemic, U.S. senate nomination run-off in 2012, over 1.2 million ballots were cast; a shell-shocked David Dewhurst lost with 480,126 votes.)

This year's Republican primary season in the race also felt familiar: The entrenched incumbent faced no serious challenge, and spent much of the Spring and early Summer waiting in the wings to launch a campaign with extensive scaffolding at the state level and effectively unlimited financial resources, nearly guaranteeing escalation of the dominance Republicans have enjoyed against any Democratic opponent. 

To be fair, the final episode of the contest between Hegar and West featured a bit of unexpected suspense. Hegar, the more well-known of the Democratic candidates throughout the contest, was widely expected to dispatch with West rather easily. This conventional wisdom was informed by her major fundraising advantage, fueled by an early endorsement from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and the bank that came with it, despite West’s many endorsements from fellow state legislators (bordering on universal). That DCCC endorsement was due, in no small part, to the attention she generated in her unsuccessful, if very viral, campaign against Central Texas Congressman John Carter in 2018. Yet, most Texans, and even most Democrats, still expressed little opinion of either candidate as late as the end of June. In the June 2020 University of Texas/Texas Politics Project poll, 38% of Texas Democrats said that they held a favorable impression of Hegar, 29% of West. But overall, a majority of Democrats could provide neither a positive or negative impression of either Hegar (53%) or West (66%). 

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CategoryDemocratIndependentRepublican
Very favorable15%6%3%
Somewhat favorable23%8%7%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable19%20%18%
Somewhat unfavorable6%6%8%
Very unfavorable3%9%13%
Don't know/No opinion34%51%51%

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CategoryDemocratIndependentRepublican
Very favorable12%3%2%
Somewhat favorable17%3%6%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable20%26%16%
Somewhat unfavorable2%4%10%
Very unfavorable2%9%13%
Don't know/No opinion46%55%53%

This combination of two little known candidates in a mid-July Democratic run-off, competing in the midst of an inflamed global pandemic now burning hot in Texas, made any attempt to forecast this race fraught with immeasurable error. Those who did hazard a guess tended to find Hegar with a more comfortable race on her hands than the official election day returns ultimately produced. Early trial ballots included in polling prior to the conclusion of the primary run-off produced results that are as unsurprising as they are non-predictive at this point in the campaign. Amidst widespread unfamiliarity with both candidates, the trial ballots in the recent Dallas Morning News/UT Tyler poll showed both candidates running identically against Cornyn, each a little more than 10 points behind, with nearly a third of voters unable to express a preference. 

Setting aside the difficult question of what a likely voter looks like in 2020 in Texas at this point in time, or even closer to the actual election, Hegar has been running as if she were the Democratic nominee since her campaign began. She now must turn her attention to the difficult task of introducing herself to the majority of Democrats who don’t know who she is, while at the same time attempting to define Cornyn among as much of the electorate as she can.

It should be a challenge to paint a new picture of someone who has served in the U.S. Senate for nearly two decades, and as Attorney General of Texas before that — and yet, the particular moment we find ourselves in, and Cornyn’s particular profile, provide potential openings. Cornyn’s political position has long seemed less secure than it should, even as he cruised to reelection in 2008 and 2014. Cornyn’s political origins predate the contemporary sensibility of most of the current crop of well-known statewide Republican leaders, even if the substance of his record is almost indistinguishable from most of his current peers, and, as some recent reviewing of his history suggests, shares roots in the political forebearers of the reactionary social politics of the current generation, including and especially President Donald Trump.

Cornyn’s impression among the Texas electorate, including Republicans, remains shallow for a politician who has been running statewide for thirty years. His job approval in Texas over the last 5 years reveals a durable share of Texans holding no opinion of him, amidst job approval ratings that consistently lag behind Texas’ junior U.S. senator and both governors whose terms he has overlapped. As recently as 2016, upwards of 37% of voters held no opinion of Cornyn.

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ApproveDisapproveNeither/Don't Know
November 201527%34%38%
February 201627%32%41%
June 201624%35%41%
October 201628%36%37%
February 201730%34%36%
June 201728%41%30%
October 201728%42%30%
February 201829%38%33%
June 201827%38%34%
October 201839%34%28%
February 201936%35%29%
June 201937%34%29%
October 201935%34%31%
February 202036%39%25%
April 202038%36%26%
June 202036%40%24%
October 202039%39%22%
February 202132%42%26%
March 202133%42%25%
April 202131%43%25%
June 202134%41%24%
August 202128%44%28%
October 202129%44%27%
February 202231%35%34%
April 202232%39%29%
June 202224%50%26%
August 202229%42%29%
October 202232%42%27%
December 202235%40%25%
February 202330%43%27%
April 202333%38%29%
June 202333%39%28%
August 202328%42%30%
October 202330%39%30%
December 202328%42%29%
February 202434%39%28%
April 202436%38%28%

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ApproveDisapproveNeither/Don't Know
November 201543%24%32%
February 201645%20%34%
June 201641%21%39%
October 201644%18%36%
February 201752%13%36%
June 201751%21%27%
October 201746%23%31%
February 201850%18%32%
June 201846%18%35%
October 201870%8%21%
February 201962%14%25%
June 201963%12%26%
October 201961%12%28%
February 202066%10%23%
April 202066%12%22%
June 202065%15%20%
October 202071%11%18%
February 202156%18%24%
March 202157%20%23%
April 202157%18%25%
June 202160%17%24%
August 202151%21%28%
October 202154%21%24%
February 202254%16%30%
April 202253%17%30%
June 202241%34%25%
August 202248%27%25%
October 202255%22%23%
December 202258%22%20%
February 202348%26%25%
April 202350%26%24%
June 202351%24%24%
August 202346%27%27%
October 202343%26%31%
December 202343%27%31%
February 202445%26%30%
April 202451%21%28%

In June polling, 24% of Texans held no opinion, compared to 14% for Cruz, and 13% for Abbott. Overall, 36% of Texans approve of the job Cornyn is doing in the U.S. Senate compared to 40% who disapprove, making his job approval net-negative overall. Among Republicans, 65% approve of Cornyn’s job performance, perhaps impressive until you consider that 81% said the same of Cruz, 83% of Abbott — and with greater intensity.

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CategoryDemocratIndependentRepublican
Approve strongly2%4%30%
Approve somewhat6%20%35%
Neither approve nor disapprove12%20%12%
Disapprove somewhat15%13%10%
Disapprove strongly53%26%5%
Don't know12%17%8%

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CategoryDemocratIndependentRepublican
Approve strongly2%23%57%
Approve somewhat7%14%24%
Neither approve nor disapprove7%15%8%
Disapprove somewhat14%11%4%
Disapprove strongly66%28%4%
Don't know4%9%3%

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CategoryDemocratIndependentRepublican
Approve strongly3%22%54%
Approve somewhat10%19%29%
Neither approve nor disapprove10%18%8%
Disapprove somewhat23%14%4%
Disapprove strongly51%22%3%
Don't know3%5%1%

Hegar enters the race obviously buoyed by her victory, but with her weaknesses made more manifest in the course of the drawn-out primary. In her failed campaign to unseat the seemingly vulnerable Congressman John Carter in 2018, Hegar was often grouped with a crop of candidates in Texas and other red and purple districts across the country with attributes seemingly ready-made for that moment in political time. She presented as a veteran with a scrappy attitude ready to fight a flawed system, a plain-spoken woman who had, as we now know, opened doors (without busting them down, mind you), a mother, and a practical Democrat – all attributes packaged with semiotic acumen and good production values in the now-famous campaign video that brought her national media attention, campaign contributions, and the messaging and image construction that have defined her persona in both the 2018 campaign and her current one.

 

The packaging of her life history as a veteran and a mother, as well as her demonstrated success (if not victory) as a first-time candidate against a congressman almost eerily similar to Cornyn, likely made her the candidate John Cornyn and his political advisors least wanted to run against (at least once Beto O’Rourke exited the field). The Cornyn campaign signalled this preference early with an attack ad aimed at West that aired during a July 2019 Democratic Presidential Primary debate. On the surface, it was ostensibly meant to knock West, but had the practical effect of putting his name and liberal record in front of many Democratic voters who were unfamiliar with him.

The play of gender and race in the Cornyn campaign’s preferences provoke more questions than can be answered here. One might hope these questions would arise in the course of the campaign given Cornyn’s accumulating record on race. This record ranges widely: From his disavowed support for George Wallace as a high school student (recently reviewed in some excellent in-depth reporting by Jonathan Tilove after it briefly surfaced in Cornyn's 2002 Senate campaign); to his campaign’s strategic boosting of West from the early days of the primary through the run-off; to his awkward efforts to manage the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, which included announcing his intent to file a bill making Juneteenth a national holiday and supporting a bipartisan bill, in his words per Abby Livingston in The Texas Tribune, “to issue a study, a commission to come back with recommendations to Congress” on changing the names of military installations named after confederate military figures; to his dismissive skepticism of the presence of implicit bias in the U.S. in a June 2020 Senate hearing on policing. Early indications, however, suggest that Hegar’s consensus-building strategy is unlikely to include a line of questioning that's uncomfortable for the mostly white voters that are the largest audience segment in a strategy of broadening the Democrats’ appeal in a rightward direction – however much this might seem like the right time, both practically and morally, to ask Cornyn to elaborate his position on racism and how he got there. 

The Texas-politics-as usual feel of this likely evasion, amplified by such a radically changed political environment  – the renewed confrontation with racism, the pandemic, the associated economic crash – raise a question: Do fundamental assumptions about both candidates’ positioning made in the early stages of the campaign last year still work for them? Some of the main imputed virtues of Hegar’s persona  – her lack of political experience, her appeal to a vague notion of “mainstream voters,” even the cultural undertones of her scrappy competitiveness — may not fit the mood of a mid-pandemic America in the midst of a painful confrontation with racism as well as they did the mood of 2018 and 2019. Similarly, John Cornyn’s rock-ribbed Republicanism and his uncanny ability to project visually and substantively as a personification of the status quo seem less valuable in a world where the president seems to degrade the breadth and value of the GOP’s brand appeal daily, and the status quo seems to be malfunctioning, if not decaying, at a similar pace. Both Hegar and Cornyn have clearly defined the roles they want to play in the upcoming election, but the scripts they’ve been following have changed while they’ve been rehearsing – along with the mood of their audience and the stage upon which they are both about to make their grand entrances.