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Passion, Money And The Pandemic: Who Has The Edge In The Texas Senate Race?

MJ Hegar and John Cornyn
MJ Hegar and John Cornyn

From Texas Standard:

By all accounts, 2020 is an unusual election year. The coronavirus pandemic and a highly polarized political landscape make it a challenge to predict how voters will decide the presidential race as well as other national and local races. For Texans, the U.S. Senate race between incumbent Republican John Cornyn and Democratic challenger MJ Hegar is among the most prominent contests on the ballot, and both candidates must navigate several major challenges to be successful. 

Gromer Jeffers, a political writer for The Dallas Morning News, told Texas Standard that the race – which Cornyn would have been expected to win  in another election cycle – will hinge on five questions:

How close should Cornyn stick to President Donald Trump?

Many conservative voters remain loyal to the president, while some in the suburbs who might normally vote Republican have misgivings about the way Trump has handled the pandemic. 

"If you align yourself in lockstep with Trump, you risk alienating some of the suburban voters, particularly suburban women voters, who are not in favor of the president at the moment," Jeffers said. 

Can Cornyn excite conservative voters?

If Cornyn reaches out to suburban voters, or espouses more moderate policies than the president, he runs the risk of depressing turnout among the president's most vocal supporters, who might not see Cornyn's reelection as an important reason to cast a ballot or make a campaign contribution.

Can Hegar raise enough money to be competitive?

To win, Hegar must spend money and build name recognition among voters across the state, Jeffers said. That means buying ads in the state's largest media markets, and spending to turn out voters. 

"Texas is one of the most expensive media markets in the country," Jeffers said. "She doesn't need the stunning $80 million that Beto O'Rourke raised against Ted Cruz in that race in 2018."

Jeffers said Cornyn has $15 million in the bank, compared to Hegar's $1 million on hand. Hegar has raised $6.6 million.

Will Hegar unite Texas Democrats, including people of color? 

During the primary campaign, Hegar did not focus enough on communities of color, Jeffers said, though she did spend time in the Rio Grande Valley courting Latino voters. He said that outreach helped Hegar defeat Royce West, who was less able to win over those voters during the runoff election in July.

"When you check with most Hispanic residents in Texas, and particularly with Black residents, they don't really know MJ Hegar yet," Jeffers said.

How will the pandemic impact the Senate race?

It's unclear how the pandemic will affect voters' choices, and how voting and campaigns will actually happen.

"How will we be voting? Is it heavy vote-by-mail? In a couple of months, will candidates be able to go and have rallies and in-person deals that really fire up voters," Jeffers said. 

He points out that O'Rourke's 2018 success stemmed from his ability to attract large gatherings of excited potential voters. This year's candidates may not have the chance to fire up large crowds the way O'Rourke did.

Web story by Shelly Brisbin.

Copyright 2020 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.