Hegar, West to face off in bitter Texas Senate runoff

Hegar, West to face off in bitter Texas Senate runoff

The Democratic Senate battle between former Air Force helicopter pilot M.J. Hegar and longtime state Sen. Royce West in Texas has reached a fever pitch ahead of the state’s runoff election on Tuesday.

West has sought to harness the power of the national political moment since protests over racial injustice and police brutality erupted across the country in an effort to overtake Hegar in the final stretch of the primary to take on Sen. John CornynJohn CornynEnough legal games — we need to unleash American energy Three pros and three cons to Biden picking Harris The Hill's 12:30 Report - Speculation over Biden's running mate announcement MORE (R-Texas) in November.

He has also repeatedly taken shots at his opponent’s personal voting record and party credentials, particularly her participation in the 2016 GOP presidential primary.

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Meanwhile, Hegar, who has the backing of Senate Democratic leaders, has cast West as a career politician and accused him of using the office he has held for the past 27 years to enrich himself. Her campaign and outside groups have ramped up ad spending in recent days in a bid to shore up her candidacy.

The primary runoff threatens to tear open a rift among Democrats in a state they are hoping to put into play this year after a near miss in 2018, when former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) came within 3 points of unseating Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzFiorina: Biden picking Harris for VP 'a smart choice' Russian news agency pushed video of Portland protestors burning a Bible: report After trillions in tax cuts for the rich, Republicans refuse to help struggling Americans MORE (R-Texas).

Republicans have also taken note of the divisions in the runoff between Hegar and West, and are hoping to use them to their advantage. Cornyn’s campaign has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars ahead of the Democratic primary, including nearly $80,000 last week on a spot attacking West as a “liberal politician.”

Cornyn’s ad spending during the primary far outpaces that of West himself; the state senator has dropped less than $25,000 on television buys in the leadup to the Tuesday runoff, according to a source familiar with the spending.

But West has used that ad spending to go on the attack against Hegar, running a spot in the Houston media market that calls on voters to nominate a “real Democrat” and hammers his primary opponent for voting in the 2016 Republican presidential primary in Texas. Hegar has said that she cast her ballot in that primary for former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina as a protest vote against President TrumpDonald John TrumpUSPS warns Pennsylvania mail-in ballots may not be delivered in time to be counted Michael Cohen book accuses Trump of corruption, fraud Trump requests mail-in ballot for Florida congressional primary MORE.

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“The Texas media failed in any meaningful way to vet the opponent, and the truth about her Republican and Libertarian past has been fully exposed,” Vince Leibowitz, the communications director for West’s campaign, said in a statement on Monday. “Hegar has been forced on the defensive although she has no way to legitimately explain these things away.”

“The reality is that West has gained the momentum, and we believe we will be victorious after a close race.”

West has also criticized Hegar for political donations she made in 2011 to three Republican lawmakers, including Cornyn. Hegar said that she made the contribution to Cornyn – worth $10, according to Federal Election Commission (FEC) records – because she had been trying to meet with him and she “couldn't get a meeting with him if I wasn't on his donor list.”

Hegar and a handful of well-heeled outside groups backing her have spent heavily in the runoff election. As of last week, Hegar’s campaign, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) and the pro-abortion rights group EMILY’S List had dropped at least $2 million on TV advertising in support of the former Air Force helicopter pilot.

Hegar’s ads have largely avoided attacking her opponents, and have focused instead on issues like health care and systemic racism.

But the tone of the runoff grew bitter during a debate late last month after West questioned Hegar over her 2011 contributions to Cornyn and other Republicans. The remark sparked a heated exchange in which Hegar suggested that West had used the state Senate seat he has held since 1993 to enrich himself.

Democrats say that their voters will quickly coalesce around whichever candidate emerges from the Tuesday runoff. But privately, some expressed frustration that the nominating contest had dragged on for four months, complaining that the runoff and its resulting intra-party feuding had distracted from their efforts to take out Cornyn. Neither Hegar nor West managed to surpass the 50 percent threshold to avoid a runoff during their primary on March 3.

After the back-and-forth at last month’s Democratic debate, Hegar quipped that “John Cornyn is the person who won tonight.”

Democrats need to pick up three or four seats, depending on which party gains control of the White House, in order to win a majority in the Senate. Their electoral map has so far focused on GOP-held seats in four states – Arizona, Colorado, Maine and North Carolina – though they are also putting up tough challenges to Republican incumbents in Georgia, Montana and Iowa.

But the Senate race in Texas is still taking shape with less than four months to go before Election Day. While Hegar has proven herself to be an adept fundraiser – she pulled in about $1.8 million in the second quarter of the year – Cornyn is even better financed. On Monday, his campaign announced that he had raised nearly $3.5 million over the last three months and had $14.5 million in cash reserves. 

West hasn’t yet filed his most recent quarterly financial report with the FEC, but his pre-primary filing, which encompasses most of the second quarter of the year, showed that he had raised roughly $430,000 between April 1 and June 24, significantly less than Hegar and Cornyn.

Unseating Cornyn in Texas, however, would be celebrated as an enormous accomplishment by Democrats, who point to O’Rourke’s near win in the 2018 Senate race and the state’s rapidly changing demographics as evidence that Texas is on the verge of a political sea change. Cornyn's race is rated as "likely Republican" non political by nonpolitical prognosticator The Cook Political Report.

In a statement to The Hill, Hegar said that, despite the lengthy runoff race, she was still “laser-focused” on the campaign against Cornyn in the fall.

“I have been laser-focused on the mission, which is defeating John Cornyn and delivering a healthy dose of Texas values to D.C.,” she said. “We have seen the grassroots energy not only during the first year of this campaign when I drove tens of thousands of miles around the state in my truck, but even now as we have adapted to a more virtual campaign and continued to build on our exponential momentum.”

“I am confident that I will bring together the broad coalition we need to get rid of Sen. Cornyn and any other representative that is more D.C. than Texas.”