George Floyd and the upcoming Texas Democratic Senate runoff

George Floyd and the upcoming Texas Democratic Senate runoff
© Facebook: Royce West

On July 14 the Texas Democratic Party will choose its 2020 U.S. Senate nominee in a runoff. Following the March primary, MJ Hegar was the strong favorite to win the runoff. But the killing of George Floyd and subsequent public protests and nationwide calls for police reform have leveled the playing field for Royce West, who is black, and made the runoff a much more competitive contest. 

The winner will take on three-term Republican Senator John Cornyn in a race in which handicappers have Cornyn as the favorite but not a sure thing due to the liability of President TrumpDonald John TrumpDeWine tests negative for coronavirus a second time Several GOP lawmakers express concern over Trump executive orders Beirut aftermath poses test for US aid to frustrating ally MORE’s presence at the top of the ticket. But by boosting West’s prospects of victory in July, the Floyd tragedy could also diminish Democratic prospects of defeating Cornyn in November.

Hegar is a former U.S. Air Force helicopter pilot and decorated combat veteran who in 2018 came close to unseating Republican Rep. John CarterJohn Rice CarterDonna Imam wins Democratic runoff to face Rep. John Carter House panel advances bill banning construction on bases with Confederate names Democrats see victory in Trump culture war MORE in Texas’s 31st Congressional District (Northern Austin suburbs, Killeen and Temple). West has been a Texas state senator representing the Dallas area since 1993. 

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In the fragmented 12-candidate primary, Hegar came in first with 22 percent of the vote, followed by West with 15 percent. Both Hegar and West are considered to be moderate Democrats. Neither identifies with the party’s increasingly ascendant progressive wing.

In the primary, Hegar’s base consisted largely of white women and, to a slightly lesser extent, white men, with her geographic support especially high in metro Austin. West’s base consisted largely of blacks, and geographically his support was highest in Dallas County, the second most populous county in the state.

Coming out of the March primary, Hegar was considered a heavy favorite to capture the nomination for three principal reasons. First, she enjoyed the endorsement of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) in particular and of a considerably greater number of national Democrats and Democratic groups more generally. Second, she was a better fundraiser than West and had a larger campaign war chest after the primary. Third, she was the preferred candidate of white women, who represent the largest voting bloc in Texas Democratic primaries.

The protests following the killing of former Houston resident George Floyd (who was buried in Houston on June 9) have improved West’s odds of victory in July for three reasons. First, one message that has come out of the protests and calls for social justice and police reform is the importance of voting, and this message has resonated most strongly with black Texans, an overwhelming majority of whom will vote for West if they cast a ballot in the Democratic runoff.

Second, in addition to higher African American turnout, many white liberals who prior to Floyd’s murder had been leaning toward Hegar are now likely to shift their support to West. The Floyd tragedy has provided some with a greater appreciation of the importance of having African Americans in positions of power. (West would be Texas’s first black U.S. senator.) Others may view supporting and voting for West as a form of virtue signaling by which to burnish their progressive credentials. 

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Third, West already enjoyed the explicit or implicit support of most leading Texas African American political elites prior to Floyd’s murder. But in the midst of the current mobilization for reform and racial justice, those elites, along with many progressive Latino and white elites, are likely to be much more engaged with and visibly supportive of West’s runoff candidacy than would have otherwise been the case. 

Whoever wins the Democratic Primary still faces an uphill battle to defeat Cornyn in November. While President Trump represents a significant electoral liability for the Texas GOP, a majority of likely Texas voters are still on the Republican side of the aisle. And unlike Trump, Cornyn’s personal traits and actions do not repel otherwise reliable GOP voters and cause them to abstain from voting, vote for a third party candidate or cross over to vote Democratic.

The Cornyn campaign has implicitly signaled that it prefers to face West in November rather than Hegar. Hegar’s combat veteran background, centrist image and outsider status (she has never held public office) make her a greater threat to Cornyn’s re-election bid than West.  

In contrast to Hegar, West is a career politician who has held the same office for almost 30 years. More importantly, from an attack ad perspective, West has made many millions of dollars by, among other things, parlaying his status as one of Texas’s 31 state senators to obtain contracts as a lobbyist and bond counsel for Texas local governments, school districts, transit authorities and utility districts whose budgets and operating regulations he directly influences as a state senator. West’s profiting from his public service is legal under the Lone Star State’s flexible ethics laws, and he has no reason to worry about the court of law. But should West prevail on July 14, he may have reason to worry about how his use of public office for substantial personal financial gain will be viewed in the court of public opinion in November. 

Mark P. Jones is the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy’s fellow in political science and the Joseph D. Jamail chair in Latin American Studies at Rice University as well as a co-author of “Texas Politics Today: 2017-2018 Edition.” Follow him on Twitter @MarkPJonesTX.