Earlier this week, state Senator Royce West became the latest Democrat to announce his candidacy for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX). His entrance brings the total number of Democrats currently running to eight, a large field that is quickly becoming one of the most crowded Senate primaries in the country.
While most forecasters believe Cornyn’s seat is safe, recent demographic changes in the state suggest that it could be closer than expected. In 2018, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) won reelection by less than three points, and tw0 of the 40 House seats Democrats flipped were from Texas. Democrats are expected to heavily target Texas House seats in 2020, too, since six other seats were decided by a margin of five points or less. It’s clear that Cornyn is not taking his reelection bid for granted, as the incumbent senator has saved over $9 million in his war chest.
With the race beginning to take shape, below is an overview of the current state of play for the Texas Senate contest.
Texans have not elected a Democrat to the U.S. Senate since 1988, and Cruz’s 2018 reelection was the closest presidential, senatorial, or gubernatorial race in the last five cycles. In fact, besides President Trump’s 2016 victory in the Lone Star state, every other Republican for one of those top elected positions has won by double-digits.
So why do Democrats believe they have a chance here? For one, the President’s current polling in the state is not overwhelmingly positive. A June University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll showed that voters are split 50-50 on their support for the President. Digging deeper into the numbers, 39 percent of those polled said they would “definitely” vote for the President, while 43 percent said they would “definitely not.” The remaining 18 percent said they would “probably” (11 percent) or “probably not” (7 percent) vote to reelect Trump. Cornyn’s favorability in the state is also split. The same UT/TT poll showed that 37 percent of voters approve of the incumbent senator, while 34 percent disapprove. Democrats will hope to capitalize on these numbers as they try to win the seat.
There’s also the issue of changing demographics. Population estimates released by the U.S. Census Bureau last month showed that Hispanic population in Texas has climbed to nearly 11.4 million — an annual gain of 214,736 through July 2018 and an increase of 1.9 million since 2010. Hispanics are expected to become the largest population group in Texas as soon as 2022. These demographic changes, coupled with a large suburban population that is trending blue, have given Democrats renewed hope that they can mount a serious challenge to Cornyn next year. That is, if they can avoid a messy primary.
The biggest hurdle Texas Democrats have to overcome if they want to defeat Cornyn is finding the right candidate to run against him, and with a field of eight they will not lack for options. However, a messy and drawn out primary battle could leave the eventual nominee in a weakened position heading into the general. While the current crop of candidates has several individuals who are unlikely to gain much traction, there are a handful of viable candidates who could make the primary competitive.
As it currently stands, business consultant and Purple Heart recipient MJ Hegar has the momentum. Hegar made a name for herself in 2018 when she mounted a competitive Democratic challenge against Rep. John Carter (R-TX) in the 31st Congressional District. Hegar raised more than $5.1 million during the 2018 cycle and only lost by 3 points in a district Trump carried by 13 points in 2016. Since getting into the race in April, Hegar has continued to demonstrate her fundraising prowess, raising over $1 million dollars in the second quarter. She also appears to be the favorite of the Democratic establishment, as Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) reportedly courted her to run.
But there are at least two other candidates that recently jumped into the race that could give Hegar a run for her money. First there’s Houston City Council Member Amanda Edwards, who announced her candidacy last week. Edwards has already set a primary fundraising goal of $5 million and has met with EMILY’s List as well as Schumer and the DSCC. The aforementioned state Senator Royce West also appears to be a formidable opponent. West, who has served in the state legislature since 1993, has high name recognition in North Texas, which could help put him over the top in a primary.
There are a couple things happening in this Senate contest that could throw a wrench in Democrats’ plans. The first has to do with D.C. involvement in the primary contest. In five Senate races across the country, the DSCC and other outside groups have already made endorsements despite multiple candidates running, and the move has not gone over well with some local activists. In Maine, for example, the DSCC quickly endorsed state Speaker of the House Sara Gideon after she announced her candidacy even though two other Democrats were already in the race. Local Democrats decried “Washington Democrats’” involvement in the race and have begun rallying around Betsy Sweet, a progressive candidate who has since received endorsements from the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez-linked group, Justice Democrats. If the DSCC chooses to endorse early in the Texas primary race, they could create a similar problem where progressive voters flock to a different candidate.
Who that different candidate could be is yet to be determined, but there’s at least one individual who could fit the bill: Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, the co-founder and executive director of Jolt Texas, a political action group focused on organizing Latino activists. Ramirez, a civil rights leader, is already being recruited by progressive operatives in the state to run and could present a viable alternative for Texas liberals who reject establishment-backed candidates.
The state of play in Texas will likely be very different six months from now, but these are a few of the main narratives worth keeping an eye on. For a comprehensive, up-to-date look at this noteworthy race, AR/Intel Insiders can check out our new Texas Senate Race Brief, where we will be following developments as they happen.