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Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Texas Sen. John Cornyn is facing his first real challenge from newcomer MJ Hegar

Republican Sen. John Cornyn is facing a tough reelection in Texas. | Ken Cedeno-Pool/Getty Images

Texas’s competitive Senate race is an omen of political change.

For the second election cycle in a row, a prominent Senate Republican is facing a tough reelection campaign in Texas — a state that was once regarded as reliably red but has become one of the nation’s biggest battlegrounds. But unlike in 2018, when Democrat Beto O’Rourke became a cause célèbre for his near-miss against the incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz, this year’s Senate race hasn’t captured the national spotlight.

That’s the way the two candidates — Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican seeking a fourth term, and his nascent Democratic challenger MJ Hegar — would probably prefer it. They have sought to make this race about Texas, rather than President Donald Trump. But in an especially polarized election year, national politics has nevertheless seeped into the race.

Cornyn, who has a reputation for being a bipartisan dealmaker in the Senate, has distanced himself from Trump, whose approval ratings have dropped in Texas since 2016 and who has only a slight edge over former Vice President Joe Biden in Texas polls. Rather than staking his candidacy on the president’s record, Cornyn has framed his reelection campaign as a fight to save Texas from coastal liberals.

“I think this election presents a clear choice between the people who recruited and supported MJ’s campaign, which want to make Texas more like California and New York,” he said during a televised debate earlier this month. “I want to make the rest of the country more like Texas.”

 Suzanne Cordeiro/AFP via Getty Images
MJ Hegar speaks to voters in 2018.

Hegar, who ran for Congress in 2018 but has never held elected office before, has portrayed herself as an outsider who eschews political labels. She has resisted pressure to opine on what role she would play in her party if elected, while Cornyn has tried to paint her as someone who would help further the agenda of Democratic leaders. She has been clear that, unlike other Democratic candidates nationwide, she’s not running against Trump. Rather, she’s gone on the offensive against Cornyn, who she says has lost touch with his constituents over his 18 years in the Senate.

“I’m not running for president. I’m running for Senate,” she told Vox in an interview. “The problem of John Cornyn to Texas is a thorn in our side that predates Donald Trump.”

Cornyn’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment.

Cornyn is still favored to win, with the latest polls showing him with anywhere from a 1- to 10-point lead, driven in part by his ability to compete with suburban and urban voters who have appeared to turn against Trump. Hegar is within firing distance and could still make up ground in the final weeks before Election Day, though early voting in Texas is already underway and will conclude on October 30.

The Cook Political Report recently shifted its race ratings in Hegar’s favor from Likely Republican to Leans Republican. Hegar, a former Air Force helicopter pilot, is leading among both Black and Hispanic voters, though she isn’t matching Biden’s support among those groups. She raised $13.5 million in the third quarter, outpacing Cornyn by a 2-1 ratio, and snagged an endorsement from former President Barack Obama. And the Democratic group Majority PAC made a late-stage $8.6 million ad buy on her behalf.

It’s also possible that, as was the case with O’Rourke, the polls are underestimating Hegar, who could benefit from record turnout. The secretary of state’s office has reported that about 16.9 million Texans have registered to vote this year, up almost 2 million since 2016 — in part a result of the efforts of O’Rourke’s campaign and grassroots organizers to expand the state’s electorate.

“There is a decade more of base-building that MJ is running on top of, including the work that she’s doing to activate her own voters,” Tory Gavito, a Democratic strategist and president of the donor network Way to Win, said. “Even if we don’t take the top of the ticket, we need to look for signs of growth. There’s no doubt that Texas is still on the purple trajectory.”

Hegar is asking voters not to trust Cornyn’s promises on health care

Hegar has made her health care plan a central pillar of her platform, and she’s hoping that resonates with voters in the middle of a pandemic that has hit Texans especially hard. Coronavirus hospitalizations peaked over the summer after Texas became one of the first states to reopen its economy, and there have been concerning signs that Texas is due for another surge as cases have recently spiked in El Paso and North Texas.

But pandemic or not, access to health care is an issue that looms large in Texas, which has the highest uninsured rate nationwide and is one of 12 states that have yet to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act’s joint state-federal program that has offered health care coverage to individuals with incomes below 138 percent of the poverty line (about $17,600 for a single adult) since 2016.

Hegar, who worked for a Texas hospital system for five years, has embraced a “Medicare-for-all-who-want-it” system modeled after the health care system in the military. That’s in line with Biden’s health care plan but doesn’t go as far as the Medicare-for-all proposal championed by progressives.

“I believe that individuals should have the choice to stay on private insurance if they prefer or opt in to Medicare,” Hegar told Vox. “We must protect the progress made by the Affordable Care Act while making much-needed improvements. We cannot go back to the past when insurance companies were able to discriminate against those with preexisting conditions or sell junk plans that leave folks vulnerable when serious health issues or injuries occur.”

This year, Democratic candidates across the nation have similarly run on health care, an issue that was critical to the party’s success in the 2018 midterms and that more than a quarter of voters, regardless of party affiliation, say is the most important issue in this presidential election.

 Bob Daemmrich/Nexstar/AP
MJ Hegar debates Sen. John Cornyn in Austin, Texas, on October 9.

Hegar’s strategy has been not only to highlight how Texans would benefit if the US expanded health care access, but also to draw attention to Cornyn’s history as a leading proponent of repealing and replacing the ACA in the Senate and of receiving campaign contributions from pharmaceutical executives. Cornyn claims that, even if the ACA were repealed, he would still preserve the law’s protections for Americans with preexisting conditions, which most Americans support, and allow people under the age of 26 to stay on their parents’ health insurance plans.

“You know, preexisting conditions is something we all agree should be covered,” he said in a campaign ad that aired earlier this month, echoing other Republican senators in close races.

But he supported the Republican-led Better Care Reconciliation Act in 2017, which would have allowed insurers selling plans on the individual market to deny coverage or increase costs for people with preexisting conditions. He also supported the Protect Act in 2019, which, despite Senate Republicans’ efforts to bill it otherwise, would allow insurers to offer “thin coverage aimed at healthy customers, and considerably more expensive policies with comprehensive coverage for people who might actually need costly care,” according to the LA Times.

“It blows my mind that John Cornyn can sleep at night after trying to rip away care from millions of Texans,” Hegar told Vox.

Texas’s changing electorate is driving Cornyn to the middle

Texas is at a political turning point, largely brought on by demographic change. The state last backed a Democrat for president in 1976, and Republicans have held state legislative chambers and the governorship since 2003. But the state is becoming increasingly urban, and Hispanics are on track to become its largest population group by mid-2021, two trends that generally favor Democrats.

That long-promised transformation has been slow to arrive, in part because state Republicans have sought to curb voter participation: Just this year, they have banned counties from sending mail-in ballots to all registered voters, limited the number of ballot drop-off locations to just one per county, and tried to stop drive-through voting. Nevertheless, Texas Republicans are in real strife this year up and down the ballot.

Cornyn, for his part, has been forced to shift to the center on some issues as Hegar has climbed in the polls. That’s been particularly clear in the way he talks about his immigration policy.

 Graeme Jennings/Getty Images
Cornyn meets with Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett on September 29.

Though the Republican Party has largely mirrored Trump’s restrictive immigration policies, Cornyn made a Spanish-language ad buy in September touting his support for the DREAM Act, which would offer a path to citizenship for 1.8 million unauthorized immigrants nationwide who came to the US as children. The bill, which is some two decades in the making, has been blocked repeatedly in Congress, sometimes with his support and sometimes without.

He voted against versions of the bill in 2006, 2007, 2010, 2013, and 2018, which immigrant advocates cite as evidence that he is no ally of so-called DREAMers. If he really supported young unauthorized immigrants, he would have called for a vote on a standalone bill to legalize them that passed the House in 2019, Mario Carrillo, a Texas-based spokesperson for the immigrant advocacy group America’s Voice, said in a statement.

But Cornyn’s aides have touted his support for other versions of the bill, including a 2018 proposal that coupled permanent protections for DREAMers with $25 billion in funding for Trump’s border wall and other border security measures.

Cornyn’s decision to tout that vote suggests he’s struggling with key demographics, Gavito said.

“Even if he emerges as the victor, there is no doubt that the organizing that has gone into Texas has pulled him to the left,” she said. “It’s because he’s feeling heat, specifically among young voters, Latino voters, and multiracial suburban voters.”

Hegar and Cornyn are not O’Rourke and Cruz — but they still can’t escape national politics entirely

This Senate race isn’t a repeat of 2018: Neither of the candidates has the star power of O’Rourke and Cruz, and they’re defending their records to a Texas audience, not a national one.

In 2018, O’Rourke, then a three-term Congress member, traveled to all 254 counties in Texas and livestreamed the whole journey, drawing a national following and breaking fundraising records. Hegar, a political newcomer, had planned to do the same to get her name out there, but that wasn’t possible this year due to the pandemic.

“Hegar is plagued by what any Democrat running statewide in Texas would be plagued by, which is just scale of name recognition,” Gavito said.

 Eric Gay/AP
MJ Hegar heads to an early polling site after talking with reporters in Austin on July 9.

Though Hegar is still at a relative disadvantage, Cornyn suffers from his own lack of name recognition in his home state: As of late August, more than a quarter of voters had no opinion of him or didn’t know enough about him to have an opinion. His approval ratings are also lower than those of Cruz, a much more fiery, divisive personality in the Senate.

Both candidates have tried to tailor their messaging to Texans: Cornyn has framed the race as a battle for Texas’s conservative values, arguing that Hegar’s policies are “too liberal for Texas.” Hegar, for her part, has cast him as a career politician who is too steeped in Washington politics to fight for Texans.

But national politics are still playing a role as Cornyn, despite his best efforts, cannot escape association with a polarizing president.

He has become more outspoken in distinguishing his politics from Trump’s in the final stretch before Election Day — what some have criticized as an about-face. In a recent interview with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, he said that he disagreed with the president on issues including budget deficits, tariffs, trade agreements, and border security, but chose to voice those differences of opinion in private.

Speaking about his relationship with Trump, he likened himself to a “lot of women who get married and think they’re going to change their spouse, and that doesn’t usually work out very well.”

“I think what we found is that we’re not going to change President Trump,” he added. “He is who he is. You either love him or hate him, and there’s not much in between. What I tried to do is not get into public confrontations and fights with him because, as I’ve observed, those usually don’t end too well.”

In practice, Cornyn has frequently sided with the White House on issues ranging from trying to push through the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court before the election to acquitting the president in his impeachment trial earlier this year.

Cornyn shouldn’t be able to escape that record, Hegar said.

“What a Texan needs to be successful here is to show that they’re a damn Texan and not a DC spineless bootlicker,” she told Vox. “That is not John Cornyn’s seat. It’s not my seat. It is Texas’s seat, and it should be filled by a Texan who is going to fight for regular working families across the state and for Texas values like integrity and grit and backbone.”


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