It really comes down to the top of the ticket. There’s no getting around it.
Even before a pandemic struck, protests over racial justice took to the streets and a vacancy opened on the U.S. Supreme Court, this year’s U.S. Senate race was poised to be different from the last one in Texas.
John Cornyn is not as polarizing as Ted Cruz, the thinking went, and MJ Hegar is no Beto O’Rourke.
Add in a wave of news and other high-profile 2020 contests, and Texas voters are getting a much lower-octane race, a far cry from Cruz’s battle royale against O’Rourke and all its theatrics.
But that does not mean this year’s race is lacking in contrast.
As he embarks on the final several weeks of his quest for a fourth term, Cornyn is pitching himself as a “steady hand on the wheel” who has the stature to guide Texas through a turbulent time. Hegar, meanwhile, is happily running to the contrary — as a disruptive change agent who can usher in a new era of federal representation for a changing Texas.
While Hegar’s pitch is broadly similar to what O’Rourke’s was, Cornyn is taking a notably different path than Cruz, a student of base-first politics who believed what he needed most in 2018 was maximum conservative turnout. Instead, Cornyn is running for reelection with more appeals to the political center, often inviting questions — most vocally from Hegar — about whether his rhetoric matches his record.
But in any case, it is a dynamic destined to shape the final several weeks of the top statewide race after the presidential contest.
At the end of the day, Cornyn’s fate may be tied to Trump more than anyone else come November. Asked about his biggest challenge this November, Cornyn brought up the massive turnout that is expected, largely driven by the polarizing president, and how different it will be from when he was last on the ballot. A total of 4.6 million people participated in the 2014 Senate election, and Cornyn said he likely will have to garner more votes than that alone this fall to win a fourth term.
With Trump dominating the political landscape across the country, Cornyn said he does not “just want to kind of surf the waves of national news cycles” and wants to make a case for himself independent of Trump. The president gave Cornyn an early reelection endorsement, helping to ensure a noncompetitive primary.
Cornyn occasionally offers gentle dissent with the president but has not emphatically broken with him on any major issue in recent memory. When it comes to the November election, he said he would like Trump to talk more about his accomplishments, namely on the economy — and that he has expressed as much to the president.
“To me the real question in this election is: Who do you think is best suited to help rebuild our economy in the wake of the pandemic?” Cornyn said. “Is it Joe Biden and Kamala Harris? Or is it Donald Trump and Mike Pence? And for me, it’s not even close.”
Beyond policy, though, Hegar has sought to make the race almost as much about character, pitching herself as a stronger avatar of Texas toughness.
In ads, Hegar talks up her military heroism and rides her motorcycle, and on the stump, she has denounced Cornyn as a “spineless, pantywaist, bootlicking ass-kisser.” She defended the approach in the interview, saying it is “important people understand his level of cowardice because I’ve been to D.C.” — to lobby for women in combat — and she has seen firsthand what it takes to overcome adversity there.
I agree with John Cornyn, it will take more than 4.6 million votes to win in November. That’s actually not saying much – even Wayne Christian topped 4.6 million in 2016, with the statewide judicial candidates all exceeding 4.7 million and in some cases 4.8 million. Five million seems like the bare minimum to win, and let’s be honest, that is a bigger leap for Dems to make, since Beto was the first Dem ever to top four million. To that extent, the Presidential race almost certainly helps Dems like Hegar more than it does Republicans like Cornyn. It’s still a big gap to close. The capacity is there, and Dems took a huge leap forward in 2018, but let’s keep the magnitude of the task in mind.
How much this race will be distinguished from the Presidential race is unclear. This is literally the first race on the ballot after the Presidential race, so any concerns about the lack of straight ticket voting should be minimal. I’ve seen maybe one ad for each candidate so far – Lacey Hull and Lizzie Fletcher, neither of whom are on my ballot, have been a much more frequent presence on my teevee. The Beto/Cruz race in 2018 was the top of that ticket, both literally and practically, since the Governor’s race was a much quieter affair. Some people may decide to vote in this race, in particular to split a ticket in this race, based on the campaigns, but my guess is that will be minimal. If Joe Biden wins Texas, MJ Hegar has an excellent chance of beating John Cornyn; if Donald Trump wins Texas, Cornyn will almost certainly get re-elected. I think a Biden/Cornyn combination is slightly more likely than a Trump/Hegar parlay, but how probable either scenario is I have no idea. The main message here is what it’s always been: Vote. Make sure everyone you know votes. It’s as simple as that.