National Dems Back MJ Hegar, Underscoring a Deeper Debate: How to Win in Texas
More than three months before the primary, Washington Democrats caught Texas party activists off-guard by endorsing a white candidate in a crowded field that includes several black and Hispanic contenders.
Above: MJ Hegar poses for a portrait at her home in Round Rock.
On Monday, the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee endorsed former U.S. House candidate MJ Hegar in her bid to run against Republican incumbent Senator John Cornyn. The decision to back Hegar—who is running in a crowded, diverse field—strikes at the heart of an intra-party debate: how to run (and win) in red states on the brink of political realignment.
The endorsement drew swift backlash from Hegar’s fellow candidates, whocondemnedthe national party’s Senate campaign arm. Although the committee has played primary favorites in other priority Senate races, many people in Texas politics were surprised that it waded into a race more than three months out. “We had no idea that was going to happen,” said Abhi Rahman, the communications director for the Texas Democratic Party, which is running a multimillion-dollar operation aimed at defeating Cornyn.
Though the timing was unexpected, the endorsement itself wasn’t a shock. The national Democratic party tends to favor moderate candidates in red-state races, and Hegar—who rose to prominence when she nearly ousted U.S. Representative John Carter last year—fits the bill. She’s framed her campaign in opposition to Cornyn and tried to distance herself from left-wing policies like the Green New Deal and single-payer health care. A celebrated Air Force combat veteran, Hegar has branded herself as an independent political fighter who is unbeholden to partisanship. (Her opponents have criticized her for voting in the 2016 Republican primary; Hegar’s campaign framed it as a protest vote against Donald Trump, adding that her transformation into a Democrat mirrors the political shift of Texas voters at large.) As she put it in a recent interview with the Texas Tribune,“I’m not a progressive or a moderate Democrat; I’m an ass-kicking, motorcycle-riding, tattooed Democrat.”
The stakes in Texas have changed since Beto O’Rourke came within 3 percentage points of ousting U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, prompting the national Democratic Party to label the Lone Star State as a critical 2020 battleground. Hegar’s approach—now endorsed by the DSCC—represents one path forward for potentially purple states: Tack toward the middle and attempt to expand support among white suburban moderates, independents, and anti-Trump Republicans.
One of Hegar’s competitors, longtime organizer Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, has taken the opposite approach. Tzintzún Ramirez has played up her experience organizing workers against abusive employers. She’s also centered her platform on progressive policies like Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and expanded worker rights—issues that could mobilize young people and voters of color. She was recently endorsed by the state chapter of the labor-backed Working Families Party. As a Latina, she is one of a handful of candidates of color and has worked for years to push Democrats to invest more in turning out Hispanic voters in Texas.
“It is disappointing that the national Democratic establishment is so afraid of progressive ideas that it will not even give Texas voters a chance to hear them,” David Sanchez, Tzintzún Ramirez’s campaign manager, said in a statement. “At a time when the energy is in the progressive wing of the party, they have decided that they know better.”
Sanchez added, “They have decided to ignore several more qualified and experienced candidates of color, who have done the work to transform the politics of our state, in favor of a former Republican.”
While O’Rourke himself has opted not to weigh in on the primary race, Tzintzún Ramirez’s campaign staff includes several former O’Rourke staffers. She also recently rolled out a slate of endorsements from his former Senate and presidential campaign staff, most notably his Senate campaign manager, Jody Casey.
Tzintzún Ramirez isn’t the only candidate who believes that Hegar is out of step with the party’s base. Chris Bell—a former Houston congressman and city council member who ran for governor in 2006—went after Hegar for her opposition to a mandatory buyback of assault-style rifles, an idea O’Rourke proposed during his presidential campaign. “Supporting a former Republican and avowed conservative who opposes common-sense gun safety laws is the wrong answer for the Democratic Party to take on Senator John Cornyn,” he said in a statement.
Although Hegar was seen as the frontrunner when she first announced her Senate campaign, that has not been clearly reflected in the polls. In a September poll, two-thirds of potential primary voters said they either didn’t know who they would back in the race or had no opinion; 11 percent picked Hegar, and 5 percent said they’d vote for state Senator Royce West. A November poll from the University of Texas at Tyler showed Tzintzún Ramirez narrowly leading Hegar with 9.4 percent, though the margin of error was 4.7 percent.
So the DSCC’s endorsement comes as the field appears to be wide-open, with plenty of time left for candidates to make their case to undecided voters. That has rankled some in the party who believe the committee is trying to influence the outcome of a competitive primary at the expense of communities of color.
West, an African-American from Dallas, said in a statement that the DSCC’s endorsement was a “slap in the face” to the state’s black voters—long a cornerstone of the state’s Democratic base. “The DSCC is trying to lock African Americans out of the process,” West said.
West’s campaign said that he was never offered a chance to interview for the endorsement. Tzintzún Ramirez’s campaign also said she was never given a formal opportunity to seek the endorsement, calling the decision “tone-deaf to the diverse Texas electorate.” Amanda Edwards, an African-American city council member in Houston, also wasn’t interviewed, according to her campaign.
Other candidates of color in the race include Sema Hernandez, a left-wing Democratic socialist who received a surprising share of votes in the 2018 Senate primary; Michael Cooper, the Beaumont NAACP president who narrowly lost the 2018 primary race for lieutenant governor; and Adrian Ocegueda, who came in last place in the 2018 gubernatorial primary.
Carroll Robinson, the newly elected chair of the Texas Coalition of Black Democrats, called the endorsement “disrespectful,” and wondered if anyone in the black community was consulted ahead of the decision.
Robinson believes the DSCC endorsement highlights the political incompetence and bias of the Democratic Party’s national campaign committees. “[The endorsement] just doesn’t make any sense if you have a strategy for not just putting Texas in play, but actually turning it blue,” he said. “No disrespect to MJ Hegar, but she may not be the perfect candidate to turn out black and brown voters in November 2020, and it certainly won’t help her when the DSCC looks like it’s trying to rig [the primary] for her.”
Robinson says that the national party has an established pattern of tipping the scales in primaries to advance its own political strategy, which often means endorsing white candidates over minorities. “I think the party still has this antiquated perspective that somehow the white candidate will get white voters and the white candidate will get them to victory,” he said.“They’re assuming [Hegar will] do better than Wendy Davis, than Hillary Clinton did in Texas, and better than Beto O’Rourke did.”
The concern is that chasing the ever-elusive white vote will come at the expense of turning out the base. Exit polls show that O’Rourke lost the white vote by nearly 20 percentage points but won among nonwhite voters by a margin of 40 percentage points. And despite his barnstorming all across the state, he struggled to make inroads in heavily white and conservative rural areas. “If they’d have spent the money to turn out an extra 200,000 to 300,000 black voters, [O’Rourke] would be a senator,” Robinson said.
Hegar has tried to make the case that she could cut down margins in rural Texas, but she’s also pushed back on the notion that it’s an either-or proposition. “MJ is committed to earning the support of Texans across the state – from the Rio Grande Valley, where she’s visited with communities on the border, to Lubbock, where she heard about the problems facing rural Texas,” Sherman said in a statement.