Texas’ Democratic Senate runoff to face John Cornyn has taken on new political significance as a Black state senator vies to defeat the national party’s favored candidate.
Texas Democratic Senate candidate Royce West was fed up. In the final days of early voting for the runoff election, frontrunner MJ Hegar put out a new ad in which she says that Texans will “stand together against the systemic racism that has hurt Black Americans for far too long” as photos from recent Black Lives Matter protests splash across the screen. The Democratic Senate Campaign Committee (DSCC), Senate Democrats’ political arm that is backing Hegar, had come to her aid with a coordinated $605,000 TV ad buy to run the commercial in major Texas metros in the final days of what looks to be an unexpectedly competitive race.
West, a Black state senator from Dallas, took umbrage, saying on social media that Hegar’s invocation of the Black Lives Matter movement in an ad being promoted with money from the DSCC was a “big dose of hypocrisy … because the very dollars she is using to paint such a rosy picture were denied to the minority candidates in this race.”
The DSCC threw its formidable weight behind Hegar with a December endorsement, just as the crowded primary race—which featured several Black and Hispanic candidates—was getting off the ground. Critics said it was a heavy-handed attempt to clear the way for Hegar, a white woman, while hurting the other candidates’ ability to raise money and support. At the time, West, who had also lobbied for the endorsement, called it a “slap in the face” to the state’s Black voters and contended that the DSCC was “trying to lock African Americans out of the process.”
Now, West is trying to mount an upset victory in the runoff contest to face Senator John Cornyn in November by convincing Texas’ Democratic voters that he is the candidate uniquely fit for this political moment—one defined by urgent calls for a reckoning over police brutality and racial injustice in the United States. He’s also trying to tap into frustration among Texas Democrats with the national party interfering in its politics.
Texas, which has the largest Black population in the country and the most Black members of Congress, has never elected a Black person to the U.S. Senate. West, who was first elected to the Texas Senate in 1992, says that his potential to make history would create a stark contrast to Cornyn, and could help to mobilize an ascendant electorate of Black, Brown, and young voters that the party sees as key to winning statewide, but has struggled to get to the polls. In this way, the runoff underscores a broader debate within the Democratic Party over not only how to win in November, but what the party will look like in the future.
Hegar is a decorated Air Force combat veteran and was a central plaintiff in an ACLU lawsuit that overturned the Pentagon’s discriminatory prohibition of women serving in ground combat positions. After a viral campaign ad made her a fundraising phenom, she narrowly lost a 2018 congressional race in a solid-red suburban and rural district north of Austin. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer recruited Hegar to run for Senate, adding to his track record of backing moderate candidates in primaries. Schumer’s support for Hegar reportedly played a role in San Antonio Congressman Joaquin Castro, who many thought could mobilize the state’s rapidly growing Latinx electorate, declining to run for the seat. Party leaders thought Hegar, who has a compelling personal story and aversion to political ideology—“I’m not a progressive or a moderate Democrat; I’m an ass-kicking, motorcycle-riding, tattooed Democrat,” she’s said—would have the best shot at winning in Texas by appealing to suburban women, independents, and disillusioned Republicans.
But many Democratic organizers and leaders in Texas say this is the wrong approach. They say that the race to the middle has not only failed in the past; it also comes at the expense of more liberal candidates of color who could galvanize turnout and build up the party’s base. “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,” Carroll Robinson, the chair of the Texas Coalition of Black Democrats, told the Observer in December.
Critics of the DSCC point to the Democratic Senate primary in Kentucky last month when progressive Charles Booker—a young, Black state legislator from Louisville—mounted a late-stage comeback against Schumer recruit Amy McGrath, a white military veteran who ran as a Trump-friendly Democrat with tens of millions of dollars in her campaign coffers. Booker tapped into the energy of the local Black Lives Matter protests centered on the killing of Breonna Taylor, who was shot to death by Louisville police at night in her own home. In a defining moment at a candidate debate, McGrath acknowledged that she hadn’t attended any local BLM demonstrations. Booker contrasted this with his own involvement, and cemented his status as the candidate who “fit the moment.” He very nearly succeeded, losing to McGrath by 3 percentage points.
West says national Democrats’ dismissal of qualified Black and Brown candidates is hurting the party and alienating its voters. “It has become real clear that [Texas Democrats] don’t need Washington trying to pick who their candidate is,” West told the Observer. “It’s not just African Americans, but Democrats throughout the state who frankly resented the fact that Washington was trying to put hands on the scale of this race.”
Hegar denies that the DSCC endorsement was the reason for her success in the crowded primary. ”The only thing [the DSCC] cares about is flipping the majority,” she told the Austin American-Statesman. “I was the most viable candidate because I was running a tight campaign and raising the resources and rallying the allies that it’s going to take to unseat Cornyn.”
With help from the DSCC and more than $3 million from the dark-money super PAC VoteVets Action Fund, Hegar came in first in the crowded 12-candidate primary election in March, with just over 22 percent of the vote. West, with strong support from his base in North Texas and the backing of his Democratic colleagues in the Texas Legislature, narrowly edged out progressive organizer Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez for second place, pulling in just under 15 percent of the vote.
Soon after, the spread of COVID-19 prompted Governor Greg Abbott to delay state runoff elections, typically held in May, until July. As the pandemic has worsened, shutdowns and social distancing protocols have made traditional in-person campaigning impossible. The Democratic runoff between Hegar and West was far from most people’s minds.
But that changed in the days and weeks following George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police on May 25, which prompted massive protests across the country. West has tried to seize on the moment by showing up at protests, telling his personal story—from growing up in the projects of South Dallas to gaining a powerful post in state government—and emphasizing his legislative achievements on policing and racial equity. In 1974, he became the first Black student president at the University of Texas at Arlington and, after getting his law degree, went on to become the first Black felony prosecutor in the Dallas County district attorney’s office. Since becoming state senator in 1992, West has made a name for himself as a leader on police accountability, criminal justice reform, and education legislation. In 2001, he helped pass the state’s hate crimes law named for James Byrd, Jr., a Black man who was dragged to death by white supremacists in East Texas three years before, and helped enact the state’s anti-racial profiling measure. He also authored laws that mandate dashboard cameras, and, more recently, body cameras for Texas police officers.
Hegar, who over the last year has run a general election-style campaign laser-focused on contrasting herself with Cornyn, has also shifted focus. In late June, Hegar held a video conference with family members of Javier Ambler, who died last March after being tased during an arrest by deputies with the Williamson County Sheriff’s Department, which suppressed body-cam footage for more than a year. Hegar, who is from Williamson County, joined West and other Democrats calling on the sheriff to resign over his handling of the case, saying she was “keenly aware that my community has lost faith” in him.
West, though, argues that Hegar is being reactive on issues like racial justice. In a campaign email, he compared Hegar to Cornyn, saying both “are not suddenly experienced leaders on racial justice, public education, voting rights, or any other issue just because they show up on television talking about these things.” Hegar counters this: “I am so excited that the reforms that we’ve been calling for for years are finally starting to become mainstream,” she told the Observer on Thursday.
The race has become increasingly nasty since the two candidates first came to blows in the second and final televised debate last week, and West has since gone on the offensive, publicly questioning Hegar’s Democratic credentials.
Still, Hegar remains in a strong position heading into Election Day on July 14. For one, she has a substantial fundraising lead over West. She raised $1.7 million in the most recent quarter. She also has national endorsements from groups like the gun reform group Brady PAC and Planned Parenthood, along with Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg.
But last-minute financial support from the DSCC and other national groups suggests that the runoff has tightened. Over the past week, he’s been endorsed by U.S. Representatives Joaquin Castro and Sheila Jackson Lee, and Democratic Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, the highest-ranking African American member of Congress.
Many young Black people—especially young Black men—have long felt disconnected from the electoral process, says Robinson, whose Texas Coalition of Black Democrats also endorsed West. “They want to see you do rather than talk.” The call to defund police is “a primal outrage, a primal scream: do something.” He adds: “I think [this moment] is an advantage to Senator West if and only if the folks who are in the streets show up and vote.”
But Hegar and West are not progressive firebrands. They’ve acknowledged the need for dramatic policing reforms. However, like many Democratic politicians, they’ve both notably declined to embrace calls to “defund the police.” Kandice Webber, a lead organizer with Black Lives Matter Houston, says both candidates’ attempts to meet the moment will ring hollow without stronger action. The young people at the heart of the movement “are not about that chickenshit. They can spot it a mile away.”
Still, West has consolidated support from the progressive wing of the party. Tzintzún Ramirez endorsed West less than a week after she narrowly came in third, saying his legislative record showed him as the clear choice for progressives.
If West pulls off an upset against the national party favorite, she says, it will send a resounding message to the national party. “The truth is that in Texas, people of color aren’t just the majority of the state population, they are now the supermajority of the Democratic Party,” says Tzintzún Ramirez. “The establishment doesn’t get to have it both ways. They don’t get to have their votes but not their voices.”
Read more from the Observer:
COVID-19 is Surging in Rural Texas, Threatening to Overwhelm Local Hospitals: ICU beds are limited, medical providers are falling sick, and urban hospitals where small facilities transfer critical patients are running out of space.
Reform vs. Rebuild: Defunding Law Enforcement in Texas: Years of activism and a legacy of police violence are fueling demands to reimagine public safety.
In ‘Separated,’ One Journalist’s Close-up View of the Family Separation Crisis: Jacob Soboroff’s new memoir is a thorough account of how such a cruel policy came to be and how it traumatized hundreds of children and their families.