Historic Runoff Turnout Sets Stage for Texas Democrats in 2020’s ‘Biggest Battleground’

MJ Hegar won a contested Senate runoff and Democrats broke their record for runoff turnout as nearly 1 million voters cast ballots.

Democratic U.S. Senate candidate MJ Hegar speaks to supporters during her election night party in Austin on March 3, 2020.

Democratic U.S. Senate candidate MJ Hegar speaks to supporters during her election night party in Austin on March 3, 2020. AP Photo/Eric Gay

The Texas primaries in March feel like a lifetime ago. Soon after Super Tuesday, the coronavirus pandemic spread across the country and ground political campaigns to a halt. Governor Greg Abbott delayed the runoff elections by two months while state Attorney General Ken Paxton beat back attempts to expand access to mail-in voting. Meanwhile, anger over Republicans’ response to the pandemic mounted with each day.

That anger manifested itself in the runoffs, as Texas Democrats—undeterred by COVID-19 cases surging across the state—turned out to vote in record numbers.

Now, Texas Democrats can finally intensify their efforts to make the state a real battleground.

Driven by a competitive Senate contest between Air Force combat veteran MJ Hegar and Dallas state Senator Royce West, 955,000 Texans turned out to vote in the Democratic contests, more than twice the number of voters in the party’s 2018 gubernatorial runoff. This turnout was the highest ever for Democrats and nearly broke the state record set by Republicans when 1.2 million voters cast ballots in the U.S. Senate runoff battle between Ted Cruz and then-Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst in 2012.

The surge in turnout is a sign that the state Democratic Party, which has been in the political wilderness for the better part of three decades, is entering a newly competitive era, both in its primaries and—as the GOP’s stranglehold on Texas loosens—in general elections.

“Texas is the biggest battleground state in the country. … This is our moment,” Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa said in a statement Wednesday morning.

After coming in first in a crowded March primary, Hegar beat West by a margin of 4 percentage points, 52 to 48. It was a close outcome that, despite Hegar’s frontrunner status and huge financial advantage, highlights just how split Democratic voters were in a race that had become increasingly embittered in its final days.

Hegar won Austin and in its suburbs, where she lives, and ran up big margins in San Antonio, the Rio Grande Valley, and El Paso. As expected, West dominated in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex and across East Texas. The two candidates ran neck-and-neck in Houston, a city with a large share of the state’s Black voters that West would have needed to decisively win in order to pull off an upset against Hegar.

Hegar, a former military helicopter pilot, became something of a political celebrity in 2018 with a viral campaign ad for her congressional bid against Republican John Carter, narrowly losing what had been a strongly red central Texas seat. She was the first Democrat to announce a run to take on three-term Republican incumbent Senator John Cornyn. The Democratic Senate Campaign Committee (DSCC) waded into the race with an endorsement of Hegar in December, to the frustration of other candidates and many state party activists.

As the race tightened in the final weeks, Hegar was helped by an influx of outside spending from the DSCC and the pro-choice political group EMILY’s List, which pumped more than $1 million into last-minute ad buys. West, who had said the DSCC’s endorsement of Hegar made it difficult for him to raise money, was outspent by Hegar and her allies by a ratio of 85 to 11, according to the Texas Tribune.

“I felt like I was battling two Goliaths,” West said Tuesday night—the DSCC and Cornyn, who entered the fray in the final days, releasing ads that cast West as an extreme liberal. In the wake of George Floyd’s death, West had emphasized his legislative record on policing reform and the prospect of him becoming Texas’ first Black U.S. Senator.

Meanwhile, Hegar insisted that—despite her support from the national party—she was the underdog of the race, given West’s support from elected Texas Democrats. “I am just a combat veteran and a working mom, and I took on an establishment candidate, both in Senator West and John Cornyn, that had a lot of establishment support,” she said.

Hegar now faces an uphill climb against Cornyn, a powerful Republican who has more than $12 million in his campaign warchest. But Hegar and national Democrats believe that Cornyn is vulnerable, pointing to polling numbers that show him to be surprisingly unknown and fairly unpopular among those who do know him, despite his many years in office.

That optimism has increased as several recent polls have shown Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden in a dead heat with President Donald Trump in Texas, prompting calls for Biden’s campaign to embark on a big (and expensive) push into the Lone Star State. So far, polls show Cornyn in a better position than Trump; one poll from early July has Cornyn leading Hegar 44 percent to 36 percent.

Now the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) is targeting several suburban GOP districts in Texas as it tries to build on the gains made in 2018, when Democrats flipped a dozen legislative seats and two congressional districts. While the Democratic challengers for many of these targeted seats secured their nominations back in March, some of the most winnable districts went into heated runoff races.

In the 24th Congressional District, which covers the suburbs of Dallas and Fort Worth, former local school board member Candace Valenzuela handily defeated Kim Olson, who ran for Texas agriculture commissioner in 2018. Olson, a former fighter pilot, came in first in the primary and was seen as the frontrunner. Then, a coalition of national Democratic and progressive groups—including the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the Congressional Progressive Caucus—pumped money into the race on behalf of Valenzuela.

Although Republican incumbent Kenny Marchant narrowly held onto the district in 2018 before announcing his retirement, Beto O’Rourke won in the district in his Senate run the same year, making the open seat one of the DCCC’s top priorities in 2020. If Valenzuela defeats GOP nominee Beth Van Duyne, a controversial right-winger and former mayor of Irving, in November, she will be the first ever Afro-Latina member of Congress.

In the 10th Congressional District, a gerrymandered tract that stretches from Austin all the way to the Houston suburbs, progressive attorney Mike Siegel beat physician Pritesh Gandhi in Tuesday’s runoff. Siegel, who is endorsed by Bernie Sanders and is a proponent for Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, also ran in 2018 when the district was not a priority for the party. He had an unexpectedly strong showing in 2018, cutting the margin against Republican incumbent Michael McCaul down to 5 percentage points. The seat is now a top target for the DCCC.

Progressives also enjoyed big wins in Austin further down the ballot. José Garza utterly shellacked the embattled Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore, winning by 36 percentage points in the runoff. Garza, who is a former public defender and executive director of the Workers Defense Project, ran as a reformer and had substantial support from groups like the Real Justice PAC, which has helped elect progressives to big-city DA offices in Texas and around the country. Progressive Austin City Council member Delia Garza also defeated Laurie Eiserloh, an assistant county attorney, in the race for the open Travis County District Attorney’s Office.

But progressives’ attempts to oust conservative Democratic incumbents in South Texas again came up short. The longtime Brownsville state Senator Eddie Lucio, Jr. survived one of the most serious political challenges in his career, beating runoff opponent Sara Stapleton Barrera by 7 percentage points—just over 2,000 votes. Stapleton Barrera was backed by a number of progressive groups while Lucio was aided by big donations from Texas’ powerful business PACs and big GOP donors.

Now that the general election field is finally set, Texas Democrats will intensify their efforts to make the state a real battleground. They have a real shot at taking control of the state House of Representatives for the first time since 2002 and are aggressively targeting 22 GOP-held seats. National Democrats also see Texas as the most promising place to expand its U.S. House majority and are aiming to flip several suburban Republican congressional seats—at least six districts are in serious contention.

For a long time, it wasn’t much fun to be a Democrat running against GOP incumbents in Texas. There was no money, no infrastructure, and most importantly, no shot at winning. But as Texas grows into a bona fide battleground state and competitive districts open up, the days of competitive runoffs are just beginning.

Correction: Laurie Eiserloh is an assistant county attorney. We originally stated she was the incumbent county attorney. We regret the error.

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