Fragmented Senate Contest Becomes a Fight Between Royce West and MJ Hegar

Winner will challenge long-term GOP incumbent Sen. John Cornyn

MJ Hegar (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Among the several run-offs now scheduled for May 26 in the Democratic primary, the one for the U.S. Senate nomination – to challenge long-term GOP incumbent Sen. John Cornyn – will generate the most interest statewide and nationally. The survivors of the 12-candidate first-round battle royale on Super Tuesday were front-runner MJ Hegar (22.3%) and state Sen. Royce West of Dallas (14.5%) – the latter's place in the run-off not confirmed until midday Wednesday, March 4.

Just behind in third was Austinite and Latina activist Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez (13.2%), who this week endorsed West, saying that his legislative record after nearly 30 years in the Texas Senate is a model of consistency in support of progressive causes "on every single issue that I care about." As we go to press, West is also expecting endorsements from former U.S. Rep. (and 2006 gubernatorial nominee) Chris Bell, D-Houston, Beaumont pastor Michael Coop­er, and perhaps others among the remaining candidates.

Royce West (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Hegar and West might loosely wear the "moderate" label among the full field of Democrats in the race, as neither embraced Medicare for All or the Green New Deal – the Democratic policy litmus tests of this year's cycle. But on Monday, the distinctions made were about experience. Hegar campaign spokesperson Amanda Sherman described West as an "insider" and "establishment" candidate, and Hegar as an "outside the system" candidate "who took on bureaucrats in D.C." (e.g., by fighting for equality for women in the military). She said West has been "part of the establishment for some time, with more of an insider perspective," while Hegar believes we need someone "with experience outside of politics to make the changes we need." (It's worth noting that Hegar, who became a rising Dem star in 2018 when she nearly toppled TX-31 Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock, was herself endorsed by the Demo­crat­ic Senatorial Campaign Com­mit­tee, undeniably an "establishment" organization.)

Asked about those distinctions after his press conference Monday, West said his critics will need to define what they mean by "establishment" or "insider." "If they mean by an insider [that] I've been able to advocate for women's rights, then they're right. If they mean I've been able to promote law enforcement accountability, then they're right. If they mean I've worked on climate change ... on criminal justice ... on education issues ... on immigration ... and so on, then they're right." He and Tzintzún Ramirez both emphasized the importance of bringing together African American and Hispanic voters in a statewide coalition to help take on the Republicans.

Hegar and West might loosely wear the “moderate” label among all the Dems who were in the race, but on Monday, the distinctions made were about experience.

So it would appear that at least initially, Hegar plans to run as a relatively new "outsider" to politics as usual, and West will run on his long record as a legislator on behalf of progressive issues. "If you need surgery," said West, "do you want a surgeon with experience or someone who is doing their first surgery?"

Tzintzún Ramirez, a founder of both the Workers Defense Project and the Latinx organizing group Jolt, said that endorsing West was "a very easy decision" because of her familiarity with his track record during her years lobbying for workers' rights and other issues at the Legislature. "Not only is he a person of integrity," she said, "but of consistency. For me, that is very important. ... I have always known where he stands, on immigration, on gun safety, on women's right to choose. ... So I'm very proud to endorse him, and I'll do anything I can to get out the voters for him that voted for me."

Sherman said Hegar is also reaching out to other candidates for their support and that those conversations are continuing. In response to the Tzintzún Ramirez endorsement, Sherman provided a statement: "MJ is going to continue focusing on what secured her the top spot in the primary – traveling tens of thousands of miles across the state to meet with voters from all backgrounds and continuing to grow her Texas-sized grassroots campaign that has brought together over 35,000 people to raise over $4 million. From meeting with labor unions in apprentice shops and on the picket line, to talking gun violence prevention in the living rooms of passionate survivors, to visiting health care clinics to hear from patients and providers about what needs to be done to make health care more affordable, MJ is building a broad coalition across Texas that makes her the candidate to defeat Sen. Cornyn in November."

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2020 March Primary, 2020 May Primary Run-off, Royce West, MJ Hegar, Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, Amanda Sherman, Demo­crat­ic Senatorial Campaign Com­mit­tee, Workers Defense Project, Jolt,

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