Until Monday, three largely unknown Democrats were all that stood between John Cornyn and his reelection to the U.S. Senate. Now, an opponent with a somewhat higher profile has joined the fray. MJ Hegar, who came within 3 percentage points of defeating Round Rock Congressman John Carter in 2018, recently announced she will run for the Democratic nomination to face Cornyn in 2020.
Hegar, a former Air Force pilot who ran for political office for the first time last year, came close to beating Carter after producing videos that went viral and attracting national media attention. Now, the Cornyn campaign recognizes her as a threat to his seat.
Victoria DeFrancesco Soto is director of civic engagement and a lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin’s LBJ School of Public Affairs. She says Hegar has momentum from her earlier run for office, and she’s not surprised Hegar is now trying to compete for Cornyn’s Senate seat.
“The last time John Carter had an opponent, he crushed them by double digits,” DeFrancesco Soto says. “The fact that MJ Hegar came within less than 3 percentage points is a win.”
DeFrancesco Soto calls Hegar one of the most competitive candidates in the nation against an incumbent senator.
Cornyn has won his previous elections handily, and has $6 million in his campaign account, so he’s well-funded to run a fierce race against Hegar. But DeFrancesco Soto says Democrats are hopeful when they consider the most recent Senate election in Texas.
“I think, implicitly, a lot of us are looking at the MJ-Cornyn matchup with memories of the Ted Cruz and Beto O’Rourke matchup,” DeFrancesco Soto says.
But she says Cruz and Cornyn are very different Republican candidates.
“I didn’t coin this term: a friend of mine [says], basically, ‘Ted Cruz is a big old bag of snakes,'” DeFrancesco Soto says.
Cornyn, on the other hand, is more likable political figure, and has done a lot for the Republican Party, she says.
“He’s carried a ton of water for the moderate, business-class Republicans, while Ted Cruz has not done so,” she says.
After she announced her candidacy, Cornyn’s team quickly sought to frame Hegar as radical – in other words, too far left on the political spectrum for Texas.
“The other messaging that we’re seeing coming out is that she’s ‘Chuck’s girl’ – she’s [Democratic Senate Leader] Chuck Schumer’s foot soldier,” DeFrancesco Soto says.
She says she’s not surprised Cornyn would characterize Hegar in that way, but she says it might not stick.
“MJ Hegar is about as Texan as you can get,” DeFrancesco Soto says. “She is a tough broad, and she’s got the motorcycle thing.”
San Antonio Congressman Joaquin Castro is another Democrat rumored to be considering a run for the Senate. He’s expected to announce his plan in May. DeFrancesco Soto says choosing whether to run will be tough for Castro, especially since he would have to give up his Congressional seat. And she says Hegar and Castro draw from different Democratic constituencies.
“Let’s be clear here: Cornyn has the advantage. It’s going to be a tough race,” she says. “And if Joaquin Castro gets into the race, it’s gonna be an incredibly tough primary.”
Written by Shelly Brisbin.