AUSTIN, Texas -- Texas’ MJ Hegar won the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate, the Associated Press projected Tuesday night, in a primary runoff that was postponed months over fears of the coronavirus, only to be held as the outbreak is worse than ever.
"I am humbled by the support we have received from all across the state, and am confident we have a decisive victory," Hegar said in a statement late Tuesday night. "Together, we are mounting a Texas-sized winning campaign that will take down Sen. [John] Cornyn and deliver real results on health care, racial justice, economic opportunity, climate change, immigration and gun violence."
Hegar’s victory is a win for national Democratic groups that backed her campaign — as did former presidential candidates Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Elizabeth Warren — believing the former Air Force helicopter pilot has a centrist appeal that gives the party the best shot at an upset in America’s biggest red state.
But it was far from a resounding victory over longtime state Sen. Royce West of Dallas, who would have been Texas’ first Black Senator if elected in November. The close margin reflected divisions among Democratic voters two years after former El Paso Congressman Beto O’Rourke revived the party’s long-dormant hopes in Texas by nearly ousting Republican Sen. Ted Cruz.
She will be an underdog against Republican Sen. Cornyn, and Democrats nationally do not view the race as competitive as their chances of flipping Senate seats in Arizona, Colorado and Maine.
Hegar said, however, that it’s a race she can win. “The grassroots energy that has jelled behind this campaign, and my ability to connect with people because I am a regular working Texas mom has really pushed us to this point.”
Cornyn's campaign quickly noted the late ad spending from national Democratic groups that benefited Hegar.
"In reality — and without the special effects — her candidacy isn't very impressive," Cornyn spokesperson Travis Considine said. "She would not have won the runoff in Texas were it not for the support of national Democrats like Elizabeth Warren and Chick Schumer, to whom she is now indebted."
Hegar appeared to be the front-runner for much of the nominating process. She was easily the top fundraiser. Since launching her bid last year, she got the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee's endorsement in December, and she finished first in the 12-way March primary, getting 22% of the vote to 15% for West.
West proved a worthy opponent in the runoff, though, campaigning as the "true Democrat" supported more by the party in Texas than in Washington. Already backed by many Democratic colleagues in the Legislature, West picked up endorsements from five of his former primary rivals, none of whom got behind Hegar. He also inherited endorsements from the third-place primary finisher, progressive Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, including that of U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro of San Antonio.
While West continued to lag far behind Hegar in fundraising and spending in the runoff, he insisted he would be more efficient than she was, as he was during the primary.
Both the new coronavirus and George Floyd's death impacted the runoff, forcing the candidates to conduct their campaigns almost exclusively online and further centering issues of health care and racial justice. West in particular sought to seize momentum after Floyd's death, touting his long record on criminal justice reform in the Texas Senate.
While the differences between West and Hegar were clear from the get-go, they played nice with each other for most of the runoff. That suddenly changed as early voting got underway two weeks ago, when long-simmering tensions boiled over during a televised debate. West sharply questioned Hegar's allegiance to the Democratic Party, and she implied that West, a wealthy lawyer, has enriched himself in office.
West pointed out that Hegar voted in the 2016 Republican primary and gave a $10 donation to Cornyn in 2011, among other things. Hegar insisted her primary vote — for Carly Fiorina — was a protest vote against Donald Trump and said she contributed to Cornyn because she thought it was the only way she could get a meeting with him.
West did not buy her explanations and continued to attack her party credentials as early voting went on, while also suggesting her criticism of his business record was racially charged.
At the same time, Cornyn's campaign ratcheted up its efforts to meddle in the Democratic primary, launching radio ads — and then TV ads — portraying West as too liberal for Texas.
With the sparks flying — and the runoff fast approaching — Hegar's outside allies stepped into the fray. The DSCC was already helping fund the Hegar campaign's TV ads, but with only a few days left before the runoff, EMILY's List spent over $1 million on TV and digital ads boosting Hegar.
West also aired TV ads in the runoff's closing days, but Hegar's side maintained a staggering advantage on the air. By one count published Tuesday, Hegar's campaign and its allies outspent West $102 to $1 on TV and radio advertising.
After the runoff, Democrats will now try to come together for the general election.