Texas Democrat Forced Into Runoff Despite $6.5 Million in Spending from Establishment

Democratic Senate candidate M.J. Hegar / Getty Images
March 4, 2020

Despite the support of the Democratic establishment, millions of dollars in outside spending, and a significant fundraising advantage, Texas Democrat M.J. Hegar failed to secure the party's Senate nomination Tuesday and now faces a runoff that could dampen liberal hopes of turning Texas blue in November.

Following Beto O'Rourke's high-profile loss to Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas) in 2018, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) is again targeting Texas in its bid to flip the upper chamber. The group endorsed M.J. Hegar in December, helping her secure a sizable fundraising advantage in a crowded primary field. Though Hegar spent more than $3 million on the primary and benefited from an additional $3.5 million in outside spending, the Texas Democrat earned just 22 percent support Tuesday, far below the majority vote needed to secure the nomination.

The DSCC touted the result as a success, saying "Hegar's impressive performance is proof of the strength of her campaign and underscores that she is in the best position to flip this seat in November." But incumbent Sen. John Cornyn (R., Texas) already has a considerable cash advantage, holding $12 million on hand, compared with Hegar's $850,000. Rather than prepare for the general election, the Texas Democrat is now forced to spend even more money to ensure she secures the nomination in a May runoff election.

Though the primary's abundance of candidates meant a runoff was likely, Hegar's support fell short of expectations, according to Rice University political science professor Mark Jones.

"We were expecting that while [Hegar] would be forced into a runoff, the results from the first round would be so clear cut that it would hinder her rival's ability to mount an effective campaign against her. With second place finishing less than 8 points behind Hegar, beating her in the May runoff isn't all that daunting a task," Jones said. "She will need to spend. She's going to need to mount some type of digital campaign and send direct mail to likely Democratic primary voters, and that takes money. I don't think she can just hope to coast on her prior name recognition."

The Hegar campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

State senator Royce West narrowly edged out activist Cristina Tzintzú Ramirez to secure a second-place finish and a spot in the runoff election. Ramirez positioned herself to the left of Hegar and West during the primary race, backing far-left policies such as Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. She became the second candidate endorsed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D., N.Y.) to fall flat in the Lone Star State Tuesday, after establishment Democratic representative Henry Cuellar defeated progressive challenger Jessica Cisneros in Texas's 28th Congressional District.

Both West and Ramirez criticized the DSCC for backing Hegar, accusing it of ignoring people of color. In December, West said establishment Democrats were "trying to block African Americans out of the process." Ramirez also attacked the DSCC on the campaign trail.

"I let them know that if they did endorse [Hegar], I would hate for it to backfire on her in the general election to voters of color who had already felt underrepresented and ignored and were actually the majority of the Democratic Party in Texas," Ramirez told the Washington Post in February. She doubled down Tuesday, saying she was "underestimated by people in Washington like the DSCC."

The DSCC did not respond to a request for comment, nor did the West and Ramirez campaigns.

Hegar took advantage of her establishment backing to maintain a sizable spending advantage over West and Ramirez throughout the primary. She disbursed more than $3 million, dwarfing West's $827,000 and Ramirez's $758,000. Hegar was also boosted by more than $3.5 million from liberal dark money group VoteVets.

The May runoff winner will go on to face Cornyn in November. The race is not considered competitive, with the Cook Political Report rating it "solid Republican."