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An early review of the Senate campaign so far

I have thoughts about this.

MJ Hegar

When U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro announced earlier this month that he would not run for U.S. Senate in 2020, the San Antonio Democrat cleared up one major question hanging over his party’s primary. But the field is anything but settled.

Two weeks later, the clock is ticking for Democrats to mount serious campaigns to unseat U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, an uphill battle even with Texas’ changing political landscape. Arguably the most prominent Democrat already running, MJ Hegar, announced her campaign three weeks ago but has been — on the surface, at least — off to a slow start that has done little to dissuade at least three other Democrats from considering their own runs.

Among them is Amanda Edwards, an at-large Houston City Council member who has been mulling a campaign since at least early March and appears to be moving closer to running. She has been in conversations with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and is heading to Washington, D.C, next week to continue those discussions, according to a source familiar with her plans.

Edwards, who is African American, has been emphatic that Texas Democrats need a U.S. Senate nominee who can mobilize the party’s base, particularly underrepresented groups that suffer the most from low turnout.

“It is imperative — there is no way around it,” she told reporters earlier this month in Houston. “If you don’t galvanize people of color, young people under the age of 35 … Democrats are not going to be successful.”

In addition to Edwards, state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, also continues to draw discussion as a prospective candidate though he has said he is focused on the ongoing legislative session that ends later this month. And Chris Bell, the former Houston congressman, announced Monday that he was seriously considering a bid. Bell, the 2006 gubernatorial nominee, suggested he was not intimidated by the nascent field, saying competitive primaries can be difficult but healthy in the long run.

“It’s sort of like having a family fight, but we all get through Thanksgiving and come together the next day,” Bell said, approvingly citing Castro’s recent declaration — before he opted against running — that the era of “uncontested primaries in both parties in Texas is over.”

While it remains to be seen how viable Edwards, West and Bell would be — Bell is the only one with experience running statewide — they all appear to be undeterred by the opening weeks of Hegar’s campaign. Beyond a barrage of fundraising emails, she has kept a low profile, not holding any public campaign events and doing only a handful of media appearances — all things one would expect as a candidate looks to establish early momentum in a nationally watched race.

“It’s concerning,” said one Democratic strategist unaffiliated with any of the declared or potential candidates. “At this time two years ago, Beto was criss-crossing the state. The question I’m seeing now is where exactly has MJ Hegar been?”

At this point in his blockbuster 2018 campaign, Beto O’Rourke had visited a dozen cities throughout the state and was on his way to hitting twice as many by the end of his first month.

Oh good Lord. You know what else was happening two years ago at this time? Beto was trying very, very hard to raise his name recognition. He started out at a pretty low level. In the first poll I tracked that measured his approve/disapprove numbers, the UT/Trib poll from June of 2017, 55% of respondents answered “don’t know/no opinion” of O’Rourke (question 19). In the next few months, in addition to stories about how O’Rourke was criss-crossing the state, there were also stories about how little known he was, especially compared to Ted Cruz, about whom nearly everyone had an opinion. Just before the primary, in the February 2018 UT/Trib poll, the numbers were 58% “don’t know/no opinion” of O’Rourke. And if you want to be skeptical of the UT/Trib polling methodology, rest assured that other pollsters were finding the same thing. For example, PPP, January 2018 – “Sixty one percent of respondents had never heard of O’Rourke”. Beto’s relentless travel schedule and nonstop live appearances were a huge part of his brand and his strategy, and they paid off bigtime for him. They also took a long time to get off the ground, because Texas is a huge state with millions of voters and you can only ever hope to contact a small share of them via in-person events.

My point here is that if we’re going to be making with the Beto comparisons already, let’s be sure to tell the whole story. It’s not like any of this was a mystery, but as so often seems to be the case, I feel like I’m the only person in the state old enough to remember what had happened. Plus, not to put too fine a point on it, there’s no reason to believe that Beto’s exact strategy from 2018 has to be replicated. I for one would advocate for not having a “visit all 254 counties” strategy, but more like a “visit somewhere between 100 and 150 counties”, with much more emphasis on the counties that have trended Democratic since 2012, and less on the (mostly very small, mostly rural) counties that voted more Republican in 2018 than in 2016. Call it the “Willie Sutton strategy”, where you put a higher priority on the places that have more people who have voted for you and might vote for you. Knowing who those voters are likely to be would be a good optimization on the Beto strategy, too. The advantage that MJ Hegar or any of these other candidates will have is that they can learn from and build on what Beto did. They can do more of what worked well and less of what didn’t. Crazy, I know, but true.

One more thing:

The day after announcing her campaign, Hegar was endorsed by VoteVets, the national progressive group for veterans. Beyond that, other prominent groups are waiting to see how the primary takes shape before potentially getting involved. Among them is EMILY’s List, the influential organization that works to elect Democratic women who support abortion rights, which backed Hegar in her U.S. House bid last year and made clear in March that it wanted a woman to challenge Cornyn.

“As of right now, we’re closely watching the race,” EMILY’s List spokesman Maeve Coyle said. “We’re always thrilled to see women step up and take on these tough flip seats, especially fantastic candidates like MJ.”

In addition to Hegar, the Democrats already running include Michael Cooper, Sema Hernandez and Adrian Ocegueda.

Typically, Washington Democrats bristle at competitive U.S. Senate primaries. They often can become bloody affairs, resulting in unelectable candidates who are broke once they win the nomination. But Texas is different from most states.

[…]

Despite the renewed interest in flipping Texas, national Democratic operatives are privately shrugging off the notion of a competitive primary in the state. It is no secret that Texas Democrats have miles to go in building out their party infrastructure, and some argue that several candidates fanning out around the state for nearly a year could accomplish some of that goal.

Yet a crowded Democratic primary sets up the possibility of a primary runoff that won’t be settled until next May, leaving the eventual nominee with perhaps three months to replenish a depleted war chest for what is likely to be a multi-million dollar ad war across Texas air waves.

Concern-trolling about runoffs aside, you know that I agree with that assessment competitive primary. I hope we have one, because money spent on it is not an expense that is lost but an investment that is made in engaging voters. And for the zillionth time, MJ Hegar and any other “serious” candidate needs to take the primary seriously, no matter who else is in it. We are very likely to have record turnout in the Dem primary next March. If those voters don’t know who they’re voting for in the Senate primary, then anything can happen and most of it won’t be good. If Hegar is doing behind-the-scenes stuff now, that’s fine. There’s time for that. As long as she and everyone working with her understands that the real campaign season starts a lot earlier than we have been used to thinking that it does.

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One Comment

  1. General Grant says:

    Funny how the people who haven’t decided to run are critical of the commitment level of the person who has.

    Speaking of, Edwards sounds very much like she is planning on playing the identity game that hasn’t worked for Democrats since John Sharp went out of his way to get Tony Sanchez and Ron Kirk on the “Dream Team” in 2002.

    To win a statewide race Democrats do indeed need to get out non-white and young voters en masse. They also need suburban voters and people who in the past have voted for Republicans. Pretending one of those legs is more important than the others is a surefire way to lose. If we learned one thing from Beto, it’s that doing these things is not tied to the candidate being from a specific ethnic group.