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Without Beto O’Rourke, Texas Senate primary is ‘wide open’

Crowded field of Democrats vying to take on three-term Republican John Cornyn

After ending his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke is not expected to run for Senate in Texas. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
After ending his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke is not expected to run for Senate in Texas. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

It’s not difficult to find a former presidential candidate who swore off running for Senate and then changed his mind. Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper did in August. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio did it too, in 2016.

Just don’t expect former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke to join them after ending his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination

O’Rourke was initially encouraged to follow up on his surprisingly strong challenge to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz last year by taking on the state’s senior senator, Republican John Cornyn, next year. He said multiple times during the presidential campaign he wasn’t interested and told his staff on a conference call last week that he would not be running for Senate or any other office, according to a source close to the campaign. 

Now some Democrats in Texas say it’s time to move on.

“Had he run against Cornyn and entered the race several months ago, Cornyn would be in deep trouble right now,” said Texas Democratic strategist Matt Angle of the Lone Star Project. “That being said, I think the time has passed. People are taking Beto at his word.

“That leaves a pretty wide-open field,” he added.

[O’Rourke touts Senate run in White House bid — even though he lost]

Senate speculation is still expected to swirl around O’Rourke and another presidential contender from Texas, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, until the Dec. 9 filing deadline. But absent a big-name candidate who is known statewide, the Democratic primary remains in flux with largely unknown contenders.

“Everyone’s trying to pull a Beto and catch fire and have millions of dollars falling from the sky at the click of a mouse,” Texas Democratic strategist Colin Strother said. “And no one’s been able to do that yet.”

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A crowded primary 

Ten Texas Democrats have filed with the Federal Election Commission to run for Senate, including several credible candidates.

“On one hand, it’s a more active field than we’ve seen the Democrats put forth in a statewide race in a long time,” said James Henson, the director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. “That said, these are still up-and-coming candidates for the most part.”

Campaign strategists say there are five top candidates: Air Force veteran MJ Hegar, who ran unsuccessfully for the House in 2018; state Sen. Royce West; Houston City Council Member Amanda Edwards; progressive activist Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez; and former Rep. Chris Bell, who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2006. The field also includes Michael Cooper, who lost a close primary for lieutenant governor in 2018, and Sema Hernandez, who ran against O’Rourke in the 2018 primary and took 24 percent. 

Hegar leads the field in fundraising, bringing in $2.1 million since launching her campaign in April. The other four top candidates have raised between $207,000 and $557,000.

End Citizens United, which backs candidates who support overhauling campaign finance laws, has endorsed Hegar. It’s unclear whether other Democratic groups will take sides in the primary. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and abortion rights group EMILY’s List have not yet endorsed in the race. EMILY’s List is in touch with the Hegar, Edwards and Tzintzún Ramirez campaigns.

Democratic operatives don’t expect one candidate to win more than 50 percent of the primary vote on March 3, meaning a May 26 runoff between the top two candidates is likely. Cornyn isn’t expected to face a serious primary challenge. Two Republicans have filed with the FEC to challenge him, but neither has raised a significant amount of money.

Each Democratic candidate can draw on a different base of voters. 

Hegar likely has higher name recognition in Austin and central Texas, where she ran in a close House race last year. West, who has the backing of a slew of Democratic elected officials, including Houston-are Rep. Al Green, has a base of voters in Dallas. Edwards and Bell have voting bases in Houston. Tzintzún Ramirez, whose team includes some veterans of O’Rourke’s Senate campaign, is focused on energizing progressive activists, young voters and people of color. 

With just a handful of candidate forums so far, the primary contenders have been circling each other, focusing on fundraising and traversing the state to boost their name recognition. Hegar has traveled 7,000 miles so far, according to a September campaign memo. Tzintzún Ramirez and West are also traveling to events across the state. West has roughly 20 fundraisers in November.

Some ideological divisions have started to emerge. Tzintzún Ramirez is thought of as the more liberal candidate, backing policies including “Medicare for All” and the Green New Deal. One of the first dividing lines came over O’Rourke’s plan for a mandatory buyback program for assault-style weapons. Hegar doesn’t support the plan, while Tzintzún Ramirez and Bell do, according to The Dallas Morning News

Trailing O’Rourke 

O’Rourke faced an uphill climb when he launched his Senate campaign as well, since he was largely unknown outside El Paso, which is in a different time zone from the rest of the state. But recent polling and fundraising numbers show that he was faring better by this point than the current Democratic field. (He did not face a competitive primary.)

A University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll released Monday showed that the top Senate candidates’ name recognition ranged from just 12 percent to 24 percent. Nearly 60 percent of Democratic voters did not know or had no opinion about whom they would support.

At roughly the same point in the campaign two years ago, O’Rourke had started to garner media attention and was posting strong fundraising numbers, with $4.2 million raised through Sept. 30, 2017. But he still had work to do to get Texans to know who he was. An October 2017 UT/Tribune poll showed that 53 percent of those surveyed did not know or had no opinion of him, but just over a year later, he came within 3 points of ousting Cruz.

That’s one reason Democratic operatives aren’t panicking yet about the largely unknown field of candidates. Another is that a competitive primary could test who has the strongest campaign.

Democrats still see Cornyn as vulnerable given his polling numbers, the state’s shifting demographics and President Donald Trump’s slipping approval ratings.

“No matter who our nominee is, they’re going to be in a very, very competitive battle with John Cornyn,” Texas Democratic Party spokesman Abhi Rahman said.

Thirty-five percent of respondents in last month’s UT/Tribune poll approved of Cornyn, 34 percent disapproved and 31 percent had a neutral or no opinion. The poll surveyed 1,200 registered voters online from Oct. 18-27. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates Texas Senate race Likely Republican.

Cornyn had nearly $10.8 million in his campaign war chest on Sept. 30. His campaign manager, John Jackson, said in a statement that Cornyn’s team “fully [expects] national Democrats to pull out all the stops as they try to push Beto into the race.”

It’s unclear whether O’Rourke will help Democrats running in Texas in 2020, but some Democrats in the state say he is still an asset who could assist other candidates in raising money and turning out voters. 

“If he didn’t do anything else other than make his email list available to some of these targeted candidates, it could be absolutely a game-changer for them,” said Strother, the Democratic strategist.

Fundraising will be a critical task for the Democratic hopefuls, since boosting name ID is expensive in a state with 20 media markets. Angle, the Democratic consultant, noted that donors are focused so far on congressional races and flipping the Texas House ahead of redistricting.

The Senate candidates “have to not only convince people of their appeal as candidates, but also that their race is equally important,” Angle said.

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