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Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee endorses MJ Hegar in crowded U.S. Senate primary

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MJ Hegar is one of a dozen Democratic candidates seeking to unseat U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. John Jordan/The Texas Tribune

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is endorsing MJ Hegar in the crowded primary to challenge U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.

The move by the DSCC, the political arm of Senate Democrats, is one of the biggest developments yet in the nominating contest, which has drawn a dozen candidates — some more serious than others but no decisive frontrunners.

Hegar, the former Air Force helicopter pilot and 2018 congressional candidate, entered the primary in April and has emerged as the top fundraiser. But polls show the race remains wide open as Democrats look to pick up where they left off from Beto O'Rourke's near-miss 2018 loss to the state's junior senator, Ted Cruz.

“Texas has emerged as a battleground opportunity for Democrats up and down the ballot, and MJ Hegar is the strongest candidate to flip the U.S. Senate seat," the DSCC's chairwoman, Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, said in a statement.

"As a decorated combat veteran and working mother, MJ has both the courage and independence to put Texas first and is running on the issues that matter most to Texans: making health care and prescription drugs more affordable, protecting coverage for Texans with pre-existing conditions, and taking action to address climate change," Cortez Masto continued. "We are proud to support MJ in her fight to continue her public service in the U.S. Senate.”

Hegar received some national support in the opening weeks of her campaign, including from VoteVets and End Citizens United, but major endorsements such as the DSCC's have been few and far between as the primary has proceeded. Hegar does have one tie to the DSCC: Her campaign manager, Preston Elliott, was the committee's deputy executive director during the 2016 cycle. Also, she met with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer ahead of her campaign launch, as did at least one other candidate, longtime state Sen. Royce West of Dallas.

In any case, the DSCC endorsement is notable as some of the candidates have begun to sharpen their strategies to stand out with less than three months until the primary. One of Hegar's rivals in particular, organizer Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, has taken steps to more clearly position herself as the progressive alternative to Hegar, who has eschewed political labels while running a general election-focused campaign. Tzintzún Ramirez was endorsed Friday by the labor-aligned Working Families Party.

Beside Hegar and West, other candidates include Chris Bell, the former Houston congressman and 2006 gubernatorial nominee; Amanda Edwards, a member of the Houston City Council; and Sema Hernandez, O'Rourke's 2018 primary opponent who got a stronger-than-expected 24% of the vote.

The filing deadline was a week ago for the Senate primary and others in Texas. Despite lingering speculation since he ended his presidential campaign last month, O'Rourke reiterated in the days before the deadline that he would not run against Cornyn and the deadline passed without him filing.

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