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MJ Hegar and Royce West take early lead in biggest counties for Democratic primary for Senate

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Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate MJ Hegar at the Wyndham Garden Hotel in Austin on Feb. 8, 2020. Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

MJ Hegar and Royce West are leading the crowded Democratic primary for U.S. Senate based on early voting ballots in Texas' five most populous counties, according to unofficial returns from the individual counties on Tuesday night. The primary is virtually guaranteed to go to a runoff.

Hegar, the former Air Force helicopter pilot backed by national Democrats, had 26% of the early vote in those counties, while West, the Dallas state senator, had 18%. Two other candidates were in double digits: progressive organizer Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez (14%) and former Houston City Councilwoman Amanda Edwards (11%). As of 9: 12 p.m.. the five most populous counties were only reporting early and absentee votes.

They are among 12 Democrats competing to challenge the state’s senior senator, Republican John Cornyn, who was cruising to a win in his primary after early voting came in.

The Democratic primary has played out in the shadow of Beto O’Rourke’s blockbuster near-miss loss to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018. However, none of the current candidates has been able to match O’Rourke’s star power, and polls showed the field was widely unknown up through the final days before the primary.

Hegar, who waged a surprisingly competitive U.S. House campaign two years ago in the Austin suburbs, was among the first serious Democratic candidates to declare against Cornyn, launching her bid in April. She went on to become the top fundraiser in the primary, even as it filled up with several other legitimate candidates, and in December earned the endorsement of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Hegar has leaned hard on her background as a military hero and working mom, presenting herself as the “badass” best suited to go toe-to-toe with Cornyn. Along the way, she has resisted some of the more liberal positions of her primary competitors.

West has run on his 27 years of experience in the Texas Senate, and he has the support of most of his Democratic colleagues in the Legislature.

There has been little drama in the primary apart from a few episodes. Most of Hegar’s rivals were harshly critical when the DCCC endorsed her, denouncing it as Washington meddling and dismissing the diversity of the state. (Hegar is white.) Hegar and Tzintzún Ramirez have also shared tensions over their competing ideologies and campaign fundraising.

Both Hegar and Tzintzún Ramirez saw significant outside spending on their behalf in the primary’s final few weeks. VoteVets, a national group that works to elect Democratic veterans running for office, spent over $3 million boosting Hegar on TV through its super PAC. A newer super PAC, Lone Star Forward, invested six figures on the air to help Tzintzún Ramirez.

Tzintzún Ramirez in particular built some late momentum in the primary, landing endorsements from U.S. Reps. Joaquin Castro of San Antonio and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York once early voting began.

As the Democrats waited to see who would qualify for their likely runoff, Cornyn claimed victory in his primary during an election night party in Austin. He face four little-known challengers.

"We are united as one party and we go into the general election stronger than we have ever been before," Cornyn said at the party. "The stage is now set for ... the referendum of our lifetimes: will Texans abandon the principles that have made our state the envy of the nation in order to live under the stranglehold of socialism or will Texas do what we've always done — choose freedom, prosperity, the power of self-determination?"

Polls in recent weeks made clear Hegar was the favorite to advance to a runoff, while the No. 2 spot was less certain. Hegar was already looking forward to the overtime round during a get-out-the-vote event Monday evening in the Houston area.

“We gotta do it all again in May. I need y’all with me in May,” she said, heralding the potential for a runoff as a sign of Democratic ascendancy in long-red Texas. “I’m so excited about a runoff because, frankly growing up in this state, I don’t remember a lot of competitive Democratic primaries and runoffs.”