As the novel coronavirus continues to freeze plans for in-person campaigning, Texas' top primary runoff has been increasingly animated by a flurry of endorsements that speak to broader divides between the candidates.
In recent weeks, the two Democrats vying to be their party's U.S. Senate nominee, MJ Hegar and Royce West, have received nearly two dozen endorsements, ranging from College Democrats chapters to heavyweight national groups. Along the way, the endorsements have helped fortify each campaign's central pitch in the runoff, with Hegar's backers touting her as Democrats' best shot against Republican U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and West's allies promoting his deep experience in the Texas Senate and Democratic Party.
"I believe that the way the endorsements have broken out in this race show a strong desire by organizations and individuals, and ultimately the voters, to seek out the true Democrat in this race," West spokesman Vince Leibowitz said in a statement, echoing a growing campaign refrain implying West has been a far more committed Democrat than Hegar has over the years.
Hegar's campaign has mostly disregarded the increasingly explicit contrast so far, seeking to maintain a focus on the general election that dates back to the primary.
"From passionate gun violence survivors to Texas women who are fighting to protect their reproductive rights to labor groups across the state to respected elected leaders like [U.S. Rep.] Veronica Escobar — we are building the broad Texas coalition it will take to defeat Senator Cornyn in November," Hegar said in a statement.
From the beginning, West has put an emphasis on endorsements, touting since his announcement speech last summer, for example, that he has the support of most of his Democratic colleagues in the Legislature. Hegar, who entered politics in 2018 with her campaign against U.S. Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock, has had far fewer relationships to lean on, though she does possess arguably the most important nod in the race thus far: that of the powerful Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
With the DSCC's backing, Hegar finished first in the 12-way March primary ahead of West. She remains the top Democratic fundraiser, ending the latest fundraising period — which went through March 31 — with $1.1 million cash on hand to West's $121,000.
During a virtual town hall Friday, West said he will "absolutely" have the money to compete going forward.
"We will not have as much money as MJ has for the runoff, but I assure you that we’re gonna have the votes to win the runoff and not have to spend as much money per vote as MJ will have to spend as she did in the primary," West said, adding that once he is the nominee he will "nationalize" the race and garner the corresponding resources.
More immediately, though, Hegar and West are forging through a runoff that has gone entirely virtual — not to mention postponed to July 14 — due to the coronavirus pandemic. That has left a little more room in the spotlight than usual for endorsements and the political meaning they carry.
Since the primary, Hegar has consolidated support from national abortion rights organizations, earning the support of EMILY's List, Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America. She has also picked up the backing of the Brady PAC — the second national gun-control group to endorse her since the primary began — and more recently announced the endorsement from Escobar, the rising-star El Paso congresswoman who was elected to replace Beto O'Rourke in the House two years ago.
In other noteworthy nods, Hegar benefitted from an early May fundraising email written by fellow veteran Pete Buttigieg, the former 2020 presidential candidate and South Bend, Indiana, mayor.
As for West's runoff endorsements, he has been most notably backed by five former primary opponents, including the close third-place finisher, Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, who had run as one of the most progressive candidates in the primary. Her support, along with a more recent endorsement from the national liberal group Democracy for America, has given West the opportunity to expand his progressive credentials as Hegar continues to stay on a relatively moderate path to the general election.
West has also rolled out endorsements highlighting the potential for him to be the first black U.S. senator from Texas, including from Carol Moseley Braun, the first black woman to serve in the Senate, as well as the Congressional Black Caucus PAC.
Labor groups have been a bit more mixed in the runoff, though West has had the overall advantage. The Texas AFL-CIO and United Steelworkers are supporting both candidates, while West alone has been backed by the Texas American Federation of Teachers and Communications Workers of America, which previously supported Tzintzún Ramirez.
"He’s not just having to learn us, he’s not just having to get to know who we are," Texas AFT's president, Zeph Capo, said in announcing the union's West endorsement.
Hegar promised during a virtual town hall earlier this month that she is "gonna always fight for labor — regardless of endorsements."
Some of the tension over endorsements has centered on the former rivals who backed West. In addition to Tzintzún Ramirez's endorsement, he quickly won the backing of Chris Bell and Michael Cooper, who came in sixth and eighth, respectively. He later added the support of the seventh-place candidate, Sema Hernandez, and on Friday received the endorsement of Amanda Edwards, who placed fifth.
Hegar has not been endorsed by any former primary opponents. She made few friends during the first round for multiple reasons, including her endorsement late last year from the DSCC, which rivals denounced as meddling by Washington, D.C. She also miffed some competitors by not showing up for as many multi-candidate events as they did.
During the primary, "most of the candidates tried to make as many of the forums as possible," Bell said at the news conference where he endorsed West. "Royce was among them. His opponent in this runoff was not."
Hegar has largely ignored such barbs, and her campaign maintains it is more than pleased with her runoff endorsements given that she is running against a 27-year veteran of the state Senate.
Particularly meaningful for Hegar was the endorsement of Escobar, the first member of the Texas congressional delegation to back Hegar, while West has had the support of four since early in his campaign. Days after Escobar made the endorsement, she joined Hegar for the El Paso stop of her "virtual road trip" and hailed her as the "change maker" in the race.
Not all endorsements are the same, of course. Some from national groups come with spending that can significantly impact the race — like the over $3 million that VoteVets plowed into ads for Hegar in the primary, helping her secure the No. 1 spot.
Other endorsements come with other shows of support. Former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, whose namesake gun-control group endorsed Hegar in the primary, will host a virtual conversation with her Monday. It will be Giffords' first major event with a U.S. Senate candidate in the coronavirus era.
Giffords' executive director, Peter Ambler, said in an interview that Hegar is "like the perfect Giffords candidate" as a veteran, mother, responsible gun owner and survivor of childhood domestic gun violence.
"What voters are looking for isn't necessarily decades of legislative experience," Ambler said when asked about the choice between Hegar and West. "They want real people who reflect their values and who want to, on the issue of gun safety, take on the NRA and pass common-sense gun safety laws that are gonna make their kids and communities safer."
West has taken note that such issue-based groups are picking Hegar when he has built a reliable voting record on their causes. On abortion rights, for example, he frequently talks about how he "stood with Wendy Davis" in the Texas Senate, referring to the former colleague who waged a famous 2013 filibuster against abortion restrictions.
"I have not been endorsed by Annie's List or Planned Parenthood, but ask Cecile Richards, who used to [lead] Planned Parenthood, ask Wendy Davis, where Royce West has been on women-related issues," West said during a virtual campaign event Friday. "I’ve been there from the very beginning."
The slow-simmering tension over endorsements has been noted by the Cornyn campaign, which continues to offer commentary on the Democratic slog to determine his November opponent.
"This isn’t complicated – the Texas Democrat establishment supports Restful Royce because he will be back in the state Senate soon and they don’t want to offend him," Cornyn campaign spokeswoman Krista Piferrer said in a statement. "Considering Hollywood Hegar endorsed Elizabeth Warren for president, it is no wonder every liberal group from California to DC support her candidacy; they know Hegar is one of them."
Disclosure: Planned Parenthood, Texas American Federation of Teachers and Annie's List have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.