Issues of race, policing dominate final stretch of Democratic runoff to face U.S. Sen. John Cornyn

State Sen. Royce West and MJ Hegar. Miguel Gutierrez Jr. and Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune

No two issues have impacted the Texas primary runoffs like the coronavirus pandemic and the protests surrounding George Floyd's death, but as early voting begins Monday, the latter is looming especially large at the top of the ticket.

In the Democratic runoff to challenge U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, state Sen. Royce West of Dallas is hoping to harness the energy of the moment to pull past MJ Hegar on her seemingly well-paved road to the nomination. The former Air Force helicopter pilot has the backing of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, but West is increasingly seeking to train his party's attention on the opportunity his candidacy represents, especially now.

"Democrats have got to decide whether they want to continue to be a victim of history or make history," West said in an interview. With his election as Texas' first Black senator, he added, Democrats can go the latter route.

West said the "stars have aligned" for him in the runoff, playing to his profile as not only a Black man but also a seasoned legislator who has focused on criminal justice reform, authoring a 2015 state law that aimed to expand the use of body cameras by police in Texas, for example. And he has taken heart in recent primaries elsewhere, most notably in Kentucky, in which candidates of color have ridden the momentum of growing calls for racial justice.

To be sure, Hegar, who is white, has also increased her focus on issues of race and policing, and on Monday, she is holding a virtual news conference with the family of Javier Ambler, a Black man who died last year in the custody of Williamson County sheriff's deputes. West and then Hegar called for the resignation of the sheriff, Robert Chody, after the circumstances of Ambler's death came to light earlier this month.

Asked in an interview how she stacks up against West when it comes to meeting the moment, Hegar reiterated her tight focus on the general election.

"I think that you know me well enough to know that I'm running against John Cornyn," she said, reciting her contrasts with Cornyn. She did argue her November-focused bid means she is already running a “coordinated campaign that is lifting up” down-ballot candidates, including candidates of color.

Hegar began the runoff with several advantages. She has been the top fundraiser since she launched her campaign in April 2019, she was endorsed by the DSCC in December and she finished first in the 12-way primary with 22.3% of the vote. West got 14.7%.

There has been a dearth of runoff polling, especially recently. The last — and only — survey was in April, when a Dallas Morning News/University of Texas at Tyler poll found Hegar leading West, 32% to 16%, with many voters undecided.

A Fox News poll released Thursday found both Hegar and West each trailing Cornyn by 10 percentage points in hypothetical matchups.

Hegar and West are due to disclose their campaign finances on Thursday for the first time since the end of March. Hegar had a big cash-on-hand advantage over West as of March 31, $1.1 million to $121,000. Hegar said the fundraising report due Thursday — which covers April 1 through June 24 — will show she maintained her pace of raising at least $1 million every quarter or so. West has said he is raising enough to compete in the runoff and will be able to pick up the pace once he is the nominee and can "nationalize" the race.

In a letter earlier this month, West's supporters in the Texas Coalition of Black Democrats raised the prospect that Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer is leaning on Texas donors to not give to West. The DSCC called it a "false and unsubstantiated allegation," and the coalition's chairman, Carroll Robinson, declined to provide the names of any donors being leaned on to The Texas Tribune at the time.

The runoff has seen a slew of endorsements that the candidates have used to press their cases. West has been endorsed by five of his former primary opponents — none have backed Hegar — and he argues they show he can bring people together across the state. He has also touted timely endorsements given the national conversation on police and race, most notably Benjamin Crump, the prominent civil rights attorney who represents Floyd's family.

Hegar's runoffs endorsements have included several national Democratic groups that have helped back up her electability argument, such as EMILY's List and the Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund. She has also earned the backing of two former presidential candidates, fellow veteran Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren, who Hegar voted for in the presidential primary.

There has not been much direct conflict between Hegar and West in the runoff, though the latter has consistently campaigned as the "true Democrat" in the race, arguing he has been a much more committed member of the party. He has also noted Hegar voted in the 2016 Republican primary, which first came up last year as the 2020 Senate primary was heating up. Hegar has said she voted for Carly Fiorina in the primary as a protest vote against Donald Trump.

In the interview, Hegar pointed out that West did not bring up the criticism of her Democratic credentials in their only debate so far.

"I think it's because he knows it's not true and you're looking at a candidate" endorsed by people like Elizabeth Warren and groups like EMILY's List, Hegar said. "I think that most people recognize that that's not a viable thing to say about me."

It was in that debate that Hegar and West largely agreed on most major issues — but did show a little separation. Asked about banning fracking, West said he supports a moratorium on the practice until more can be learned about its environmental impact, while Hegar repeatedly gave less specific answers on the topic. She defended that approach in the interview, saying it was an "oversimplified question" and that she wants to take "aggressive action" to transition to renewable energy, but it is "widely accepted that natural gas is the bridge that can get us" there.

The two are set to meet for their second debate Monday at 6:30 p.m. on KVUE, the Austin TV station.

To be clear, though, the issues that have taken center stage in the race recently have little to do with fracking.

During a joint appearance with Hegar on Sunday morning on Dallas TV, West asked both Cornyn and Hegar to recognize "Black lives matter," saying they "should not be afraid to say that, not only say that, but do something about it." Hegar agreed later in the show that the country needs leaders who, "yes, absolutely acknowledge that Black lives matter."

West said in the interview that he has "been out there with the protesters," adding that he does not know whether Hegar has participated in a demonstration since Floyd's death. That remains unclear — Hegar said in a statement she "absolutely stand[s]" with the protesters and is "100% committed to not letting them down."

While Hegar may not be able to match West's history of activism and legislative track record on civil rights, her supporters say she has the qualities that allow her to build a winning coalition.

"I think that MJ still brings the experience of [being] very good at listening to people and elevating other people’s concerns," said Elizabeth Doyel, an Austin-based Democratic strategist supporting Hegar but not working for her campaign. "She does not feel like she knows everything but is willing to listen to other people, and I feel that's very, very important."

West is also drawing encouragement from recent primaries elsewhere, including in Kentucky, where the DSCC's candidate to challenge Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Amy McGrath, is currently trailing a Black state lawmaker, Charles Booker, who saw a burst of momentum in recent weeks. Like Hegar, McGrath is a white female veteran who rose to prominence with a blockbuster 2018 House campaign.

Booker was "incredibly outspent, but I think it shows that people are looking for diverse and progressive voices in this moment of crisis," said Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, the third-place primary finisher who quickly endorsed West in the runoff.

West has not cut as stridently progressive of a profile as Booker has. But Tzintzún Ramirez called West "clearly the more progressive choice" against Hegar.

Hegar dismissed the comparisons to Kentucky, saying she has not had a "a single person outside of the political echo chamber" ask her about it. "I think we are Texas and we don't look to other states for anything," she said.

West has also had a foil in Cornyn as he has sought to put issues of race front and center in the runoff. Last month, the two had a days-long back and forth over the Cornyn campaign's use of the nickname "Restful Royce," which West denounced as "dog-whistle racism" playing into the stereotype that Black people are lazy.

While Cornyn's campaign disputed the racism charge, it has otherwise continued to lean into opportunities to spar with — and elevate — West, namely stoking the tensions driven by the DSCC's intervention in the primary. Still, the campaign has not ignored Hegar, keeping up the "Hollywood Hegar" label it slapped on her when she launched her campaign over a year ago.

Cornyn himself has increasingly sought to frame the general election in more serious terms.

After the coronavirus pandemic, "who we do we trust to regrow our economy?" Cornyn said Thursday during a campaign tele-town hall. "I trust President Trump more than Joe Biden to rebuild our economy, but [Trump] can't do it alone."