Long-simmering grievances boiled over Monday in the Democratic primary runoff for U.S. Senate as Royce West and MJ Hegar sparred bitterly in their latest debate.
The drama began when the two candidates vying to challenge Republican incumbent John Cornyn were allowed to ask each other a question at the debate, hosted by KVUE in Austin. West, a state senator from Dallas, asked Hegar why "there was a record of you contributing" to Cornyn in 2011 and and about her participation in the 2016 Republican primary.
The question triggered a tense back and forth that escalated to Hegar, a former Air Force helicopter pilot, accusing West of using his office to enrich himself. When the dust settled, Hegar lamented that she thought "John Cornyn's the person who won tonight."
The exchange easily marked the most contentious moment of the runoff, and it came on the first day of early voting. While Hegar and West have traded a few subtle jabs, there had not been much direct conflict until now.
Hegar, who has been endorsed by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, has previously answered questions about her involvement in the 2016 GOP primary, saying she voted for Carly Fiorina as a protest vote against Donald Trump. But the Cornyn donation is a new line of attack.
Records with the Federal Election Commission show that Hegar gave a $10 donation to Cornyn in August 2011 via a political action committee. When West brought it up at the debate, Hegar immediately pushed back, saying she was "disappointed because I think this is why people tune out from politics." She also told West, "You know that's not true and you're intentionally misleading voters."
However, Hegar then acknowledged donating to Cornyn — she said it was $25 instead of the $10 that records show — saying it was "because I couldn't get a meeting with him if I wasn't on his donor list."
"That is when I made the commitment to run for office because it’s disgusting that you should have to write a check for $25 to get a meeting with your representatives," Hegar told West. "It’s a broken system — it’s a system you’re a part of, by the way — and that you’ve been upholding, and it’s why I’m running."
"We have politicians — frankly, like you, Royce — who’ve become millionaires in office and have spent their time legislating in their own best interests instead of the interests of their constituents," Hegar added. "I’m done with it, I’m tired of it, and so is Texas."
"Ah, now we get the real MJ Hegar out," West replied.
The moderator, KVUE's Ashley Goudeau, interjected to say rebuttals were no longer allowed, but Hegar kept going, telling West they didn't want to "go down this road."
"Well, let's go," he responded, arguing voters want to know more about her past political activity because she "hasn't been visible" on the campaign trail. "You just haven't been there."
Hegar’s comment about West becoming wealthy in office appeared to refer to the millions of dollars in legal fees that he collected over the years while representing governmental entities and other clients that could provide conflicts of interest. West had to reveal the most detail yet about those arrangements as part of a federal disclosure he had to file after launching his U.S. Senate campaign last year.
"I'm from the projects in Dallas, OK?" West told Hegar at the debate. "And if you're taking a shot at me because I've been a successful lawyer basically providing job opportunities for people in my community, then take that shot. I have no problems with that."
Hegar countered that he has "refused time and again to say that you will divest your financial portfolio." West quickly interrupted to deny that he has refused to do such a thing, saying "no one's ever asked me to do that."
The debate was a clear turning point in the Democratic nominating process, which has not seen any such sustained drama until now. Hegar's 2016 GOP primary vote previously came up in the primary when the DSCC endorsed her and some of her opponents raised it in response.
On Monday, Hegar sought to turn the 2016 vote into something of a selling point, noting Democrats "across the state have voted in Republican primaries because we're not used to having" competitive Democratic primaries.
“If you’re gonna demonize every Democrat who’s voted in a Republican primary ... then you’re going to have a hard time building a coalition, Royce," Hegar said.
As for the Cornyn donation, FEC records show Hegar made it via the VoteSane PAC on Aug. 2, 2011. On the same day, Hegar also earmarked $10 donations through the PAC for four other politicians: Texas' other GOP U.S. senator at the time, Kay Bailey Hutchison; U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-California; U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California; and U.S. Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock. Hegar unsuccessfully challenged Carter in 2018 in a race that drew national attention.
It was not immediately clear why Hegar made the donations via the PAC instead of giving directly to the candidates. On its website, VoteSane bills itself as a "non-partisan, one-stop portal to help you stay informed and get involved."
Whatever the details, Cornyn's campaign loved the Democratic drama Monday night.
"Tonight’s debate was a train wreck for national Democrats and a sad night for Texas Democrats when MJ Hegar accused state Senator West of illegally profiting millions from his elected office," Cornyn campaign manager John Jackson said in a statement. "Make no mistake about it, she is alleging Royce West broke the law and now it’s on her to prove it."
The debate was largely uneventful before the candidates got to ask each other questions. They discussed the two biggest stories of the day — the coronavirus pandemic and the issues related to George Floyd's killing in Minneapolis police custody — while offering contrasts with Cornyn in each area. Before the debate turned contentious, the two were asked in a rapid-fire round to provide one word describing what they admire about "your opponent."
"John Cornyn doesn't have any qualities I admire, I'm sorry, Ashley," Hegar told the moderator after a pause.
Goudeau told Hegar the question referred to her runoff opponent, not Cornyn.
"Commitment," Hegar replied. "I see him as my partner, but yeah, commitment."
West gave a straighter answer. "Military," he said.
Election day in the runoff election is July 14.