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EMILY’s List adds to massive spending on behalf of MJ Hegar in Democratic runoff against Royce West

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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

With a week left of campaigning ahead of the Texas U.S. Senate primary runoff, a coalition of groups are mounting a massive television ad campaign supporting Air Force veteran M.J. Hegar in her increasingly bitter race against state Sen. Royce West of Dallas.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, EMILY’s List and Hegar's campaign will spend at least $2 million compared to West putting up $24,000 in cable spending in Houston, The Texas Tribune has confirmed.

Dollar for dollar, the spending differential between the two campaigns is approximately $85 to $1.

The two are facing off to take on U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, a three-term Republican incumbent.

EMILY's List, the influential national group that works to elect Democratic women who support abortion rights, purchased at least $777,000 in Houston television advertising, according to a Republican tracking media buys.

On Tuesday evening, records on file with the Federal Communication Commission showed that the EMILY's List super PAC arm, Women Vote!, was set to spend six figures on Houston TV from Wednesday through Tuesday's runoff.

Prior to the EMILY's List move, Hegar's campaign was already spending $662,000 on television ads. Additionally, her campaign made a joint purchase of $605,000 with the Senate Democratic campaign arm, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

EMILY's List endorsed Hegar shortly after she finished first in the crowded March primary, which had featured multiple other women. But the group has not spent on her behalf in the runoff until now.

It was not immediately clear what the content of the EMILY's List ads would be. The commercials that are being paid for by the Hegar campaign and DSCC tout her commitment to health care, immigration and battling systemic racism.

As for West, he is airing a TV ad that urges voters to pick a "real Democrat" in the runoff and highlights Hegar's participation in the 2016 GOP primary. She has said she voted for Carly Fiorina for president as a protest vote against Donald Trump, though Fiorina ended her campaign weeks before the Texas primary.

Hegar also got a big boost from outside TV spending toward the end of the crowded March primary, when VoteVets spent over $3 million on positive ads for her.

Hegar is facing a dual threat in the final days of the runoff, with West amping up his criticism of her party credentials and Cornyn and his campaign going all out to stoke the conflict.

Earlier Tuesday, Cornyn's campaign announced it was launching a radio ad buy contrasting Hegar with West, who a narrator calls "consistently liberal" while jabbing Hegar as evasive on progressive issues.

"Royce West is far too liberal for Texas, and no one has a clue what MJ Hegar even stands for," the narrator says in the 60-second spot before sarcastically quipping, "Nice choice."

Cornyn's campaign said the buy was "nearly" six figures and running through Tuesday across six markets: Austin, Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, Harlingen and Beaumont.

Hegar's campaign responded to the buy by saying Cornyn "is so desperate to not run against decorated combat veteran and working mom MJ Hegar that he is meddling" in the runoff. West addressed Cornyn's strategy during a campaign event Tuesday evening, saying the incumbent "thinks that by going out disparaging people in the manner in which he has, that is going to impact this election."

"Let it impact the election," West said. "I have no problems with it. You know, if it impacts it in my favor, I’m grateful. I look forward — I look forward — to debating him on issues important to this country, and I’m the last person that frankly he wants to go up against this fall, even though he’s trying to show that he wants to kind of curry favor for one candidate or the other in this race."

"I’ve never seen an opponent do what he’s doing right now," West added.

It is not the first time that Cornyn's campaign has spent its own money to intervene in the Democratic nominating process. After West launched his campaign last summer, Cornyn's campaign aired an attack ad against him on TV calling him too liberal for Texas.

There had been little direct conflict between Hegar and West until a debate last week where things turned nasty. West questioned Hegar over her Democratic Party credentials, newly raising a $10 donation she made to Cornyn in 2011, while she suggested he has used his office to enrich himself.

The ensuing days brought further recriminations, with West tying Hegar to "systemic racism" and Hegar implying his indignation was being driven by sexism.

On Monday, West increased his scrutiny of Hegar's political history, highlighting that she made her Facebook profile picture the Gadsden flag in 2015. He referred to it as a "strange post with a Tea Party symbol" and said it was part of a political past in which Hegar "seems like a chameleon or an opportunist."

"To many members of the military, myself included, [the flag] represents ... one of the earliest military flags flown during the American Revolution, not what groups have co-opted it to be now," Hegar responded in a statement. "Many years ago I shared it on July 3rd as a sign of victory during the American Revolution heading into July 4th celebrations."

West did not buy the explanation and spent Tuesday afternoon picking it apart on Twitter. By the evening, Cornyn was chiming in and further elevating the spat.

"Gimme a break @RoyceWestTX," Cornyn tweeted. "Thank you @mjhegar for your service, you’ve earned the right to fly that flag whenever you want."