71ºF

MJ Hegar leading Royce West in Democratic runoff for U.S. Senate

photo

State Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, and MJ Hegar are vying to be the Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate against incumbent Republican John Cornyn in November. Leslie Boorhem-Stephenson and Eddie Gaspar for The Texas Tribune

MJ Hegar was holding a single-digit lead over Royce West on Tuesday night in the Democratic primary runoff for U.S. Senate, according to unofficial results.

With 53% of polling locations reporting, Hegar was ahead of West, 52% to 48%. Hegar is the former Air Force helicopter pilot endorsed by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, while West is the longtime state senator from Dallas.

"Votes are still being counted — we don't want to get ahead of ourselves," Hegar told supporters shortly before 9:30 p.m. "We are seeing some organizations call the race. We are feeling very confident about the results that we've seen so far."

West and his campaign, meanwhile, said the runoff was still too close to call and that they expected it to come down to about 10,000 votes.

The winner will face Republican incumbent U.S. Sen. John Cornyn.

Hegar appeared to be the front-runner for much of the nominating process. She was easily the top fundraiser. Since launching her bid last year, she got the DSCC's endorsement in December and she finished first in the 12-way March primary, getting 22% of the vote to 15% for West.

West proved a worthy opponent in the runoff, though, campaigning as the "true Democrat" supported more by the party in Texas than in Washington. Already backed by many Democratic colleagues in the Legislature, West picked up endorsements from five of his former primary rivals, none of whom got behind Hegar. He also inherited endorsements from the third-place primary finisher, progressive Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, including that of U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro of San Antonio.

While West continued to lag far behind Hegar in fundraising and spending in the runoff, he insisted he would be more efficient than her, like he was during the primary.

Both the coronavirus and George Floyd's death impacted the runoff, forcing the candidates to conduct their campaigns almost exclusively online and further centering issues of health care and racial justice. West in particular sought to seize momentum after Floyd's death, touting his long record on criminal justice reform in the Texas Senate.

While the differences between West and Hegar were clear from the get-go, they played nice with each other for most of the runoff. That suddenly changed as early voting got underway two weeks ago, when long-simmering tensions boiled over during a televised debate. West sharply questioned Hegar's allegiance to the Democratic Party, while she implied West, a wealthy lawyer, has enriched himself in office.

West pointed out that Hegar voted in the 2016 Republican primary and gave a $10 donation to Cornyn in 2011, among other things. Hegar insisted her primary vote — for Carly Fiorina — was a protest vote against Donald Trump, and said she contributed to Cornyn because she thought it was the only way she could get a meeting with him.

West did not buy her explanations and continued to attack her party credentials as early voting went on, while also suggesting her criticism of his business record was racially charged.

At the same time, Cornyn's campaign ratcheted up its efforts to meddle in the Democratic primary, launching radio ads — and then TV ads — portraying West as too liberal for Texas.

With the sparks flying — and the runoff fast approaching — Hegar's outside allies stepped into the fray. The DSCC was already helping fund the Hegar campaign's TV ads, but with only a few days left before the runoff, EMILY's List spent over $1 million on TV and digital ads boosting Hegar.

West also aired TV ads in the runoff's closing days, but Hegar's side maintained a staggering advantage on the air. By one count published Tuesday morning, Hegar's campaign and its allies outspent West $102 to $1 on TV and radio advertising.

After the runoff, Democrats will try to come together for the general election. During a Texas Tribune interview Thursday, Hegar stopped short of saying whether she would campaign with West if he is the nominee — and whether she would want him to campaign with her if she is the nominee. A day later, West suggested more openness to appearing with Hegar on the campaign trail this fall, but said they would have to sit down and talk first.