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The race for U.S. Senate in Texas is competitive again. But this year it has a lower profile.

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U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, is seeking his fourth term in office. Credit: Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

Even before a pandemic struck, protests over racial justice took to the streets and a vacancy opened on the U.S. Supreme Court, this year’s U.S. Senate race was poised to be different from the last one in Texas.

John Cornyn is not as polarizing as Ted Cruz, the thinking went, and MJ Hegar is no Beto O’Rourke.

Add in a wave of news and other high-profile 2020 contests, and Texas voters are getting a much lower-octane race, a far cry from Cruz’s battle royal against O’Rourke and all its theatrics.

But that does not mean this year’s race is lacking in contrast.

As he embarks on the final several weeks of his quest for a fourth term, Cornyn is pitching himself as a “steady hand on the wheel” who has the stature to guide Texas through a turbulent time. Hegar, meanwhile, is happily running to the contrary — as a disruptive change agent who can usher in a new era of federal representation for a changing Texas.

While Hegar’s pitch is broadly similar to what O’Rourke’s was, Cornyn is taking a notably different path than Cruz, a student of base-first politics who believed what he needed most in 2018 was maximum conservative turnout. Instead, Cornyn is running for reelection with more appeals to the political center, often inviting questions — most vocally from Hegar — about whether his rhetoric matches his record.

But in any case, it is a dynamic destined to shape the final several weeks of the top statewide race after the presidential contest.

“The thing I enjoy the most about my job is actually solving hard problems, and sometimes it takes years to actually pass legislation, but … we’re kind of in a precarious time, not just in our state, because of the pandemic, but in the nation, and … so I think a steady hand on the wheel is even more important than usual,” Cornyn said during an interview earlier this month from his campaign headquarters in downtown Austin.

Underscoring the mutually embraced contrast, Hegar shot back in an interview: “I don’t know how much more Texas can survive John Cornyn’s experience. He’s got a steady hand on the wheel driving toward a cliff.”

While Texas is changing — and November will be the state’s most consequential election in decades — Hegar still has her work cut out for her. She had to weather a crowded March primary and then a postponed July runoff, each stage requiring seven-figure interventions by her national Democratic allies to ensure her success. And while her campaign has touted fundraising momentum since locking down the nomination, she is all but guaranteed to remain at a massive cash disadvantage with Cornyn through Election Day. He had more than $14 million in the bank at the end of June, while she had less than $1 million.

To the contrary, Hegar believes she can overcome those disadvantages, at least in part, because she is up against an incumbent who continues to register as relatively unknown, especially given his long career in public life. In a Dallas Morning News/University of Texas at Tyler poll conducted in late August, 27% of respondents said they either did not know enough about Cornyn to have an opinion or had no opinion. That same figure was 49% for Hegar.

Recent statewide polls suggest that Cornyn is the favorite. But Hegar maintains she is well within striking distance, with margins usually in the mid to low single digits.

Cornyn has previously acknowledged his name ID challenge, and he said in the interview that as someone who runs statewide every six years, he is “not top of mind” for voters, especially those who make up the influx of new residents. But he expressed confidence that his campaign’s paid media program would be “very effective” in changing those numbers.

“I know that [Senate Minority Leader] Chuck Schumer was looking at those numbers and thinking, ‘Hey, if we could just put enough money into Texas, we can define Cornyn before he can define himself, and this is an opportunity,’” Cornyn said. “But ... we’re not gonna let them do that, so we’re gonna talk about what we’ve done for my constituents, and I think it’s a good story to tell.”

Asked if she felt she was winning the sprint to define Cornyn, considering her huge financial deficit, Hegar retorted that Cornyn is “100% defining himself through his actions.” As an example, she pointed to Cornyn’s comment that Congress made a “mistake” in early coronavirus aid by offering an extra $600 a week in unemployment benefits.

While Hegar has hammered away at Cornyn — even in her 12-way primary, when she ran an unabashedly general election-focused campaign — he has largely ignored her and sought to make his reelection pitch on his own terms. That story, according to Cornyn, is one of a quiet workhorse who has chipped away on issues that do not always dominate headlines. Asked for three of his proudest legislative achievements, he cited legislation to combat human trafficking, Hurricane Harvey relief and the Fix NICS Act, a 2018 law that he authored to improve the FBI’s background-check system after the Sutherland Springs church shooting.

Cornyn’s first three TV ads have a set a similar tone, carrying the tagline: “Thoughtful. Leadership. For Texas.” The commercials have been about the coronavirus relief package he voted for early on in the pandemic, his work to reduce the rape-kit backlog in Texas and most recently, his support for protecting “Dreamers,” young people brought to the country illegally as children.

By contrast, Hegar’s first TV spot was all about her military heroism, evoking a gritty image consistent with her campaign-trail bravado billing herself as a “bad-ass” working Texas mom who flew helicopters for the Air Force.

More than any other race this fall in Texas, though, the U.S. Senate contest could be shaken up by the Friday death of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, which promptly sparked a battle to fill the vacancy, potentially before Election Day. Like many Democrats, Hegar argued that the next president should get to make the nomination, while Cornyn has not said exactly how he thinks the process should be handled. However, he was among the Senate Republicans in 2016 who refused to give a hearing to then-President Barack Obama’s high-court nominee, Merrick Garland, claiming it was too close to the election.

Cornyn said Monday the Senate should not rush the process this time around but that the Senate “will vote on that nominee sometime this year,” either before or after the election.

Hegar has called on the Senate to wait until after the election to act and said that by indicating they won’t, Cornyn and other Senate Republicans are “showing the American people once again that they lack the integrity to act in the best interests of our country.”

Health care

Hegar’s top issue is health care, and like virtually every Democratic challenger across the country, she has seized on her GOP opponent’s involvement in his party’s yearslong crusade to dismantle the Affordable Care Act and its popular protections for people with preexisting conditions. Like many Republicans in Congress, Cornyn has a long history of votes to chip away at Obamacare, and he was the Senate GOP’s top vote-counter during its ultimately unsuccessful drive to repeal the law in 2017.

Cornyn said it is a lie to say he is “opposed to covering preexisting conditions” and that he has “co-sponsored legislation to do that” independent of Obamacare. Cornyn co-sponsored the 2019 PROTECT Act, which bans insurance companies from denying coverage to people due to preexisting conditions. However, experts have said the PROTECT Act and similar Republican-backed bills do not go as far as Obamacare does in ensuring such protections.

Regardless of legislative efforts, the Trump administration is still in court pushing to dismantle Obamacare and its protections for people with preexisting conditions, arguing the law is unconstitutional. Asked if he wanted to see the lawsuit succeed, Cornyn did not say.

“I would like to see the Constitution enforced,” he said. “To me, it’s that simple, and that’s been the problem all along.”

Immigration

Immigration is also shaping the general election, with Cornyn leaning in to his support for a permanent legislative solution for Dreamers, young undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children. Cornyn is airing a Spanish-language TV ad that says he “strongly supports legalization of Dreamers.”

Cornyn’s record is more complicated than that, with Democrats and immigration reform advocates countering that he has had ample opportunities to vote to protect Dreamers over the years and did not do so. Perhaps most notably, Cornyn voted against the 2013 “Gang of Eight” immigration reform bill, which passed 68-32 with bipartisan support. Cornyn had introduced an amendment seeking to address border security concerns with the legislation, but multiple sides in the debate called the amendment a poison pill, and it failed.

Asked where his record backs up his rhetoric on Dreamers, Cornyn said he has “voted for a pathway to citizenship for 1.7 million DACA-eligible young people” — referring to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — but acknowledged it was part of a larger package that was ultimately unsuccessful. The Dreamer protections were included in the 2018 Secure and Succeed Act, which mirrored President Donald Trump’s preferences at the time and also included more border security spending and legal immigration limits.

In the interview, Cornyn lamented how unwieldy immigration reform efforts have become in the past, and he said his “view on DACA specifically has evolved.”

“I don’t think it’s fair to those young people to hold them hostage to a larger deal,” Cornyn said. “I think we ought to do that on a standalone basis, and I’m for giving them a permanent status.”

Coronavirus

Perhaps the most timely issue framing the final weeks of the race is the coronavirus pandemic.

Recognizing the political potency of the issue, Cornyn made his first general-election TV ad about school reopenings, featuring a mother saying he “gets it” when it comes to safely returning children to school this fall. The mom then alludes to Cornyn’s support for the CARES Act, the coronavirus relief package that the Senate passed unanimously in March. The legislation offered $31 billion in emergency relief for K-12 and higher education, including $2.6 billion for Texas.

Hegar counters that Cornyn’s pandemic messaging is undermined by things like his mid-March tweet urging people not to panic about the pandemic, accompanied by a photo of a Corona beer. There was also his false July comment to a Dallas TV station claiming Americans “still don’t know whether children can get [the virus] and transmit it to others.” Thousands of people under the age of 20 have tested positive for the coronavirus in Texas.

Cornyn defended the Corona tweet as an effort to keep the public calm, while acknowledging not everyone found it effective. On children and the coronavirus, Cornyn’s office said he could have used better language but that he was questioning the extent of transmission among children, not whether they can become infected in the first place. His office pointed to a tweet around the same time from former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, who said data showed kids are “less likely to become infected and less likely to transmit infection,” though it was not certain.

Throughout the pandemic, Cornyn has remained generally aligned with the leader of the state’s response, Gov. Greg Abbott. Abbott’s approval ratings have taken a dive as he has navigated the pandemic.

“I think the governor’s done a good job,” Cornyn said, “and I think everybody’s tried to do their best under unprecedented circumstances.”

“Personality stuff”

At the end of the day, Cornyn’s fate may be tied to Trump more than anyone else come November. Asked about his biggest challenge this November, Cornyn brought up the massive turnout that is expected, largely driven by the polarizing president, and how different it will be from when he was last on the ballot. A total of 4.6 million people participated in the 2014 Senate election, and Cornyn said he likely will have to garner more votes than that alone this fall to win a fourth term.

With Trump dominating the political landscape across the country, Cornyn said he does not “just want to kind of surf the waves of national news cycles” and wants to make a case for himself independent of Trump. The president gave Cornyn an early reelection endorsement, helping to ensure a noncompetitive primary.

Cornyn occasionally offers gentle dissent with the president but has not emphatically broken with him on any major issue in recent memory. When it comes to the November election, he said he would like Trump to talk more about his accomplishments, namely on the economy — and that he has expressed as much to the president.

“To me the real question in this election is: Who do you think is best suited to help rebuild our economy in the wake of the pandemic?” Cornyn said. “Is it Joe Biden and Kamala Harris? Or is it Donald Trump and Mike Pence? And for me, it’s not even close.”

Beyond policy, though, Hegar has sought to make the race almost as much about character, pitching herself as a stronger avatar of Texas toughness.

In ads, Hegar talks up her military heroism and rides her motorcycle, and on the stump, she has denounced Cornyn as a “spineless, pantywaist, bootlicking ass-kisser.” She defended the approach in the interview, saying it is “important people understand his level of cowardice because I’ve been to D.C.” — to lobby for women in combat — and she has seen firsthand what it takes to overcome adversity there.

Cornyn laughed in the interview when asked about Hegar’s insinuation that he is not tough enough, predicting voters would be turned off by the “personality stuff.”

“I don’t think this election is about me, and it’s not about her,” Cornyn said. “This is about the policies that have made Texas the envy of the nation when it comes to opportunities and people pursuing their dreams.”