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MJ Hegar takes on Sen. John Cornyn for US Senate in Texas

Business Insider logo Business Insider 9/21/2020 gpanetta@businessinsider.com (Grace Panetta)
a woman wearing a costume: Democratic U.S. Senate candidate MJ Hegar talks with the media near an early polling site before voting, July 9, 2020, in Austin, Texas. Eric Gay/AP Photo © Eric Gay/AP Photo Democratic U.S. Senate candidate MJ Hegar talks with the media near an early polling site before voting, July 9, 2020, in Austin, Texas. Eric Gay/AP Photo
  • Air Force veteran and 2018 House candidate MJ Hegar is challenging incumbent Sen. John Cornyn in Texas in 2020. 
  • Cornyn, who was first elected in 2002 and has served in a number of positions in Senate leadership, is seeking a fourth term to the US Senate.
  • The political tide has been shifting in the state in recent cycles, and Democrats are making a play for several statewide and congressional races. 
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
 

Air Force veteran and 2018 US House candidate MJ Hegar is challenging incumbent Sen. John Cornyn in Texas in 2020. 

The candidates:

Cornyn, first elected in 2002, is seeking a fourth term to the US Senate. He's served in leadership positions as the Senate minority whip from 2013-2015 and then as the majority whip from 2015-2019. 

Hegar, who ran for the House of Representatives in Texas' 31st district in 2018, gained national attention for a powerful TV ad she aired highlighting her military service and her work breaking down barriers for women in the military.

A combat veteran and search and rescue pilot in the US Air Force, Hegar received a Purple Heart for injuries she sustained while flying a helicopter rescue mission in Afghanistan. When her injuries left her unable to keep flying, she worked to change rules prohibiting women from serving in ground combat positions, and was then inspired to run for office. 

Cornyn serves on the powerful Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the Senate Finance Committee, and the Senate Judiciary Committee. 

His seniority in the Senate and long tenure representing the state means he currently holds a massive cash advantage in a large state that takes a with multiple expensive media markets that requires a lot of money to compete statewide.

As of the most recent campaign finance filings, Cornyn held $14.5 million in cash on hand compared to just under $1 million for Hegar, who won her primary runoff on July 14. 

The stakes: 

In addition to winning back the White House, regaining control of the US Senate for the first time since 2015 is a top priority for Democrats and would be a major accomplishment towards either delivering on a future president Joe Biden's policy goals or thwarting President Donald Trump's second-term agenda. 

Currently, the US Senate is made up of 53 Republicans, 45 Democrats, and two independents that caucus with Democrats, winning that Democrats need to win back a net total of four seats to have a 51-seat majority (if Biden wins, his vice president would also serve as president of the Senate and would be a tie-breaker vote). 

And now, the US Senate is gearing up for a high-stakes confirmation battle to replace Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died at age 87 from pancreatic cancer on September 18. Within hours of her death, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky pledged that Trump's nominee for the high court would receive a vote on the floor of the Senate, and Trump said the day after that he would name a replacement "without delay." 

Ginsburg's death threw a stick of dynamite into an already supercharged election shaped by a deadly pandemic that has so far claimed over 200,000 American lives, and a national reckoning around race after several high-profile deaths of Black Americans in encounters with police. 

Trump and McConnell's posturing on the issue has excited conservatives enthusiastic about the possibility of Trump getting to appoint a third justice in his first term, but infuriated liberals who accused McConnell of blatant hypocrisy after he refused to hold confirmation proceedings for Obama's Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland in 2016, citing the upcoming presidential election. Senate Republicans held the seat open long enough for Trump to appoint his choice, Justice Neil Gorsuch, to the seat. 

The issue is already shaping Texas' Senate race due to Cornyn's role on the Judiciary Committee. Already, Hegar is hitting Cornyn over his remarks in 2016 arguing against holding confirmation hearings for Garland. 

 

Texas has been a Republican bastion for decades, and hasn't elected a Democrat statewide since 1994. 

But Democrats have gained ground in recent elections largely thanks to the state's expanding population in major metro areas, a growing Hispanic segment of the electorate, and most importantly, the suburban, college-educated voters who made up the GOP base for years fleeing the party over their strong dislike of Trump.

In 2018, Democrats flipped two US House seats, the 7th district in the Houston suburbs and the 32nd district in the Dallas-Forth Worth area, and Democrat Beto O'Rourke came within three percentage points of defeating Sen. Ted Cruz statewide. 

Now, with Trump's favorability declining, Democrats are looking to expand their margins and put the seat back in play. The Biden campaign has expanded its investment and staffing in the state as polls show Trump ahead of Biden by a margin of just one percentage point, according to FiveThirtyEight's polling averages

But even if Biden pulled off the Texas-sized feat of flipping the state back to Democrats, Hegar's path to victory would still be far more difficult. While Trump's brand may be increasingly toxic in the Lone Star State, Cornyn is still comfortably ahead of Hegar in most of the polls of the race conducted so far. 

Indeed, in 2016, voters splitting their tickets between Hillary Clinton and Republican Senate candidates allowed Republican Senators including Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Sen. Ron Johnson Wisconsin to outperform Trump's razor-thin margins in those states. 

As O'Rourke's 2018 race proved, getting close to winning a statewide election in Texas is no small feat. O'Rourke's Senate bid broke the all-time record for most money raised for a Senate campaign in a single quarter. 

The money race: Cornyn has raised $22 million this cycle and spent $10.6 million compared to $6.5 million raised and $5.6 million spent for Hegar, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. 

What the polls say: Cornyn has led Hegar in all of the non-partisan polls conducted of the race this year, according to FiveThirtyEight's tracker of US Senate polls. 

The most recent CBS News/YouGov Battleground Tracker poll of Texas found Cornyn leading Hegar by five points, 46% to 41%, among likely voters. 

Another survey conducted by Public Policy Polling for the Giffords Foundation found Cornyn leading Hegar by four points, 44% to 40%.

What the experts say: The Cook Political Report and Sabato's Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics both rate the race as likely Republican while Inside Elections rates it lean Republican. 

According to FiveThirtyEight's US Senate forecasting model, Cornyn has an 89% chance of defeating Hegar in the November election and is expected to receive just over 10% more of the popular vote than Hegar.

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