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Analysis: Unseating John Cornyn won’t come cheap, and MJ Hegar knows it

The senator's first serious official challenger has a good story, ran a good race in 2018 and has a good bank of loud supporters cheering her on. But the way to measure Hegar's race is the same way Beto O'Rourke's challenge to Sen. Ted Cruz was measured — by how much money she can raise.

MJ Hegar.

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Tattoos, a motorcycle, a helicopter door in a dining room and a terrific personal story will all help MJ Hegar in her race against U.S. Sen. John Cornyn. But it’s going to take something else to turn hers into a Beto O’Rourke-sized challenge: money.

Hegar knows this by experience. She ran against U.S. Rep. John Carter, R-Georgetown, in 2018 and lost by 2.91 percentage points. He got 8,318 more votes than she did, out of 286,007 cast. She beat him in Williamson County, too — notable because Carter was one of the builders of that county’s once-stout Republican dominance.

It was money that made that possible, just as money made O’Rourke’s challenge to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz last year. O’Rourke had a lot going for him then, as Hegar does now. He’s got a knack for getting attention. His 254-county tour of Texas got him a lot of notice. Cruz is popular with Texas Republicans and gets the full-throated support of the loud ones. But he has the opposite effect on Democrats and Democratic activists. In the early days of the race, when the average Texan could pass O’Rourke in a parking lot without noticing him, the El Paso Democrat was already running pretty well against Cruz.

In a University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll a year before the election, 69% of Texans had no real impression of O’Rourke; only 17% didn’t view Cruz positively or negatively. In another UT/TT Poll in March of this year, the neutral opinions of O’Rourke — one measure of his recognizability — had dropped to 12 percent.

One of the many things that happened between point A and point B on the O’Rourke timeline was $70 million in campaigning. He was a good candidate, but money made him a threat.

Hegar’s congressional race was probably a beneficiary of whatever Democratic momentum O’Rourke built up. But she also had money, a good story and, in her case, a less energetic incumbent to knock off. If she’d pulled a few more votes in veteran-heavy Bell County — she’s a veteran, too, which is why the door from the helicopter she flew in Afghanistan is in her dining room — she might be in Congress today.

Hegar had to wrestle her way to Carter, finishing first in last year’s Democratic primary and then prevailing in a runoff with Christine Eady Mann. She’s the most serious Democrat to enter the race with Cornyn, but U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, has been openly considering a run.

The two face obstacles O’Rourke overcame, starting with introductions. Neither has run a statewide campaign, and both can expect to see a lot of strangers on their way to a 2020 race.

The incumbent before them is formidable. Cornyn is finishing his third term in the U.S. Senate. He had four challengers in 2014 and got 61.6% of the vote. No other statewide Republican candidate did as well. Six years earlier, in the second slot on a presidential ballot topped by John McCain and Barack Obama, Cornyn got 54.82%. In 2002, he got 55.3%. He won a statewide race for attorney general in 1998 and races for Texas Supreme Court in 1996 and 1990.

That makes him a political brand name in Texas — but a weaker one than Cruz. In that March 2019 UT/TT Poll, 62% of Republican voters approved of the job Cornyn has been doing in Washington and 83% approved of Cruz. That’s a sign of a stronger base. On the plus side, 60% of Democrats disapproved of Cornyn, while 78% disapproved of Cruz. That’s a sign that the anti-Cornyn crowd is smaller than the anti-Cruz brigade.

Texas might be a real battleground in 2020. Both parties are saying so now, but the races haven’t developed and the parties have been known to bait and switch when one hotspot cools and another place heats up. National Democrats have their eyes on a half-dozen congressional races in Texas where they think Democrats might be able to beat incumbent Republicans. The Republicans have their eyes on two seats the Democrats took from Republicans in 2018; they want those back.

The coattails will be set in the top race — the one for president. But the U.S. Senate race is next on the ballot, a place to either build on positive momentum or to counter a bad result. The best recent example of a stopper like that was Gov. Greg Abbott. Cruz had a close race at the top of the ticket, winning by 2.6 percentage points. Two Republican incumbents lost in Congress, and then Abbott won his race by 13.3 percentage points. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick won by just 4.8 percentage points, and Attorney General Ken Paxton won by 3.6 percentage points.

You think those two were glad Abbott was there?

That’s Cornyn’s job next year — to win and protect the Republicans below him from whatever might happen in the presidential contest.

As for Hegar or Castro? It’s the other side of the same page: win, and help some down-ballot Democrats along the way.

Personality counts, but it’s going to be expensive. Watch the money.

Disclosure: The University of Texas has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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