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Analysis: Local Democrats hoping for statewide appeal in a Texas U.S. Senate race

Democrats looking for a challenger to U.S. Sen. John Cornyn have turned — and not for the first time — to local politicians in Texas who are attempting the leap to statewide politics. It works, sometimes.

Republican diners await the arrival of the candidates at Waterloo's Electric park Ballroom on August 14, 2011.

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Politics is full of nobodies, and the Democratic field of challengers to U.S. Sen. John Cornyn is just a new example.

It’s not a defect, necessarily — Beto O’Rourke was a mostly unknown congressman from El Paso when he started. Ted Cruz was working for then-Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, and his friends joked that his long-shot 2012 Senate campaign consisted of four guys and a coffee table.

So we begin another cycle, with a mix of knowns and unknowns, people to be met and people to whom we’ll be reintroduced.

Some of the names are bigger than others, perhaps.

MJ Hegar, who came within 3 percentage points of knocking off a once-safe Republican congressional incumbent in 2018, starts as the highest-profile candidate in the race because of that effort. The author and former Army helicopter pilot was the first big-name candidate to get into the race, and she had more money in her political accounts at the end of the most recent reporting period.

But like the others, her political base is limited to one part of the state. She and the others have less than eight months to light up their own constituents and to try to establish enough of a statewide presence — an expensive and time-consuming exercise — to win the nomination.

Chris Bell was a Houston City Council member and a member of Congress who ran for governor in a wild four-person general election in 2006. Rick Perry won that one. Bell finished just under 10 percentage points behind him, followed by Carole Keeton Strayhorn and Kinky Friedman. A quick-and-dirty look at the vote shows that Perry underperformed former U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison by more than 21 percentage points that year, while Bell finished about 6 percentage points behind Hutchison’s Democratic challenger, Barbara Ann Radnofsky. Safe to say those two independent candidates were harder on the Republican than the Democrat that year.

Nevertheless, Bell has run a statewide race — even though it was well over a decade ago. He’s from the state’s biggest city, too. But so is Amanda Edwards, an at-large member of the Houston City Council and the latest entrant into the Democratic race for U.S. Senate. She pointed out in her announcement that she represents 2.3 million Texans. And in Houston’s 2015 municipal elections, Bell finished fifth in the race for mayor, with 19,345 votes. Edwards moved into a runoff in her City Council race with 67,261 votes. (She won the runoff.)

Dallas gets a candidate next week, with the expected entry of state Sen. Royce West, whose efforts to put together a race have been an open secret for months. He’s never run for office outside of Dallas County, a problem he shares, in some fashion, with almost all of the other candidates. Unlike the others, he’s got more than a quarter-century of legislative experience — he’s been a senator since 1993 — and potentially, a quarter-century of votes he might have to explain.

Cornyn awaits the winner. He’s not as well-liked or as deeply disliked as Cruz, who survived a tough Senate challenge from O’Rourke last year. That was a well-organized and well-funded challenge, and the El Paso challenger was able to capitalize on Democratic antipathy to Cruz, who had an unusually high profile after a run for president two years earlier.

In the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll, 37% of voters said they approve of the job Cornyn has been doing, while 34% disapprove and 29% had no opinion. At this point in 2017, a UT/TT Poll found 37% of Texans had favorable and 45% had unfavorable opinions of Cruz, and only 18% were neutral.

And like the Democratic candidates this year, O’Rourke was largely unknown: 68% of voters either had neutral or no opinions about him.

O’Rourke ran a viral campaign and raised almost $80 million in his attempt to oust Cruz. He made himself a political name. But he didn’t start as the only unknown on the 2018 ballot, and most of the others never got a fraction of the attention voters paid to him. Lupe Valdez, the Democratic nominee for governor, got a lackluster 42.5% in the 2018 election — partly a result of her campaign’s inability to convert the successes of a Dallas County sheriff who won four elections into a statewide candidate.

She and O’Rourke started in the same place as this year’s Senate candidates — in a pack of relative unknowns. O’Rourke got out of his three-candidate Senate primary with just 61.8% of the vote. Valdez, with eight competitors, went into a runoff after winning 42.9%.

The 2020 race for the Democratic nomination to the U.S. Senate starts in the same place, with a growing field of relatively unknown candidates.

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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