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It is much easier to influence a political contest when the voters are unfamiliar with the candidates. That’s why the 11 candidates in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate were so upset that a national group tapped MJ Hegar as its favorite in the race.
The Democratic Senate Campaign Committee weighed in this week, blessing Hegar as its favorite, and in the process, telling the Democratic national establishment that she should get its support.
It’s not enough, all by itself, to make her the winner. It’s not enough to make her the frontrunner. But it puts a spotlight on one of the dozen candidates whose only hope is to get some attention, some money and then some support. It does for a political candidate what a prominent movie review does for ticket sales.
The latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll, completed in late October, found the candidates seeking to unseat U.S. Sen. John Cornyn down at the dark end of the celebrity spectrum.
The best-known of the bunch was unknown to 76% of registered voters who identify as Democrats. Lisa Simpson, the Cookie Monster and Katniss Everdeen have higher name ID than the Democrats who want to represent Texas in the U.S. Senate, and none of them is even real.
Contests like this often start in just this way. Nobody knew who Beto O’Rourke was, until he was up and skateboarding in 2018. Remember Sema Hernandez and Edward Kimbrough? They combined to get 31.2% of the vote against O’Rourke in the 2018 Democratic primary, before Betomania took hold of the Democrats. Remember David Alameel and Paul Sadler? Alameel was the Democratic nominee for Senate in 2014, losing to Cornyn. Sadler lost to Republican Ted Cruz in the 2012 race for Senate.
Cornyn himself, after six statewide elections (two for Texas Supreme Court, one for AG and three for Senate), is hardly a household name. Nearly a third (31%) told the UT/TT Poll they either had a neutral or no opinion about the job he’s been doing as a senator since taking office in 2003.
Hernandez, who came in second to O’Rourke in 2018, is one of the dozen Democrats in the race this time. Some of the others have old or regional claims to voters’ loyalty.
Chris Bell was known to 24% of Texas Democrats in that UT/TT Poll. He’s a former member of Congress and the Houston City Council, the party’s candidate for governor in 2006 and a twice-unsuccessful candidate for mayor of Houston. He also lost a couple of races for the Texas Legislature. Voters have had plenty of chances to get to know him, but most of them don’t.
Texas Sen. Royce West is known mostly in his hometown of Dallas. Hegar ran for Congress in Central Texas in 2018, losing to U.S. Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock. Amanda Edwards has a base of support in Houston, where she serves on the City Council. Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez is a political organizer.
None of them has a solid, tested, statewide base of support.
And that’s why endorsements like the one from the DSCC are more important than usual.
Party officials usually stay out of primary races, and groups like the DSCC usually do, too. This year, they’re picking targets, trying to boost the candidates they like — usually without saying anything negative about the rest of the pack.
And you can see the importance of such recognition in the reactions of some of the candidates who didn’t get the blessing. Bell called it “another unfortunate attempt by Beltway politicians and insiders to tip the scales of democracy.” West said, “The DSCC is trying to lock African-Americans out of the process.” The campaign manager for Tzintzún Ramirez said the endorsement “is tone-deaf to the diverse Texas electorate.”
Hegar won this skirmish. The battle for attention — enough attention to win one place in an almost inevitable runoff election in May — is underway.
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.