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With a month to go, crowded Democratic primary to challenge Cornyn remains full of uncertainty

Some of the 12 candidates have clearer advantages than others, but it is an open question who will make a widely expected runoff.

A polling location in Austin on Election Day, Nov. 5, 2019.

With a month until election day, the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate in Texas remains fraught with uncertainty about who is best positioned to qualify for an all-but-guaranteed runoff.

The crowded field has long been unsettled, but any prospects of at least some candidates breaking away from the pack are now running into the short timeline ahead of the March 3 vote. A trio of polls released in recent days found that large numbers of voters are undecided — 56% in one survey released Sunday — while most of the 12 candidates are clustered in the single digits, led slightly by MJ Hegar.

"There certainly has been [media exposure] for some, and voters are looking to make the connection of maybe I know the name, but why should I vote for the person," said Mark Owens, a University of Texas at Tyler assistant professor who helped conduct the survey released Sunday in partnership with The Dallas Morning News.

In interviews for the poll, "people wanted to find a way to say they knew, but they were hesitant to signal support of any of these candidates, almost in a sense not to diminish the strength of other candidates in the field," Owens said.

Meanwhile, some national Democrats are taking a wait-and-see approach to the nominating process, even after the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee endorsed MJ Hegar late last year.

"Boy, that race is an interesting one, and I can't quite tell who's gonna come through that," said Stephanie Schriock, president of EMILY's List, in a C-SPAN interview that aired Sunday. Schriock also said her influential group, which works to elect Democratic women who support abortion rights, will "absolutely" get involved in a runoff if it pits a man against woman. But she also noted the runoff could feature two women and said EMILY's List would "just have to assess that situation."

Despite the unpredictability, some candidates have clearer advantages than others. Hegar, a retired Air Force helicopter pilot, has the DSCC endorsement and remains the top fundraiser by a big margin, helpful achievements as she continues to run a campaign heavily focused on the Republican incumbent, John Cornyn. Plus, Hegar had national allies even before the DSCC got involved — like VoteVets, which announced Monday afternoon that it was launching a $3.3 million TV ad buy boosting Hegar over the next couple of weeks.

Meanwhile, state Sen. Royce West of Dallas enjoys the support of dozens of state legislative colleagues spread across the state, not to mention the name ID of a longtime elected official from one of the state's biggest cities. And veteran political organizer Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, through at least her platform, endorsements and fundraising, has been able to plausibly present herself as the most viable progressive in the primary.

But then there are contenders like fellow progressive Sema Hernandez, who is running again after surprising Democrats with 24% of the vote in the 2018 primary against Beto O'Rourke. There is also former Houston congressman Chris Bell and recent Houston City Council member Amanda Edwards, both of whom have varying degrees of familiarity among voters in the state's most populous city.

Time is running out for candidates to more sharply distinguish themselves, and the better-known contenders appear to be content with staying the course and doubling down on their pitches from the start, confident that it is enough to advance to the runoff. That is the impression West left after appearing last weekend at the primary's highest-profile forum yet, organized by the Texas AFL-CIO.

"The reality is is that we have been all over Texas ... and frankly we have an infrastructure in place right now that I feel real comfortable with in terms of moving forward, and so we have what I think we need in order to be very competitive in this race," West said, predicting forums will "continue to be more cordial than not" as it becomes crunch time before March 3.

West has been running on his long record in the Texas Senate but recently signaled a broadened focus, releasing a 30-second ad directly addressing President Donald Trump and saying that Texans "need an experienced leader to stand up to Trump."

After the AFL-CIO forum, which featured six of the more serious candidates, the labor group declined to endorse in the primary, an unsurprising development because such a move would have required the support of two-thirds of delegates. The forum was not that contentious, save for a tense several minutes after Hegar suggested Bell was guilty of "mansplaining" by making a Rick Perry-inspired joke about Hernandez briefly forgetting the name of the U.S. Justice Department.

The latest major checkpoint in the primary was Friday, when candidates had to disclose their fourth-quarter fundraising numbers to the Federal Election Commission. Hegar, who did not get the DSCC endorsement until the final few weeks of the quarter, led again with $1.2 million raised, followed by West ($405,000), Tzintzún Ramirez ($348,000) and Edwards ($250,000, including a $35,000 loan to herself). Hegar and West were the cash-on-hand leaders, with $1 million and $526,000 saved up, respectively.

Bell was the only other candidate who raised six figures in the fourth quarter — $112,000 — but his cash on hand is down to just $8,000. Both his and Tzintzún Ramirez's campaigns had promised higher fourth-quarter hauls in statements made in the weeks before the disclosure deadline. Other contenders disclosed far lower hauls, while some, including Hernandez, have not filed their reports yet, according to the FEC.

After trying to hoard cash in the summer and early fall, the candidates upped their spending in the fourth quarter. Most notably, Hegar reported $1.1 million in expenses — almost as much as she raised — with over a quarter million dollars going toward direct mail. Hegar has also harnessed her financial advantage to outspend the entire Democratic field on digital spending, putting about $200,000 into Facebook and Google, according to data reviewed by The Texas Tribune.

Cornyn, of course, towers over his potential Democratic challengers with a $12.1 million war chest after raking in $2.7 million in the fourth quarter. Meanwhile, his campaign has become more active again in trying to make mischief in the Democratic primary, recently targeting Tzintzún Ramirez as "#AOCristina," tying her to U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. The campaign has also seized on recent developments — the polls and lack of AFL-CIO endorsement — to push the narrative that Democrats are less than enthused with their choices in the primary.

While the AFL-CIO took a pass on endorsing, there have been other notable shows of support in the primary recently. West was endorsed Tuesday by Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, a former longtime state representative who passed over at least two other candidates with more direct experience in his city's politics, Bell and Edwards. Earlier in January, Tzintzún Ramirez won the support of the Latino Victory Fund, a national group that seeks to grow Latino political power — and does not always find itself opposite the DSCC.

"I think we, to the extent possible, always want to be aligned with our Democratic and progressive allies, but it doesn’t make sense for us not to endorse the Latino candidate running in the Latino state, even if it is going against the DS," said Mayra Macías, Latino Victory executive director. "Regardless of the outcome, Cristina is putting a face to this race that is going to be able to engage and connect with communities that might not otherwise be ... engaged with at all."

The Latino Victory endorsement came days after another Latino political group, the State Tejano Democrats, got behind a different candidate: West. Bell also has had recent endorsements to tout, including California U.S. Rep. Linda Sánchez, a fellow member of the U.S. House class of 2002, and former Houston Mayor Pro Tem Gracie Saenz.

The biggest endorsement so far, of course, has been the DSCC's in mid-December, which drew sharp rebukes from some rivals who called it Washington meddling and tone-deaf, given the diversity of the field, to back Hegar, who is white. But those critiques have not been sustained, and Hegar is not shying away from the nod.

Asked last month if her opponents raised any valid points in attacking the endorsement, Hegar said no.

"That endorsement is an acknowledgment of all of the hard work and sacrifice and the viability and the grassroots energy and enthusiasm and momentum of tens of thousands of people," Hegar told The Texas Tribune after a campaign event in Austin, "so it’s something we’re proud of, and it’s something that anybody who is just concerned about getting good people elected up and down the ballot and moving the needle on our values would celebrate.”

After the DSCC intervention, the temperature of the primary did rise again Jan. 9, when Hegar's campaign issued its first direct criticism of a primary opponent, invoking her military experience to take issue with Tzintzún Ramirez sending a fundraising email focused on Iran within minutes of the news that the country had attacked U.S. forces in Iraq. Tzintzún Ramirez did not respond, but a day later, a political action committee that supports her defended her on Twitter, drawing another rebuke from Hegar, who tweeted it was "no surprise that a super PAC saw no issue with fundraising off the specter of war before we even knew our soldiers were safe."

Such blowups, however, have been the exception, not the norm, in the weeks before the primary.

For the lesser-known candidates, the pressure is especially on them to stand out. One of them, Annie Garcia, is taking a more novel approach to the homestretch, with plans to walk 420 miles across the state in protest of Cornyn. She plans to leave her Houston hometown Feb. 16 and spend two weeks walking noncontiguous routes until ending up at the El Paso Walmart where the 2019 mass shooting took place.

“I am not a politician and it’s been incredibly hard to be in this race," Garcia said in a statement. "But I believe that there are enough Texans that are just as fed up as I am."

Disclosure: The University of Texas System and Walmart have been financial supporters 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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