Texas Democrats took to a crowded Austin debate stage Tuesday night as they vie for the nomination to take on Republican U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, the three-term incumbent.
The Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate generally agreed in pushing the policies of President Barack Obama's administration further to the left. The contentions in the debate centered mostly around how far left each person was willing to go.
But the most contentious moment was about politics — specifically, the Senate Democratic campaign arm's endorsement of military veteran MJ Hegar, who narrowly lost a U.S. House race to Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock, in 2018.
"Of all of the endorsements we've received, and of all the endorsements on everybody in this race, the [Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee] endorsement is the only one that only looks at viability," Hegar said. "All they care about is flipping the U.S. Senate and getting our government back up and running for working families again. So it was something we were very proud of, it was a nod to the grassroots campaign that we've built."
It was a thorny issue to several candidates, including Annie “Mamá” Garcia.
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"I respect so much your resume and what you have accomplished, but the fact is that you did not beat John Carter, and we are not going to beat John Cornyn by playing politics as usual," said Garcia. "Money cannot be the determining factor in who wins this race.
Hegar's loss to Carter was a historically much narrower margin than Carter's previous cycles.
"People who actually really know politics and partisan index and gerrymandering, that district was gerrymandered to be much redder than the rest of the state," Hegar responded. "And John Carter won his last midterm race by 32 points."
Hegar said she outperformed statewide candidates in 2018, including former Democratic U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke, who unsuccessfully challenged Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.
"So I think actually that that race is a good example of how we are actually going to win this race in 2020," Hegar said.
On policy, the divide playing out in the Democratic presidential nomination fight also manifested itself on the Texas Senate debate stage Tuesday.
Two veteran Texas politicians, former U.S. Rep. Chris Bell and state Sen. Royce West, cautioned against pushing too hard to the left. At the same time, Cristina Tzinztún Ramirez — who has the backing of a number of supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders — pushed for a stronger progressive agenda.
"The truth is that Texas voters want someone that is honest with them, that will tell them exactly where they stand," said Tzinztún Ramirez. "And I made a commitment that I was going to win on the merit of my ideas."
Bell and West stressed pragmatism.
"We have to make certain that we have a dose of reality. No Democrat can win by being far left. It's not going to happen," said West. "We've got to be able to put together Democrats and Republicans and independents."
Bell called the Green New Deal an example of a policy that goes too far for many Texans.
"The Green New Deal has some great things in it, but it would also decimate the Texas economy," Bell said.
Hegar also implicitly nudged West, a longtime fixture at the state Capitol, after moderators asked him about his time politics.
"John Cornyn has a lot of experience as well. ... I would argue that the Texans that I meet across the state don't feel like that he's done anything for them," Hegar said. "People across Texas are looking for fresh faces and voices."
West defended his his tenure and pointed out that he helped Democrats turn Dallas County into a stronghold for their party.
"When you begin to look at my experiences, those experiences have benefitted every Texan I know," West responded.
Besides Bell, Hegar, Garcia, Tzinztún Ramirez and West, six other candidates participated in the debate: Michael Cooper, Amanda Edwards, Jack Daniel Foster Jr., Victor Hugo Harris, Sema Hernandez and Adrian Ocegueda. KVUE-TV's Ashley Goudeau, KUT-FM's Ashley Lopez and The Texas Tribune's Patrick Svitek moderated the discussion.
On health care, the candidates were split about backing "Medicare for All," as proposed by presidential candidate Sanders.
Cooper, Garcia, Tzintzún Ramirez and Hernandez said they would support it. Edwards, West, Bell, Ocegueda, Foster, Hegar and Harris said they would not.
One viewer-selected question brought about near unanimity. Ten candidates endorsed the legalization of marijuana. Ocegueda said he would consider it.
Hernandez, who posed a surprisingly strong campaign against O'Rourke in 2018's Democratic Senate primary, tweaked Hegar and also Tzinztún Ramirez, who advised the O'Rourke campaign.
"Being a candidate who ran for U.S. Senate in 2018, getting a quarter of a million votes on $4,000, our campaign was extremely progressive, and we did not capitulate to the political system." Hernandez said. "Unlike Ms. Tzinztún and Ms. Hegar, I was not recruited to run. I was compelled to run for U.S. Senate. And I do it on my own merits instead of going about, talking about how I was part of the 2018 campaign for U.S. Senate, raised $80 million and then lost to Ted Cruz."
Early voting began Tuesday. Election day is March 3. Given the sprawling field, the race is likely to go to a May 26 runoff.