For months, the 12 Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate mostly played nice at forum after forum, reciting their elevator pitches and reiterating their issue positions. A few episodes fueled sharp disagreements, but none that permanently derailed an otherwise cordial primary.
Now the race is down to two people, and the contrast between them is quickly coming into focus.
One, MJ Hegar, is a tattooed, motorcycle-riding military hero running as a political outsider and fed-up working mom. The other, Royce West, is a seasoned 27-year veteran of the Texas Senate running on his long record, including his ability to get things done — with both parties — in the Republican-dominated chamber.
In an interview Thursday, Hegar did not hesitate to frame the runoff.
"I think that there is wisdom to sending ... an effective disrupter to D.C. to take on a system when that system is not serving working people in Texas," Hegar said, suggesting that the Republican incumbent, John Cornyn — and West — are too willing to accept the status quo.
Cornyn and West "are both career politicians and attorneys that are very well off," Hegar added. "Do they understand the struggles of working families?"
West responded in an interview later Thursday, saying Hegar "knows nothing about my background whatsoever, apparently." He also said he hoped the runoff would not be one where Democrats "burn bridges" ahead of a crucial November election.
With all polling locations reporting Thursday, Hegar finished the primary with 22.3% of the vote to 14.5% for West, according to unofficial returns. Coming in third was progressive organizer Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, who got 13.2%.
In drawing West over Tzintzún Ramirez, Hegar is less likely to face a runoff centered on ideology and more likely to face one hinging on experience. West said the choice before runoff voters is between "someone with experience, business experience and legislative experience, and someone that doesn't have legislative experience." He also noted the support he has from many of his Democratic colleagues in the Legislature.
West told WFAA-TV on Wednesday that he was appealing to Tzintzún Ramirez and other former opponents for their endorsements, saying that it would "signal, for the first time in Texas history ... Latinos and African Americans coming together." During the primary, West, who is black, won the support of both the State Tejano Democrats and Texas Coalition of Black Democrats.
In a news release announcing her concession Wednesday afternoon, Tinztzún Ramirez's campaign said she "has not yet decided on her next steps, but she knows that no matter what, she will continue to fight the politics of hate and advocate for working Texans."
Hegar got her own post-primary boost Thursday morning from EMILY's List, the influential national group that works to elect Democratic women who support abortion rights. The group endorsed Hegar after staying out of the primary, which featured several female candidates.
It was not entirely a surprise — EMILY's List President Stephanie Schriock said earlier this year that the group would "absolutely" get involved in a runoff between a man and a woman. But the endorsement officially gives Hegar a deep-pocketed ally as she enters an overtime round that West has declared a "brand new day."
Hegar said "zero" would change about her campaign in the runoff as she continues to push a relentless focus on Cornyn, a move that helped her earn the endorsement of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in December. Yet she has long been also running as the anti-politician, a profile that her supporters believe gives her a more immediate advantage over West.
"Sen. West has served our state so admirably for so many years," said state Rep. James Talarico of Round Rock, who backs Hegar. "He absolutely has a great record to run on, and we would be lucky to have him as our nominee — and certainly as our next U.S. senator — but I think the current political moment requires someone who is coming from outside of our broken political system, and that's what MJ uniquely offers in this race."
Tensions between Hegar and West had been simmering in the weeks leading up to the primary, including during a joint interview with the Austin American-Statesman editorial board, which eventually endorsed Hegar. At one point, West talked about working across the aisle "recognizing that I may not get 100% of everything that I want at the time, but if I can get 15 to 20% and then come back and fight for the rest, that's what you do."
Hegar shook her head as he spoke and returned to the topic minutes later.
"I have to say — this is something we very much disagree about. You don't fight for 15 or 20% of what you want," Hegar said, invoking her successful crusade to open all military combat jobs to women. "We opened all the jobs because that's the value, and if we give on that, then we show we don't fully believe we should open these jobs for women."
West shook his head and grinned while she spoke, saying she "obviously misunderstood ... the point I was trying to make."
"I recognize you don't settle for 15 or 20%," he said, pointing to a time he "fought for 100% and ... got 100%" — insisting that the LGBTQ community be included in a hate crimes bill. "If you can't get the 100%, you get as much as you can and come back and fight for other things later on."
"This is the biggest difference between us," Hegar said amid crosstalk, which ended with them cordially agreeing to disagree.
It was not clear until Wednesday afternoon that West would be in the runoff with Hegar, who jumped out to a clear lead after polls closed the night before. He was able to overtake Tzintzún Ramirez on the strength of his performance in his home base — Dallas-Fort Worth — cities whose counties contributed nearly half of his statewide vote total.
West said he recognized that to make the runoff, "I had to shore up as much as possible my home base. We were able to do that ... and that helped me out tremendously."
Barbara Radnofsky, a top West supporter who serves as his campaign treasurer, said he now has opportunity for growth specifically in the Houston area. She pointed to counties like Harris and Fort Bend, where he finished fourth behind Hegar and Houstonians Chris Bell and Amanda Edwards.
"We need to do more" in those places, Radnofsky said, noting West has the support of Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and is naturally set to gain there with the elimination of the 10 other candidates.
Hegar's support was more geographically diffuse, though her backyard — Austin and its northern suburbs — similarly came through for her. She racked up over a quarter of her statewide vote total from Travis and Williamson counties.
Hegar's campaign knew she had a base in the Austin area but could not exclusively rely on it and had to make inroads in the bigger population centers. The results show she had success: She carried Harris County over Bell and Edwards and placed second to West in Dallas and Tarrant counties, albeit a distant second in Dallas.
Both candidates had to spend big to secure their runoff spots, each burning through more than 70% of the money they raised through Feb. 12. That means they will have to quickly pivot to replenishing their campaign coffers for the runoff, let alone for a general election for which Cornyn has $12 million in the bank.
Hegar, however, spent much more than West per vote: $7.38 to $3.08, according to their fundraising figures through Feb. 12. That dollar-to-vote ratio is before the $3.5 million in spending that was done on Hegar's behalf by VoteVets, a national organization that boosts Democratic veterans running for office.
Cornyn and other Republicans cited that big-money backing Wednesday and Thursday as they sought to portray Hegar's vote share as an underwhelming showing.
Radnofsky, too, said she thought the "DSCC may look more closely at whether or not they made what I think was an error in judgment" by backing Hegar. The committee showed no immediate signs of that Tuesday night, releasing a statement touting her "impressive performance."
Cornyn's campaign has previously gone after both Hegar and West, deriding the former as "Hollywood Hegar" for her celebrity support and airing TV ads against the latter shortly after he got in the primary last summer. On Thursday, though, Cornyn told reporters that he "certainly [does not] have a preference" in the runoff.