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U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and his allies are going on the attack on TV against his Democratic opponent, MJ Hegar, a notable development in a race where the challenger has done most of the jabbing so far.
Late last week, Cornyn's campaign launched a commercial branding Hegar as "too liberal for Texas," while a pro-Cornyn super PAC, Texans for a Conservative Majority, went up Tuesday with a spot linking her to "New York taxes, California values." Tuesday was the first day of early voting for the Nov. 3 election.
Recent polls have given Cornyn single-digit leads of varying sizes in his bid for a fourth term, though the sudden onslaught suggests his campaign sees the race as competitive at a critical time. Hegar raised $13.5 million in the third quarter of 2020, a massive improvement over her past hauls, and while Cornyn has not revealed his fundraising total for the past three months, he has conceded she outpaced him. On Tuesday, the Cook Political Report shifted its rating of the race in Hegar's favor, from "Likely Republican" to "Lean Republican."
Hegar's campaign said it is taking encouragement from the attacks.
"Clearly John Cornyn and his Super PAC friends are absolutely terrified of the grassroots momentum MJ has built across Texas," Hegar spokesperson Amanda Sherman said in a statement, adding that "Cornyn knows he can't run on his real record ... so now he has to resort to spreading lies and misinformation about a decorated combat veteran and working mom."
Cornyn's campaign is also piling on with a new set of ads — for digital, TV and radio — that quote Hegar's primary runoff opponent, Royce West, saying Friday he will not vote for her, claiming she has a problem with Black voters. The Dallas state senator rebuked Cornyn's meddling, saying in a statement the incumbent has "done nothing" for Black people in the U.S. Senate. The statement did not mention Hegar, but West said he is "voting for Democrats on my ballot from the White House to the Court House."
"I urge my fellow Democrats to not let John Cornyn’s antics and new television ad shift our focus from voting for Democrats from the top of the ballot to the bottom; we must turn Texas BLUE," West said.
However, the initial anti-Hegar ad from Cornyn's campaign, as well as the new one from the super PAC, hint at a more meaningful turn in the contest and mark the first negative TV advertising Hegar has faced on her policy views in the general election. The political action committee has been warming up for the past several weeks with digital ads going after "Hard Left Hegar."
Hegar has been relentless in messaging against Cornyn since she launched her campaign a year and a half ago, painting him as a timid career politician who has lost touch with Texas. Her first general-election TV spot was positive, while her second and latest one offers a contrast, blaming "Washington politicians like John Cornyn" for not doing enough to fight the coronavirus pandemic early on.
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The new anti-Hegar TV ads share a few common themes. They both revive 2018 remarks from Hegar saying Democrats need to "not compromise and not become moderate." They also claim she supports policies that would hurt Texas' energy industry; they assail her health care views as government overreach, and they associate her with the "defund the police" movement.
Hegar's 2018 comments come from a candidate forum when she was running in the Democratic primary to challenge U.S. Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock. The candidates were asked what Democrats should do differently in the House majority compared with the previous times the party held it.
"I would say what Democrats need to do differently is not compromise and not become moderate but control the narrative and the messaging," she said, citing as an example how she spoke with voters in Carter's traditionally red district about gun rights, arguing the biggest threat to their rights is continued violence.
The Cornyn campaign ad uses the quote to argue Hegar "won't compromise" and then launches into a list of policies where she is allegedly unbending. One of them is cap and trade, which a narrator says "will destroy the Texas economy." Cap and trade is a system that seeks to curb pollution by putting a limit on certain emissions and charging companies that go above the limit.
Hegar said clearly during the primary that she supported cap and trade, in response to a Texas Tribune candidate survey. She has been more equivocal in other instances, including in a story published last month by E&E News, an online news outlet that covers energy policy. She told the publication that she prefers "carrot over stick approaches" when it comes to decreasing emissions, and the outlet described her as "skeptical" of cap and trade and carbon taxing.
In a similar vein, the super PAC ad tells viewers that Hegar backs a "job-killing carbon tax," or a fee levied on the burning of carbon-based fuels. The commercial cites an August interview with Rolling Stone in which Hegar said she supported such a tax, with a caveat.
"I stand with the League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club, who support a carbon tax, but also understand that it needs to be done in a way that doesn’t just pass the burden on to the middle class and to economically disadvantaged areas that are going to have to pay more for gasoline and for milk and for transportation and things like that," Hegar said, adding that a carbon tax should be "part of a more comprehensive plan" to fight climate change.
Health care is also an animating issue in the anti-Hegar ad effort, which accuses her of favoring a “socialist government takeover of health care.” Since she entered politics in 2017, Hegar has talked about being the recipient of multiple single-payer models in the military and in 2018 said a “Medicare-for-All model could be great” but she wanted to know more about how to pay for it. She said she would at least prefer a Medicare option as a “stepping stone,” and in her Senate campaign, she has stuck to a public option as her main health care proposal.
Beyond energy issues and health care, the anti-Hegar commercials work to tie her to efforts to "defund the police," the rallying cry of some activists protesting police brutality. The term means different things to different people, though it has been generally defined as cutting police budget or redirecting funds to social services.
Hegar said flatly at a debate with Cornyn on Friday that she does not "support defunding the police." But Cornyn's campaign cites the multiple statements she has made backing the Campaign Zero platform to end police brutality, which at one point included a call to "fully defund police." (That proposal no longer appears on a site affiliated with Campaign Zero.)
The super PAC ad does not make as explicit of a claim, only saying Hegar would "consider" defunding police. The ad attributes the claim to a primary runoff debate where the candidates were asked about U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders' proposal at the time that, in the words of the moderator, "every police department that violates the civil rights of an individual should be stripped of federal funding."
"Funding is definitely one of the tools that we should be considering using," Hegar said before pivoting to how her military experience made her keenly aware of the high standards for the use of deadly force. "I would like to see a similar standard in our police force, and I am dedicated to supporting the leaders within the law enforcement community who want to see that same transparency and accountability."
On the issue of public safety, the Cornyn campaign ad goes further and makes the claim Hegar supports "legalizing prostitution." Cornyn's campaign again pointed to the Campaign Zero platform, which includes prostitution among "minor 'broken windows' offenses" that it believes should be decriminalized or enforced less.
After Cornyn brought up the defund-the-police and prostitution elements of Campaign Zero at the debate Friday, Hegar responded she had "not seen that as part of their platform, and maybe their platform has changed.”
In a more direct response to the ad Monday, Hegar's campaign said the "policies she supports in Campaign Zero’s police reform platform do not include defunding police or legalizing prostitution." The campaign also noted legalizing prostitution is not the same as decriminalizing or deprioritizing enforcement of the offense, which is the current language on the Campaign Zero website.