MJ Hegar is aiming high. Tuesday, the decorated Air Force veteran won the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate with 52.1% of the vote, defeating Dallas state Sen. Royce West by more than 4 percentage points.
She was confident she’d win the runoff, but Hegar said during a phone interview Wednesday that she was floored by the voter turnout.
“Oh man, I am blown away,” she said. “I am so humbled by all of the support from across the state and the amazing team we’ve been able to build. I feel very blessed and very optimistic about our chances in the general.”
Now, Hegar is readying herself to face incumbent Republican Sen. John Cornyn in November. Although Cornyn’s approval rating has dwindled in recent days, some political experts still believe Hegar will be fighting an uphill battle.
Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University, said Hegar will need to work to appeal to Texans.
For the most part, voters are less tied to Senate candidates than they are to national ones, he said. Former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke was somewhat anomalous that way since he was able to attract a broader audience.
Even considering his lackluster approval rating of 37%, Cornyn is still likely to win November’s election, Jillson said.
“Cornyn is the favorite,” Jillson said. “And he would be a prohibitive favorite if Trump weren’t such an albatross around the neck of Republican candidates in Texas and elsewhere.”
Although Texas is a deep-red state, 2020’s tempestuous presidential election could help swing the scales in Hegar’s favor, Jillson said. Some polls indicate that presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is neck-and-neck with President Donald Trump in Texas, he said. Others even put Biden in the lead by a 5-point margin.
If Trump keeps hemorrhaging support in Texas, that could also mean trouble for Cornyn, Jillson said.
“The other major Republican candidates ... are implicated by Trump’s fate,” Jillson said. “If he continues to stink the place up, that’s going to affect other Republican candidates, as well.
“Any vote that you subtract from your opponent is one that you don’t have to get yourself,” he added.
The last time the state had a Democratic senator was in 1993, but Hegar said Texans are ready for a change.
As a former Air Force helicopter pilot, Hegar said she’s used to looking at data for guidance. Cornyn’s approval rating is much lower than U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz’s was during his bid for reelection in 2018, she said.
The fact that O’Rourke came within 3 points of defeating Cruz bodes well for her own race, Hegar added.
“[Cornyn] is no Ted Cruz,” she said.
To increase her chances of winning, Hegar will need to attract Democratic voters who voted for her opponent in Tuesday’s race, Jillson said. West easily secured Dallas and Tarrant Counties, according to a New York Times database.
Although Hegar was expected to win the runoff, Jillson said it appears as though West, who is Black, got a boost in recent weeks thanks to the Black Lives Matter protests.
Hegar said her campaign has long fought for criminal justice reform and supports Campaign Zero, an American police reform organization. On top of working to ban the use of chokeholds within law enforcement, Hegar said she’d reform qualified immunity, a judicial doctrine that shields trigger-happy police from facing legal repercussions.
She also said she’d work for social justice reform, such as pushing to bridge the racial wage gap.
“I think that the problems with policing and our criminal justice system are really more symptoms of a deeper systemic racism that we have in this country,” she said. “If we don’t address all of those things, then we’re just going to be chipping away at it.”
Cornyn has faced criticism for his tone-deaf response to the Black Lives Matter protests following the killing of Houston native George Floyd by Minneapolis police. In a hearing last month, Cornyn seemed to doubt whether such incidents could be indicators of systemic racism within law enforcement, according to The Texas Tribune.
Hegar criticized her opponent’s track record on social justice in a June statement.
“If Senator Cornyn can’t even grasp the concept of systemic racism, there’s a 0% chance he’s equipped to legislate solutions to address racial injustice in America," she said.
A surge of minority and female candidates flooded Congress in 2018, prompting some political experts to dub it “The Year of the Woman.” Jillson said that so far, 2020 has seen a similar surge in female candidates.
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Texas has only had one other female senator: Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison, who served from 1993-2013. Hegar would make the state’s second female senator, and its first Democratic female senator.
Although Texas typically leans conservative, Jillson said Hegar’s gender will not likely impede her bid for Senate. Of the women who decide to run for office, he said around half are victorious, meaning that there’s not a baked-in bias against female candidates.
To win, Hegar will need to put her blinders on and “run like hell” through the finish line, Jillson said.
“If you’re the Democratic nominee for the United States Senate in Texas, all you can do is put your head down and run,” he said. “And the second week in November, you’ll look up and see whether you’re in the Senate.”