As Royce West Gets In, Let's Size Up Texas' Democratic Senate Field

Texas Sen. Royce West addresses a Dallas crowd in 2016.
Texas Sen. Royce West addresses a Dallas crowd in 2016. Mikel Galicia
Long-serving Dallas state Sen. Royce West is making a big announcement Monday morning. It's not much of a surprise, given that he's already filed campaign-finance documents, but West is running for U.S. Senate, hoping to take on incumbent Sen. John Cornyn in November 2020.

"(In past elections) it was like pulling teeth to find some sacrificial lamb to run against a Republican." — Mark Jones

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West will join a field that already includes former U.S. House candidate MJ Hegar, Houston City Council member Amanda Edwards and ex-U.S. House member and former gubernatorial candidate Chris Bell, from the Houston area. While the list of candidates is missing two big-name hopefuls — hope you enjoy Iowa and New Hampshire in winter, Julián Castro and Beto O'Rourke — it's much stronger than what's become the norm for Democrats in statewide races over the last decade and a half.

"(In past elections) it was like pulling teeth to find some sacrificial lamb to run against a Republican," Rice University political scientist Mark Jones says. "In contrast right now, we have three very credible candidates who are running and a fourth who is kind of credible — Chris Bell. All of them have different strengths."

West has the longest résumé, having served in the Legislature since the early '90s. Hegar has a national profile, thanks to her viral ads, near miss in 2018 and celebrity supporters. Edwards, according to Jones, might be the Goldilocks candidate, bringing with her Houston's strong Democratic voting base and sitting in between the more progressive Hegar and more moderate West ideologically. Bell, despite his time in Congress, has lost his last four elections.

"It's an interesting split. If you think in terms of identity politics, there are two big blocks (of Texas Democrats) that have multiple candidates representing them. Women represent about 60% of Democratic primary voters. So, you're going to have a substantial number of women out there who have two candidates. Amanda Edwards is going to be dividing that support with MJ Hegar," Jones says. "You also have African-Americans, who are going to be about 20-25% of the Democratic primary electorate, and you're going to have two candidates competing (for that bloc of voters) — Royce West and Amanda Edwards."

Stir in West and Edwards' hometowns with the fact that the Dallas and Houston areas usually make up about 25% of the vote in any Texas Democratic primary, and the battle lines along which the 2020 primary will be fought come into focus.

"MJ Hegar will likely attempt to appeal to the most ideological voters — particularly the Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Royce West and Amanda Edwards are going to be appealing more to the Biden voters, the Buttigieg voters and maybe some of the Kamala Harris voters," Jones says.

While it's hard to identify a clear favorite in the field as it currently exists, one thing in which Jones is confident is that, with West's decision, it's now officially too late for O'Rourke or Castro to jump out of the presidential race and into the Senate pool.

"One thing that Amanda Edwards and Royce West getting into the race has done is put the final nails into the coffin of any Castro or Beto Senate bid," Jones says. "It's one thing when you only have MJ Hegar and four-time loser Chris Bell in the race, then it's easier to slide in ... Effectively for Beto, he's had his chance. By continuing with his presidential bid, he's forfeited his right to effectively shove aside the field."
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Stephen Young has written about Dallas news for the Observer since 2014. He's a Dallas native and a graduate of the University of North Texas.
Contact: Stephen Young