On Thursday, Senator John Cornyn voted for himself in Austin and then hit the road for a preelection get-out-the-vote tour, focusing on cities in redder parts of Texas. His first stop was in College Station, at the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library, harking back to the Texas GOP of yore. Cornyn spoke from the open-air top deck of his double-decker bus to a respectful crowd of a few dozen, an act that recalled Harry Truman orating from the back of a train on his whistle-stop tours.
The Senate race this year in Texas between Cornyn and Democrat MJ Hegar has frequently seemed anachronistic. The presidential library where Cornyn, 68, spoke is the home of the literal tomb of H.W., who was president when the future senator first won statewide office, a seat on the Texas Supreme Court, in 1990. Joining Cornyn at the rally was former governor Rick Perry, spry as ever at seventy in a boyish Texas A&M sweatshirt, who won his first statewide office the same year. With them was former congressman Pete Sessions, the baby of the group at 65, who first ran for Congress in 1991. (He’s running again this year in a new district after losing to a Democrat in 2018.) Not present: any of the eccentric pro-Trump activists who have been seeding the state this year.
Hegar is a bit retro, too. While Democrats elsewhere on the ballot have conducted a no-holds-barred blitz—mounting vigorous challenges even for seats on the Railroad Commission and the Texas Supreme Court—Hegar has lagged in fund-raising, consistently trailed Cornyn in the polls, and offered a campaign message that seems, at times, reminiscent of the ones Democrats ran in 2012 and 2014.
Cornyn has long been seen as one of the most boring politicians in Texas, an old-school Republican with off-the-shelf politics who keeps out of the news. Since 2002, he’s been a reliable team player for the GOP in the Senate, a Mitch McConnell–type figure who prefers the inside game to the spotlight, unlike his junior colleague Ted Cruz. At times, his team has tried to pep up his image, as with the widely ridiculed video “Big John,” which introduced him at the 2008 state Republican convention. The attempts at a makeover have had a limited effect. By the time Cornyn began his 2020 reelection bid he had held statewide office for three decades, but more than a quarter of Texans polled either seemed not to know who he was or expressed no feelings about his record. He was no more popular among the party’s base: when he showed up at the state convention, he was often booed.
But in a sense, what made Cornyn so boring—his longevity and relative stoicism—has made him interesting again. Cornyn is the senior statesman of the Republican Party of Texas, a survivor who has outlasted several discrete eras in Texas conservatism in part because it isn’t particularly clear what he believes. And what’s more, he’s one of a handful of elected officials in the party who ran and won in the years when the Texas Democratic party was still dominant. (The year he landed a seat on the Supreme Court, Ann Richards won the Governor’s Mansion.)
If Cornyn secures another term, as the polls suggest he will, in a year in which Texas Democrats made big gains elsewhere on the ballot, he could even be pointing to a possible future for Texas Republicans: a return to the past. Cornyn is exactly as partisan as he’s always been—a steadfast party soldier who’s fought to repeal the Affordable Care Act without coming up with a replacement plan and to pack courts with Federalist Society judges—but he’s kept his tone a bit more moderate than his deeds.
At a stop in Plano on Friday, Cornyn laid out his final and best case for another six years of John Cornyn. “My closing argument,” he told a local TV news reporter, is “Who do you believe is best suited to help rebuild this incredible economy we had before COVID-19 hit?”
Hegar’s campaign has been lackluster, but that doesn’t mean she can’t win. She has the best shot of any Democrat Senate candidate since 1988, Beto O’Rourke aside. If the blue wave is tall enough, she might become the first Democratic statewide official in decades.
But Hegar has often failed to take advantage of Democratic enthusiasm. For one, her public statements have ensured that a major story line in the otherwise uneventful race is a feud with her runoff opponent, state senator Royce West from Dallas. West is one of Texas’s most prominent Black Democrats, a presence in the state Senate since 1993 and an instrumental figure in the party’s flipping of Dallas County in the 2000s. When West seemed to have a shot at winning the runoff, Hegar went nuclear, accusing him of congenital and wide-ranging corruption.
It may have helped Hegar win the nomination, but she never patched up the rift—a strange thing, given the importance of Black voters, and Dallas voters more generally, to her election chances. When asked at a debate with Cornyn in June whether she had sought West’s endorsement, Hegar again essentially called him corrupt, saying that he would have extorted her. She then predicted West would vote for her anyway. “I’m not voting for her,” West quickly clarified to the Austin American-Statesman, calling her “crazy.”
Many Texas Democrats privately grumble about Hegar’s campaign—first, the fact that she was anointed early on by national Democrats such as Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer, and, second, that the campaign has been directed and run by out-of-staters instead of Texans. (Preston Elliott, Hegar’s campaign manager, is probably best known for running Jon Tester’s 2012 Senate campaign in Montana.)
There are a lot of unhelpful factors beyond Hegar’s control. Democratic donors and strategists don’t see the Texas Senate race as a prime opportunity. Donors are much more interested in trying to elect Democrats in Senate races where the fundamentals are more competitive, such as in Iowa or Maine, or in attempting to take out hated Republicans, such as Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham. And it’s not Hegar’s fault that Senate Democrats missed an opportunity to damage Cornyn by putting him on the hot seat during the confirmation hearings for Amy Coney Barrett. (Cornyn’s prickly behavior during the Kavanaugh hearings received wide attention.)
But ultimately Hegar is responsible for her own destiny. In 2018, she leaped into contention in a congressional race against Republican John Carter with a viral video that featured her military record and toughness. It was a powerful introduction to a candidate whom few had heard of. But, two years later, she still seems to be trying to bottle that same magic. This year, Hegar’s ads, which have often featured imagery of her on a motorcycle, portray her as a “disrupter” taking on D.C. corruption, but rarely does she offer a position on anything more controversial than “affordable health care.” Both campaigns have been premised on a certain kind of blandness, in a year with no shortage of what Ted Cruz, paraphrasing Ronald Reagan, calls “bold contrasts and bright colors.” On Tuesday night at least, one of them will have to shine.