A Socially Distanced Senate Runoff Debate Finally Got MJ Hegar and Royce West to Throw Down

The race to choose a Democratic challenger to John Cornyn has been overshadowed by other news, but it finds the Texas Democratic Party bitterly divided.

MJ Hegar: Eric Gay/AP; Royce West: Tony Gutierrez/AP

It’s too bad the Democratic Senate runoff in Texas between MJ Hegar and Royce West has gotten buried by, you know, everything, because it tells an interesting story about where Texas Dems find themselves in 2020. The race is between two very different candidates, with very different claims to the support of the party’s base. If Monday’s debate is any indication, they won’t be getting a beer together when this is all over.

Hegar, 44, has an impressive personal story to tell, one that helped her become a national figure of sorts even as she lost her first race, for the U.S. House in 2018 against Representative John Carter, by a thin margin. She’s a former Air Force helicopter pilot who was wounded in action in Afghanistan and is a recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross. But she’s also never held elective office, and wasn’t active in the party until recently, which is something that means a lot to Texas Dem activists who’ve been slogging it out in the trenches for what feels like forever.

The blue wave that brought Democrats the U.S. House in 2018 relied in part on the support of college-educated white women who may have been Republican voters in the past but had come to despise Donald Trump. That’s Hegar, who voted in the Republican primary in 2016. (She says it was a protest vote against Trump, and that she voted for businesswoman Carly Fiorina.) The hope of appealing to those red-to-blue voters again is perhaps why Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer made clear early on that Hegar is his preferred candidate. Health-care issues have been a core part of her campaign, and she spoke at the debate about the possibility of working with Republicans on pharmaceutical pricing reforms.

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Royce West, meanwhile, is a veteran African American lawmaker from Dallas, a city critically important to Democrats. At age 67, he has been in the trenches. Too long, critics say, Hegar among them: as a lawyer in the state Senate, he’s traded on his influence in the way nearly all lawyers in the Lege do, profiting from government contracts and representing local governmental entities in the DFW area. But he also has real accomplishments under his belt, including passing important police reforms. He was a pivotal player in the long Democratic effort to flip Dallas County.

He was not somebody politicos talked about as a prospect for statewide office before 2019, when he announced his run: he had been around for too long. But West made it to the runoff, winning 14.5 percent to Hegar’s 22.3 percent in March in a huge candidate field. It’s a sore spot for West’s supporters that national Dems have embraced Hegar and treated West like chopped liver—partly, West’s supporters feel, because he’s black. But the renewed focus on racial inequity this summer may have offered a boost to West’s campaign, and he’s gotten endorsements lately from newspaper editorial boards, including those of the Houston Chronicle and the Dallas Morning News, and from other state Democrats, from left-wing firebrand Jim Hightower to moderate entrepreneur Andrew White, who failed in his 2018 bid for the Democratic nomination for governor.

Until recently, the contest between Hegar and West has for the most part revolved around pretty facile messaging: Hegar as the fresh face seeking to upend the establishment, and West as the experienced lawmaker who can get results. That, in fact, is what played out in their debate on Monday night, hosted by a local Austin TV news station. The two joined from remote studios, which at least prevented them from coming to blows when, twenty minutes in, things took an unexpected turn. The moderator asked the candidates to ask a question of one another. This type of challenge is designed to pry some spontaneity from candidates. Surprisingly, this time, it worked.

Hegar asked West to identify some subjects on which they agreed. That’s a pretty nifty way of answering the question: she was essentially asking him to compliment her on how right she was on certain issues. West then turned to Hegar and asked why she donated money to Republican opponent John Cornyn in 2011, and why she voted in the Republican primary in 2016.

Hegar’s switch flipped on. “I’m disappointed. I think this is why people tune out from politics and why they are really tired, why we have low voter turnout. You know that that’s not true and you’re intentionally misleading voters,” she said.

In fact, both things West said are true. It’s the context Hegar objects to. “I donated $25 to John Cornyn because I couldn’t get a meeting with him if I wasn’t on his donor list,” she said. At the time, she was advocating for a change to a Pentagon rule that excluded women from ground combat roles. “It’s disgusting that you should have to write a check for $25 to get a meeting with your representative. It’s a broken system. It’s a system you’re a part of,” she said, pointing her finger at the screen.

“We have corruption, we have money in politics, we have politicians, frankly like you, Royce, who have become millionaires in office, who have spent their time legislating in their own best interests,” she said. “I’m done with it, I’m tired with it, and so is Texas.”

West straightened up. “Ah. Now we get the real MJ Hegar out. Do I have an opportunity to respond?”

“People have a right to know that you voted in the Republican primary,” West continued. And then, on the question of his relative prosperity, he replied, “I’m from the projects of Dallas. And if you’re taking a shot at me because I’ve been a successful lawyer, providing jobs to people in my community, then take that shot. I have no problems with that.”

The bitterness continued into the end of the debate: at one point, Hegar’s charges caused West to burst into laughter, and Hegar’s closing statement implicated West in the “condescension of career politicians” who told her that her time “bleeding for our constitution in foreign lands” and her work as a mother didn’t count as “experience.” All told, it was a remarkable eruption of fireworks for a race that’s been slept on by nearly everybody.

A $25 donation to Cornyn doesn’t mean much, surely. But a lot of Democrats will doubtless prick up their ears at Hegar’s 2016 Republican primary vote. That’s a strange election for a Democrat to have crossed over for: Democrats who vote in GOP primaries usually do so when there’s nothing of consequence happening on their side of the aisle, but there was an ongoing, heated Democratic presidential primary in 2016. The idea that Hegar can appeal to crossover voters in the general is the whole theory of her campaign, however, and the reason national Dems want her to win. But that’s not something she can articulate too strongly in the Democratic primary while competing for Democrats’ votes.

Just the same, it’s a little strange to condemn West as the Establishment in such strident terms. In some ways, to be sure, he is: he’s a fixture of the Lege with all that entails. But he’s been there for a lot of Democratic fights over the years—including during the Wendy Davis filibuster over a restrictive abortion bill. And while West may not be radical, his election certainly would be. In the unlikely event he beat John Cornyn—though the senator’s approval rating rating is low at 37 percent, a poll in May put him ahead of both potential challengers by more than ten points—he would be just the fifth African American man elected to the U.S. Senate since Reconstruction, and he would be the first black statewide official in Texas.

“John Cornyn is the person who won tonight,” Hegar said in her closing statement. “Because we’re allowing them to divide us.” But anyone watching would agree that the candidates didn’t seem to need any outside help.

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