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Without Beto O'Rourke, Texas Senate primary is 'wide open'

Bridget Bowman, CQ-Roll Call on

Published in News & Features

Campaign strategists say there are five top candidates: Air Force veteran MJ Hegar, who ran unsuccessfully for the House in 2018; state Sen. Royce West; Houston City Council Member Amanda Edwards; progressive activist Cristina Tzintzun Ramirez; and former Rep. Chris Bell, who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2006. The field also includes Michael Cooper, who lost a close primary for lieutenant governor in 2018, and Sema Hernandez, who ran against O'Rourke in the 2018 primary and took 24 percent.

Hegar leads the field in fundraising, bringing in $2.1 million since launching her campaign in April. The other four top candidates have raised between $207,000 and $557,000.

End Citizens United, which backs candidates who support overhauling campaign finance laws, has endorsed Hegar. It's unclear whether other Democratic groups will take sides in the primary. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and abortion rights group EMILY's List have not yet endorsed in the race. EMILY's List is in touch with the Hegar, Edwards and Tzintzun Ramirez campaigns.

Democratic operatives don't expect one candidate to win more than 50% of the primary vote on March 3, meaning a May 26 runoff between the top two candidates is likely. Cornyn isn't expected to face a serious primary challenge. Two Republicans have filed with the FEC to challenge him, but neither has raised a significant amount of money.

Each Democratic candidate can draw on a different base of voters.

Hegar likely has higher name recognition in Austin and central Texas, where she ran in a close House race last year. West, who has the backing of a slew of Democratic elected officials, including Houston-are Rep. Al Green, has a base of voters in Dallas. Edwards and Bell have voting bases in Houston. Tzintzun Ramirez, whose team includes some veterans of O'Rourke's Senate campaign, is focused on energizing progressive activists, young voters and people of color.

 

With just a handful of candidate forums so far, the primary contenders have been circling each other, focusing on fundraising and traversing the state to boost their name recognition. Hegar has traveled 7,000 miles so far, according to a September campaign memo. Tzintzun Ramirez and West are also traveling to events across the state. West has roughly 20 fundraisers in November.

Some ideological divisions have started to emerge. Tzintzun Ramirez is thought of as the more liberal candidate, backing policies including "Medicare for All" and the Green New Deal. One of the first dividing lines came over O'Rourke's plan for a mandatory buyback program for assault-style weapons. Hegar doesn't support the plan, while Tzintzun Ramirez and Bell do, according to The Dallas Morning News.

O'Rourke faced an uphill climb when he launched his Senate campaign as well, since he was largely unknown outside El Paso, which is in a different time zone from the rest of the state. But recent polling and fundraising numbers show that he was faring better by this point than the current Democratic field. (He did not face a competitive primary.)

A University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll released Monday showed that the top Senate candidates' name recognition ranged from just 12% to 24 percent. Nearly 60% of Democratic voters did not know or had no opinion about whom they would support.

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