Tuesday, September 08, 2020

Race of the Day- Texas U.S. Senate

Texas U.S. Senate

56 Days Until Election Day

Status: Republican Incumbent
2016 Presidential Result: Red State (South)

Outlook: Leans Republican

As political junkies know, Texas has not voted for a Democrat at the Presidential level since 1976. Even more eye-opening than that is that the state has not voted for a Democrat in any state since 1994, and have not won a truly competitive race statewide since 1990. Many expect this will change... eventually, as Texas grows in its share of population of African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans, and also now upscale suburbanites. In 2016, Donald Trump's winning margin in the state, while still nine points, was down seven points from the winning margin of Mitt Romney in 2012. Two years later, Democrat Beto O'Rourke held first term GOP Senator Ted Cruz to a mere three point victory while down the ballot, Democrats picked up a handful of suburban Congressional districts from Republicans.

Statewide though, it is well to remember that "moral victories" in politics do not translate into much more than that. Will 2020 be the year that a Democrat wins the state's Electoral Votes and with it a near certainty of victory for the party? Will it be the year that a Democrat knocks off a once unassailable GOP Senate incumbent? Neither is out of the question at the moment, but the former seems a bit more possible than the latter. Democrats across the country and in Texas would take that deal. Of course, the party needs not to carry Texas to win either the White House or Senate. It just would make this political year look like a tremendous repudiation of Trumpism.

John Cornyn was elected statewide to the Texas Supreme Court and then as the state's Attorney General before his initial election to the Senate in 2002. In that Senate victory and his two reelections, he has never received less than 55 percent of the vote or anything other than a double digit victory. In the Senate, Cornyn has risen to be the number two Republican and has amassed a solidly conservative voting record. Still, he has managed to avoid too much in the way of negative headlines or controversy by being fairly low-key and civil in his dealings on Capitol Hill. For that reason, a good deal of movement conservatives in the state have taken issue with him and far prefer the hard charging style of the state's junior Senator, Ted Cruz.

The respect that Cornyn had in the Senate led to discussion of him being named as FBI Director after Donald Trump fired James Comey. At the time, even many Republicans agreed that as much as they respected Cornyn, it would be a bad idea to have someone so associated with politics in that position. Times have changed since then, as Trump nominees in the Executive Branch have been expected to show loyalty and Legislative Branch Republicans have become far less likely to complain. The controversies that engulf Trump on a consistent basis are pretty much the main reason why Cornyn might be remotely vulnerable in this cycle.  The Senate Majority Whip has tried to carefully sidestep Trump on some matters but for the most part has been expected to demonstrate loyalty to the incumbent President's agenda and defend him personally. A serious primary challenge against Cornyn did not emerge this cycle (he had to defeat a gadfly former Congressman six years earlier), but still 24 percent of Texas Republicans voted for someone else in March.

After coming fairly close in 2018, Democrats looked for a chance to take out Cornyn, although they conceded he would be a tougher target than Ted Cruz. Beto O'Rourke, now a former Congressman, decided he would rather mount what would be a disappointing campaign for President than run for the Senate, and when that attempt came to an end, he would not be persuaded to jump in against Cornyn. The same can be said of former HUD Secretary Julian Castro who took the same routes, as well as his twin brother Congressman Joaquin Castro, who probably figured that there would be enough confusion this cycle between him and his brother.

Instead, Texas Democrats did what their brethren in Kentucky did and sought to gather backing behind a female war veteran and pilot who ran but ultimately lost competitive Congressional races in 2018. In the Lone Star State, that is Air Force veteran and Afghan War veteran MJ Hegar. A nominal Republican until the nomination of Trump, Hegar ran for political office for the first time in 2018 and was a serious competitor to GOP Congressman John Carter, who had never had a difficult race, and in what had been a solidly Republican district. In some districts, Democrats won suburban areas, but here, Carter hung on to defeat Hegar 51-48, a margin nearly identical to Cruz's statewide win over O'Rourke.

Having been convinced to take her political identity statewide, Hegar would not have the Democrats' primary field to herself. A slew of candidates was also on the March ballot, which most claiming to be a more progressive Democrat. Hegar would place first with 22 percent, nearly eight points ahead of Royce West, one of the top ranking State Senators in his party, and an African-American, 24 years her senior. A young Latina labor organizer came in third with 13 percent.

The runoff would not be until July and in theory it seemed possible that supporters of the more left-wing candidates would gravitate to West, as he went about trying to portray himself as a more loyal Democrat. There were ethical concerns though about the State Senator during his long time in politics and the DSCC was all in on Hegar, liking her biography and appeal to suburban Republican women. Those type of voters, many of whom had joined Hegar in becoming Democrats likely made the difference as she won the runoff 52-48.

Every poll in this race has continued to show Cornyn ahead of Hegar, but by underwhelming margins and with many undecided voters. The most recent poll, just released today, shows the incumbent's lead at 44-40. That same survey shows the Trump-Biden contest statewide is even closer. There are definitely going to be some Biden/Cornyn voters but virtually none for Trump/Hegar. If she is to pull off what would be a major upset, Hegar will need to hope for every strong turnout and enthusiasm for Democrats across the board in Texas. She will also need to win a large amount of the undecided vote, which may be disaffected Republicans (putting aside the folks on the right who distrust Cornyn), who may come home to vote for the Senator at the end, especially if the thinking is that Democrats will win the Presidency and a Republican Senate would be needed for balance.

The fundamentals of this race favor Cornyn and the Republicans but it will be a more difficult challenge than he faced before. While Republicans made gains in the Rust Belt in 2016 under Trump, a hugely underreported story is how the party has decreased in strength in a one time Sunbelt monolith like Texas due to Trump and what that might mean for future elections. Latinos are a big part of the picture and some are even starting to speculate that Florida. a state with many Latinos as well, may be more Republican than Texas in the near future. When George W. Bush was Governor of Texas and President, he won very strong support for a Republican among Texas Hispanics, but those days seem to be gone. For now, the GOP will probably hold on and continue it's winning streak, at least at the Senate level.

U.S. Senate races predicted thus far:

15 D (6 Safe, 3 Likely, 3 Lean, 3 Tossup) 
17 R (6 Safe, 4 Likely, 5 Lean, 2 Tossup)

Total with predictions thus far:

50 Democrats (35 holdovers, 6 Safe, 3 Likely, 3 Lean, 3 Tossup)
47 Republicans (30 holdovers, 6 Safe, 4 Likely, 5 Lean, 2 Tossup)


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