EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was reported in collaboration the Texas Observer.
The last time US Senator John Cornyn was up for reelection in 2014, he skated to a third term with 62 percent of the vote—outperforming every other statewide GOP candidate on the ballot who had a contested election in Texas.
Six years later, Cornyn may as well be running in a different state.
Texas is now the biggest battleground state in the country. On Wednesday, top election analysts shifted Texas into their presidential “toss-up” column as the state leads the nation in early vote totals and many polls show President Donald Trump neck and neck with Democratic nominee Joe Biden. Cornyn has never faced a viable threat to his Senate seat; now, he faces a strong reelection challenge in an unprecedented and unfriendly political climate. The Republican in the White House is a political liability in Texas; turnout is expected to reach unprecedented heights; and his Democratic challenger, MJ Hegar, outraised him nearly three times over in the first half of October.
The transformation of Texas since Cornyn was last on the ballot is remarkable. Just 4.6 million Texans—a third of the state’s 14 million registered voters—turned out to vote in 2014. Mirroring the state’s population boom, Texas has added about 3 million new voters to the rolls since then. By the start of the second week of early voting, Texas had surpassed the entire 2014 vote total. By Thursday, about 8.4 million Texans had already turned out—marking 94 percent of the total 2016 vote. Nearly 2 million of those voters did not vote in the last presidential election, and turnout is sure to eclipse 2016 levels; some analysts are projecting that the final vote total will surpass 12 million.
Many of these new Texas voters are unfamiliar with Cornyn. The old-line Republican rose to power in the 1990s—first as a state Supreme Court justice and then as state attorney general—while the GOP took control of Texas. He ascended to the US Senate in 2002, following the rise of President George W. Bush. For the past two decades, Cornyn has quietly lurked in Washington, steadily climbing the ranks and eventually becoming Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell’s top lieutenant. Along the way, he’s become a master of political subservience, faithfully shapeshifting to fit the prevailing winds within his party—from the Tea Party to Trumpism.
While he has grown powerful during his 18 years in the US Senate, he is a fairly unknown entity in his home state. In early September, a poll from The Dallas Morning News and the University of Texas at Tyler found that more than a quarter of surveyed voters didn’t know enough about Cornyn to form an opinion. He acknowledged this weakness to reporters after voting early this week in Austin, saying, “Obviously it’s been six years since I was last on the ballot and there’s been a lot of changes in the state…and there are a lot of folks who, frankly, have not heard a lot about me.”
Hegar has aggressively gone after Cornyn for what she sees as his ineffectual leadership and political cowardice—often calling him a “bootlicker” who sold out Texans—while introducing herself to voters as an “ass-kicking” combat veteran and working mom who rides a Harley. As a former Republican voter who got involved in Democratic politics in the Trump era, she has tried to tap into the anti-Trump malaise that has moderates and independents—suburban women in particular—looking for an alternative to the GOP status quo. A Round Rock native, Hegar made a name for herself in her 2018 bid against Republican Congressman John Carter, becoming a viral fundraising sensation as she narrowly lost in the reliably red Central Texas district.
But while the presidential polls in Texas show Biden in contention against Trump, Hegar has struggled to make similar inroads against Cornyn. After emerging from a competitive March primary and July runoff that consumed time and resources, Hegar got off to a slow start and initially struggled to raise enough money to compete against Cornyn’s massive war chest. Then the pandemic halted the sort of in-person campaigning and rallies that fueled Beto O’Rourke’s magnetic 2018 run, forcing Hegar to ramp up a largely virtual statewide campaign. Cornyn still looks to have a fairly comfortable lead, and a New York Times poll this week showed Hegar trailing Cornyn by 10 percentage points, though most polls have her within single digits.
However, Hegar has brushed off the polls and insists the race is a tight one. She has hit a fundraising streak, repeatedly outraising Cornyn—a prolific cash-grabber in his own right—since July. While she hasn’t matched O’Rourke’s record-breaking fundraising hauls, she’s been aided in the home stretch by Democratic groups’ flooding money into the race. Most notably, a liberal super PAC financed by Silicon Valley tech titans who announced last-minute plans to spend, in partnership with a coalition of allied Democratic groups, as much as $28 million on ad buys supporting Hegar.
Now, Cornyn is trying to fend off a late-stage insurrection. He’s embarked on a road trip—with stops in College Station, Houston, and Tyler—in a sleek coach bus wrapped in a Texas flag graphic with his name and the words “Thoughtful. Leadership. For Texas.” plastered across it. Meanwhile his allied super PAC Texans for a Conservative Majority, which is bankrolled by Texas mega-donors, spent $6.5 million on ads attacking Hegar in the final weeks of October.
But there are additional hurdles for Cornyn. The suburbs that once formed the foundation of Texas Republicans’ statewide dominance are no longer reliably red as their populations grow and diversify. Trump has proven a potent accelerant for these shifts. As The New York Times found in its Texas poll, Trump is leading Biden by 4 points among likely voters. But Biden is doing exceedingly well in the suburbs, running 5 points ahead of Trump among voters in 12 competitive congressional districts—largely centered in affluent and diversifying neighborhoods across Texas. That’s a seismic shift from 2016, when Trump won those districts by 8 points. Most strikingly perhaps, Trump’s support among white college graduates has evaporated from a 24-point margin in 2016 to just 2 points in 2020, according to the Times.
Those numbers could drag down Cornyn too, if the electoral gag reflex to Trumpism extends past the top of the ticket. In an effort to maintain his edge, Cornyn has lobbed repeated attacks at his opponent, casting Hegar as a radical liberal who is beholden to Washington Democrats and hell-bent on defunding the police and destroying the state’s oil and gas industry. (Hegar supports the Campaign Zero platform for criminal justice reform and doesn’t support the Green New Deal.) Cornyn has pitched himself as a seasoned and sensible leader. Though he’s been a loyal foot soldier for Trump’s agenda, he claims that he’s privately voiced concerns on some matters. “What I tried to do is not get into public confrontations and fights with him because, as I’ve observed, those usually don’t end too well,” he said in an interview with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He said his relationship with the president is “maybe like a lot of women who get married and think they’re going to change their spouse, and that doesn’t usually work out very well.”
Despite the rosy projections for Democrats in the ’burbs, polls have shown that Biden may be struggling to galvanize the state’s large population of Hispanic voters—which Texas Democrats have long seen as the key to winning statewide elections. Though polling Latinx voters in Texas is always difficult and has been especially sketchy this year, some surveys have shown that Biden is underperforming among Hispanic voters. Biden leads Trump 57-34, according to the Times poll, a slight downturn from Hillary Clinton’s performance in 2016. Also, while early vote turnout has surged in the heavily Hispanic, deep-blue border regions of El Paso and the Rio Grande Valley, it’s still trailing the upswing in the big cities and surrounding suburbs.
In the final week before Election Day, Texas is abuzz with last-minute activity—on both the virtual and in-person fronts: Governor Greg Abbott is hitting the campaign trail and tapping into his political war chest to stave off a Democratic takeover of the Texas House. Kamala Harris has been dispatched to Fort Worth, Houston, and McAllen on the last day of early voting. That’s a minor nod to the persistent public prodding from top Texas Democrats for the campaign to make a strong play for the state.
There’s a long history of Democrats getting their hopes up about Texas, only to be crushed by the Republican machine. But that machine has functioned, in part, through repressive voting laws that have made Texas the most difficult state to vote in, resulting in a disengaged electorate and low turnout. That machine isn’t built for an election like this one, where turnout, at long last, is truly Texas-sized.