Republican Sen. John Cornyn won reelection Tuesday night in Texas, where Democrats for the second time in two years had momentum and mountains of money to mount a U.S. Senate challenge but not the votes to end decades of losses.
Cornyn’s victory came in the face of uncommon headwinds for Republicans in Texas – even more so than in 2018, when former Democratic congressman Beto O’Rourke barnstormed in a minivan across America’s biggest red state and came within 3 points of beating Sen. Ted Cruz.
Cornyn defeated Democrat MJ Hegar, a motorcycle-riding Air Force veteran with tattoos covering shrapnel wounds from her helicopter getting shot down in Afghanistan. She campaigned as a middle-of-the-road fighter and said she became a Democrat over the last decade after twice voting against President Barack Obama.
She had courted not just rejuvenated Texas Democrats – who had their sights on their first statewide victory in 26 years – but also sought to appeal to frustrated Republicans. But Hegar, who narrowly lost a U.S. House race in 2018, struggled to get her name out to voters, a task made harder by the pandemic. Her race was also drowned out nationally by hotly contested Senate challenges elsewhere, as Democrats prioritized other GOP incumbents seen as more vulnerable than Cornyn.
“Together, we stood up and got to work, building a powerful grassroots campaign from the ground up, shattering voter turnout records, and most importantly sending a message to a previously safe Senator that he answers to us,” Hegar said in a statement. “I am confident that the work we did will move our state forward for years to come.”
Cornyn, one of the GOP’s Senate leaders, attacked Hegar as too liberal and also sought to damage her support among Black voters by highlighting how of her primary challengers, state Sen. Royce West, said he wouldn’t vote for her.
But Cornyn still faced the toughest reelection of his 18 years in the Senate after a career of easy victories. Hegar raked in more money than Cornyn down the stretch and accused him of minimizing the danger of the pandemic in a state where more than 17,000 people have died from COVID-19. Among her most frequent rally lines was calling him a “spineless bootlicker” beholden to Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Cornyn denied that that he was edging away from Trump as the race tightened. But he also told the Houston Chronicle edtorial board that Trump “let his guard down” after the president was diagnosed with COVID-19 last month.
Democrats haven’t won a Senate race in Texas since 1988 and won’t get an opportunity again until 2024, when Cruz is up for reelection but also might look at making another run for president.
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