Bud Kennedy

John Cornyn has the Senate race wrapped up. Or does he? Dems predict ‘record numbers’

Texas Democrats think they can defeat U.S. Sen. John Cornyn in 2020, and I’m not sure why.

Far more Texans like Cornyn, a former San Antonio judge and Texas attorney general, than U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, a former Houston lawyer,

Even liberal Texans like Cornyn more than Cruz. And Cruz still won in 2018 over the $80 million campaign of then-U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke.

Texas has changed since then. But not much.

The state used to be reliably 50% Republican, 40% Democratic. Now it’s 48%-42% Republican, according to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

But that’s no reason to think Cornyn might lose.

Unless you’re, say, state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas.

The Cruz-O’Rourke race wasn’t a one-off, West said: “I think it’s more of a political trend.”

“I think with (President) Donald Trump on the ticket, there will be record numbers of votes,” West said.

“And I think those votes will cut against the Republicans.”

He will announce next week whether he will challenge Cornyn.

West and Houston Democrat Chris Bell, already in the race, are guests at 9 a.m. Sunday on WFAA/Channel 8’s “Inside Texas Politics.”

Round Rock Democrat MJ Hegar, a close loser in 2018 in a Central Texas congressional race, is also running against Cornyn.

West didn’t say much about Bell (“Who?”) or Hegar (“Mmmmkay.”).

He talked about how he wants the Senate to “build bridges” instead of staying in the “red corner or the blue corner.”

(That sounds like a 26-year Texas senator talking. The Texas Senate can’t debate any legislation without at least a 60 percent consensus.)

And he talked about money.

Cornyn has $7.5 million in the bank with another report coming within days.

“Part of that deliberation process (about running) is also about whether you can raise the money to get it done,” West said.

Bell, a former congressman and gubernatorial candidate who lost the 2006 election to Gov. Rick Perry by a respectable 400,000 votes, focused his comments squarely on Trump.

President Donald Trump, right, listens as Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas) speaks during a meeting with bipartisan members of Congress on school and community safety in the Cabinet Room of the White House on Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018, in Washington, D.C. Oliver Contreras TNS

“I’ve been very disappointed that John Cornyn has basically become a waterboy for Donald Trump,” Bell said, saying that Texas should be leading the way to solve national issues.

Bell, Hegar and West can talk.

But that doesn’t change practical politics in Texas, two local political science professors said.

“It’s still pretty unlikely Senator Cornyn will lose,” political science Chair Rebecca Deen of the University of Texas at Arlington wrote by email.

She cited Cornyn’s strong fund-raising and lack of any active opposition or rallying point.

“He’s a pretty even-keeled, low-key figure” with money and a winning history, wrote associate professor Matthew Wilson of Southern Methodist University.

Also, this is Texas’ first campaign without straight-party ticket voting at the top of the ballot.

In past years, Democrats would count on rallying straight-ticket votes against a Republican president.

But Trump is popular in Texas, and his favorability rating even went up in the last University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll.

In 2020, for the first time, voters will cast ballots line-by-line. So an independent voter who can’t stand Trump or the Democratic nominee will still have to make a separate decision on Cornyn and other downballot candidates.

Republicans may win back some of the seats they lost in 2018 to straight-ticket voting for O’Rourke.

On the other hand, Democrats may win other seats in predominantly Republican areas if they have a more likable or better-known candidate.

Deen, the UT Arlington professor, doesn’t see much changing.

Texas’ voter turnout is awful. So voters “likely had their candidates picked out ahead of time” anyway, she said.

It still comes down to who’s more popular, or better-known, or has the most money.

So far, that’s still John Cornyn.

Columnist Bud Kennedy is a Fort Worth guy who covered high school football at 16 and has moved on to two Super Bowls, seven political conventions and 16 Texas Legislature sessions. First on the scene of a 1988 DFW Airport crash, he interviewed passengers running from the burning plane. He made his first appearance in the paper before he was born: He was sold for $600 in the adoption classifieds.