Ryan J. Rusak

Here’s why a primary fight to take on John Cornyn is just what Texas Democrats need

Sen. Cornyn says he’s learned from Beto’s 2018 campaign and ‘expects to be ready’ in 2020

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn talks about the prospect of facing Beto O'Rourke while seeking re-election in 2020. O'Rourke has not announced if he’s running for office next year.
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U.S. Sen. John Cornyn talks about the prospect of facing Beto O'Rourke while seeking re-election in 2020. O'Rourke has not announced if he’s running for office next year.

Texas Democrats don’t have a candidate to take on Sen. John Cornyn.

They have seven — and counting.

The field is diverse in age, race, political experience and geographic base. But already, there’s hand-wringing that a divisive primary will end in a protracted runoff, cripple the eventual nominee and leave him or her unable to raise money or voter interest.

That’s certainly possible. But it could also be seen as a sign of strength for a party finally emerging from decades of statewide slumber.

Texas Democrats last won a Senate election in 1988, but they came close last year, when Beto O’Rourke finished within a few points of Sen. Ted Cruz. Too often in recent campaigns, they’ve tried to rely on big-name hopefuls pulling off a miracle rather than building a deep bench that would eventually produce stronger candidates across the board.

Think Wendy Davis and Bill White for governor. Think of the desperation to pull the Castro twins into a statewide race. Think of the so-called “dream team” of 2002, which offered the insulting premise of a slate that should be elected because it included one white, one black and one Hispanic candidate for the top three offices.

These have been effective at drawing the attention of national political reporters who are constantly convinced that Texas Democrats are one superstar away from turning the state blue. But attracting Texas voters? Not so much.

The leading candidates to take on Cornyn so far are: Chris Bell, a former congressman who was the party’s 2006 nominee for governor; Amanda Edwards, a Houston City Council member; MJ Hegar, a military veteran who nearly toppled a veteran Republican congressman in Central Texas last year; Sema Hernandez, a Houston activist who took 24% of the primary vote against O’Rourke in 2018; and Royce West, a longtime state senator from Dallas.

A robust debate among several legitimate candidates is the product of a healthier party. Don’t take my word for it. Marco Rosas Jr., executive director of the Tarrant County Democratic Party, pointed out that the three offices the party picked up locally last year all followed competitive primaries.

“Texas Democrats are getting better at coming out of contested primaries and still being able to stand together, not taking our toys and going home,” he said.

Rosas is a veteran of the once-sputtering effort to elevate Texas Democrats to competitiveness. Over the last few years, he’s seen Tarrant go from the state’s largest solidly Republican county to O’Rourke narrowly winning it. Now, it’s seen as a key battleground if Democrats are to have any chance to beat Cornyn.

He can’t, of course, endorse a candidate. But he makes clear that the local party’s fate and that of the nominee are intertwined. He needs a Senate hopeful who will invest in turning out the vote in Tarrant County and visit often. O’Rourke, he said, first came here a year and a half before Election Day -- and kept coming back.

“That’s what it takes to turn Tarrant County blue,” he said.

Nationally, Democrats are having the kind of ideological battle that parties out of power often do, and the ultra-progressive base could pull the party far to the left as it tries to oust President Donald Trump. Texas Democrats need to have a say in where the party lands, and an engaged Senate primary is a natural way to do it.

One frequently cited concern is that a primary will draw away resources that could be used against Cornyn, a three-term incumbent who’s never lost a statewide race.

But a spirited primary that ends with energy around the process could just as easily help the nominee get more attention and thus more money. Democrats have excelled at raising funds from smaller donors in recent years - after all, no one would have predicted that O’Rourke would take in more than any Senate candidate in history, but he did.

Cornyn is not Cruz. He doesn’t inspire the same revulsion among Democrats (and, frankly, some Republicans). He’s not nearly as vulnerable, and he’s taking his race seriously. He’s not likely to lose.

Democrats, though, see an incumbent who doesn’t inspire much passion and a growing Democratic base that will turn out strongly in hopes of taking down Trump. Rosas said he’s confident that 2020 — or 2022, at the latest — will show that the painstaking party-building work of the last several years has paid off.

A robust field of Senate candidates is one indication that he could be right.

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Ryan J. Rusak is opinion editor of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He grew up in Benbrook and is a TCU graduate. He spent more than 12 years as a political journalist, overseeing coverage of four presidential elections and several sessions of the Texas Legislature. He lives in east Fort Worth.
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