Led by MJ Hegar, Texas Democrats field formidable ticket in runoffs

Hegar to headline Democratic ticket

Powered by historic turnout, Texas Democrats on Tuesday finally reached closure on a slew of contested primaries across the state as unofficial results were tallied in the Democratic primary runoff.

In the headline matchup, Air Force veteran MJ Hegar secured the Democratic Party’s nomination to face off with incumbent Sen. John Cornyn in November. Hegar bested State Sen. Royce West of Dallas, with the results Wednesday morning showing Hegar with just over 52 percent to West’s 48 percent.

Initial returns signaled a tight race between Hegar and West. The veteran legislator dominated in Dallas and Tarrant Counties, hoping to ride his home base to a victory. Despite a narrow victory in Harris County, Hegar’s strength in central and rural Texas proved to be too potent to overcome.

The fall general election matchup with Cornyn continues to solidify its status as a race to watch in the battle for control of the U.S. Senate. Cornyn is still largely unknown in the state despite decades in elected office, and Donald Trump’s recent polling woes could spell danger for Big John against a younger and more energetic Hegar, who at this point has proven her ability to capture suburban voters’ imagination. 

Be on the lookout for this Senate race to become an expensive and bruising affair. The DSCC and Emily’s List, who spent heavily to boost Hegar in the primary, endorsed her candidacy and likely see opportunity in the biggest swing state.

Progressives roll in congressional primaries

In the two biggest congressional runoffs on the Democratic side, progressives scored two big wins as Candace Valenzuela routed retired Air Force Colonel Kim Olson in the 24th District runoff, and Mike Siegel easily bested Pritesh Gandhi in the badly gerrymandered 10th. 

This sets the stage for two potentially huge races for Democrats as they look to protect and grow their majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. Valenzuela now enters an open seat race against former Irving Mayor Beth Van Duyne, and reporters were abuzz Tuesday night about polling from the DCCC that shows Valenzuela with a lead.

The victory over Olson is notable for a number of reasons, not least of which being that Olson finished first by a substantial margin in the March primary. Olson was also Team Blue’s nominee for Agriculture Commissioner in 2018 and gave Sid Miller quite the scare, but endorsements from Emily’s List, the Congressional Black Caucus and Congressional Hispanic Caucus, as well as a slew of national elected officials like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, helped boost Valenzuela down the stretch.

The implications of this race are historic: if Valenzuela wins in November, she’ll be the first Afro-Latina elected to Congress.

In the sprawling 10th district, 2018 nominee Siegel is back for a rematch with the wealthiest member of Congress, Mike McCaul. You may remember Siegel as the candidate that scared the living daylights out of McCaul in 2018, nearly knocking off the longtime incumbent. In his quest for a rematch, Sen. Bernie Sanders-backed Siegel easily dispensed with Dr. Pritesh Gandhi, who ran a strong campaign and many Travis County Democrats feel he has a big future.

Uncertainty looms in SD 14 special 

In the race to replace retired state Sen. Kirk Watson in the Travis County-based 14th Senate District, former Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt opened up a commanding lead over state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez on Tuesday night but appears to have fallen just short of the 50 percent threshold to avoid a runoff.

Rodriguez’s camp is out with an email this morning saying that he’s staying in the race, and while there are still a large number of mail ballots to count, several sources in Travis County told Signal this morning that no one is particularly thrilled at the prospect of a prolonged runoff in this race after the campaign became largely negative throughout the duration.

If elected, Eckhardt will be just the third Democratic woman currently serving in the Texas Senate and would be the first woman to hold the coveted Austin area seat. Her resignation as County Judge has set off an interesting race for that office, which we’ll be covering in more detail in the near future.

Should the runoff commence, we expect this race to remain heated. To the winner goes the opportunity to serve in the Pink Dome during the 2021 legislative session, and if Tuesday’s turnout is any indication, Texas Democrats have to feel good about their prospects to recapture the State House majority and make other gains across the state, leading to a high stakes session.

Lucio escapes progressive challenge

Noted conservative Democratic Senator Eddie Lucio, Jr. managed to turn back the stiffest challenge of his political career in the runoff against Sara Stapleton-Barrera, 53 to 46 percent. 

Lucio and his son, State Rep. Eddie Lucio III, pulled out all the stops in deploying their once-fabled political operation in South Texas.

Stapleton-Barrera impressed Democrats across the state, and her performance coupled with that of Jessica Cisneros in the March Primary shows that this region is growing younger and more progressive by the day. 

Travis County goes all-in on criminal justice reform

Elsewhere in races we were keeping tabs on, reformers rolled to massive victories in the races for district and county attorney in Travis County. Austin will now be represented by a new generation of leaders in those offices after Jose Garza dominated incumbent DA Margaret Moore in the District Attorney race, and Austin Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza won the race for county attorney by a sizable margin over Laurie Eiserloh.

The two reformers focused their campaigns on their community ties and grassroots engagement as the county continues to grapple with issues over police misconduct and criminal justice reform.

Republicans in open seats finalize their candidates

In Texas’ 22nd Congressional District near Houston, Fort Bend County Sheriff Troy Nehls handily defeated the almost entirely self-funded campaign of Kathaleen Wall.

Nehls’ record as sheriff, long-criticized even before his run for office (he is best known for bringing down the law against a Fort Bend woman and her evocative anti-Trump truck decal sticker) will once again be brought under scrutiny as his race against Democrat Sri Preston Kulkarni kicks off to replace retiring Rep. Pete Olson.

In another open seat in Texas’s 23rd congressional district, Trump-backed Navy veteran Tony Gonzales narrowly defeated Ted Cruz-backed Air Force veteran Raul Reyes. The race grew particularly heated in its final moments, including the Trump campaign sending an incorrectly spelled cease and desist to the Reyes campaign for misleading voters about who the president endorsed. 

Gina Ortiz Jones, Reyes’ Democratic opponent who cruised to victory in her Super Tuesday primary, has emerged from the Republican contest unscathed and with significant amounts of cash. In 2018, her bid to unseat the now-retiring Rep. Will Hurd in the massive congressional district spanning from El Paso to San Antonio failed by less than 1,000 votes — suggesting one of the easiest Democratic pickups of this election cycle. 

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