While most folks in the Texas Sports Hall of Fame Saturday evening were likely marveling at how McLennan County Democratic Party officials Mary Duty and Mary Mann landed seven of the nine Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate for the Ann Richards/Mae Jackson Dinner, I marveled that nine Democrats were even running for a shot at unseating longtime Republican Sen. John Cornyn. What’s more, most displayed campaign charisma or something sure close to it.
Question: Will that plus the hard work of rousing voters to actually vote be enough to flip Texas from red to blue in 2020? Certainly the fact nine candidates — including combat veteran MJ Hegar and veteran state Sen. Royce West — have thrown their hats in the ring suggests the Democratic Party is more optimistic than in decades. Republican President Trump’s consistent polling negatives are one factor. (At one point during the evening, he was dismissed as “meteorologist in chief” for his dueling hurricane forecasts with the National Weather Service.) And there’s the fact energetic Beto O’Rourke only narrowly lost to Republican Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018.
West and Hegar are the Democratic stars in this race. West, 66, an attorney with a statesman’s gravity, cited feats such as ensuring community college credit is accepted by four-year universities and pressing for teacher pay hikes last legislative session. Labeling Cornyn a “do-nothing senator,” West announced endorsements by Waco City Councilwoman Andrea J. Barefield, daughter of late Mae Jackson, the city’s first popularly elected African-American mayor, and County Commissioner Patricia Chisolm-Miller.
Hegar, 43, seasoned by her close 2018 run against Republican Congressman John Carter, talked movingly of the country she envisioned when she swore an oath against all enemies, foreign and domestic, as a 22-year-old Air Force recruit (she was a combat search-and-rescue and medevac pilot) — and, yes, she touted the present-day Republican Party as a domestic threat. At one point, Hegar told the crowd of a couple hundred folks that “I try to channel Ann Richards every time I’m on my Harley.”
The night’s surprise: Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, 37. As founder of Jolt, a nonprofit to better inform and involve Hispanics in civic affairs (including registering them to vote), she not only promises insights into the enigmatic Hispanic voter upon whom so many Democratic Party dreams have foundered, she represents the importance of Democrats not ceding Anglo voters to the Republicans: Her mother was the oldest of nine children from a farm-working family in southern Mexico; her dad, an Ohio entrepreneur of Irish ancestry. Their insights shaped her.
The rest of the pack had their moments. Chris Bell, 59, a congressman toppled by the ethically compromised (even by gerrymandering standards) 2003 redistricting do-over engineered by U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, recalled how his son one night sympathized for DeLay after the latter’s embarrassing turn on “Dancing with the Stars,” only to be scolded by his mom: “No, you will never be sorry for that son of a bitch for what he did to your father!”
Sema Hernandez, 34, talked of drawing a quarter-million votes (mostly in Hispanic-rich South Texas) on $4,000 in the 2018 primary race against Beto O’Rourke; Rev. Michael Cooper, 53, wearing a cowboy hat, stressed the importance of a reliable voice in D.C. “to represent everyone — not the chosen ones” — and voiced pride in his slogan: “Can Cornyn.” Adrian Ocegueda, 45, suggested if anything has caused some to ponder socialism, it’s the exclusionary policies of the Republican Party. He never acknowledged Democrats as socialists but polls suggest younger generations do contemplate it, given social inequities.
The Democratic field represents Texas demographically: Hegar and Bell are white; West and Cooper, black; Ramirez, Ocegueda and Hernandez, Hispanic. By contrast, Cornyn and possible challengers mirror only the Republican Party — white. As for issues, Democratic contenders more or less concur on immigration reform, health-care access, climate change and gun control.
No one should underestimate Cornyn. While he doesn’t arouse the radical GOP base as Cruz does, Cornyn’s rational tenor and interest in passing bills on key issues, often on a bipartisan basis, may well appeal to Texas suburbia in ways Cruz does not. Then again, Ramirez offers a stirring vision of other possibilities: If Democrats prevail in Texas and prove themselves in office, it could well determine the direction of the nation, given Texas’ outsized importance in elections and representation. Expect a 2020 campaign season statewide and nationally unlike any other. And be warned: This isn’t going to be pretty.