John Cornyn and M.J. Hegar’s fight for Texas’ Senate Seat


John Cornyn’s official Senate portrait (Left) and M.J. Hegar (Right). Source: Wikimedia Commons

Jake Risch

While presidential candidates Joe Biden and Donald Trump battle it out in an unusually contested race for Texas’ thirty-eight Electoral College votes, another surprisingly close race rages on in the background. The two candidates, Republican incumbent John Cornyn and Democratic challenger M.J. Hegar, are both vying for one of Texas’ Senate seats.

M.J. Hegar is a retired Air Force veteran who served three tours in Afghanistan. In 2012 she joined a suit against the U.S. Secretary of Defense to overturn the Combat Exclusion Policy, which prohibits women from active combat. The lawsuit failed, though the policy was repealed shortly after. In 2018, Hegar ran for Congress in Texas’ 31st district. She received the Democratic nomination but lost the general election to incumbent John Carter.

In 2019, Hegar announced that she would seek the Democrat nomination to run for a Senate seat against Republican incumbent John Cornyn. She came in first in the March 3 primary election with 22.37% of the votes and picked up a majority to win the July 14 runoff election against Texas State Senator Royce West and become the Democratic nominee.

Hegar’s campaign has focused heavily on healthcare — more specifically, the Affordable Care Act. “That [Medicare] kind of high-quality care should be made available to all Americans” said Hegar, who supports creating a public healthcare option similar to the ACA. In this vein, she also supports allowing Medicare to negotiate with private companies for lower pharmaceutical prices, and opposes “any effort to privatize, dismantle or undercut Medicare,” according to her campaign website.

Her stance on Medicare, however, seemed unsure when Hegar, distancing herself from more progressive Democrats, said, “ I don’t support Medicare for all. I don’t support the Green New Deal. I don’t support…wiping out all student loan debt.” Hegar could simply mean that she disagrees with the Medicare for All plan championed by progressives like Senator Bernie Sanders, but either way, it certainly casts some doubt over her positions.

Hegar has also positioned her campaign around supporting reproductive rights. Hegar supports a federal law codifying Roe v. Wade and providing better support for mothers and families.

Being in a border state, Hegar made her positions on immigration clear. Hegar wants to end child separation policies at the border, build a better path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and she opposes a wall on the southern border. Commenting on what she calls “hateful rhetoric” and “racist dog-whistles,” Hegar says that “anti-immigrant, white nationalist ideology is a serious threat to our safety.

Hegar’s campaign gained national media attention when, on Sept. 25, former president Barack Obama included her in his second round of 2020 candidate endorsements. In a radio ad for Hegar, Obama said, “MJ gets it,” and that “we need her in the United States Senate.”

Hegar’s opponent, Republican incumbent, John Cornyn, has served as the senior Texas senator since 2002. Before that, he was the Texas Attorney General and served on the TexasState Supreme Court. In 2012, Cornyn was elected Senate Minority Whip (an assistant to the leadership who organizes votes), and after the 2014 midterm election, he was elected Senate Majority Whip. He is a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the Committee on Finance, and the Committee on the Judiciary.

John Cornyn has been consistently positioned as one of the most conservative senators. Govtrack, an organization that publishes information on legislation and congresspeople, ranks him as the eighth most conservative senator in Congress. He is also a very active legislator, introducing 59 bills (15th highest number in the Senate) in 2019.

Cornyn is praised by other conservative politicians for his stances on “crime, the border, and the Second Amendment,” as President Donald Trump tweeted. “Senator John Cornyn has done an outstanding job for the people of Texas,” said Trump in a 2019 tweet endorsing Cornyn.

One of Cornyn’s most prominent issues is energy. “Government should get out of the way, let the free market work, and allow more domestic energy production,” said Cornyn on his Senate website. He is very supportive of the Texas oil and natural gas industries and opposes efforts by federal agencies to “expand their regulatory reach beyond their legal authority.” Cornyn is trying to reduce dependence on foreign energy supply and to position Texas as the clear domestic energy alternative.

Cornyn has also taken a strong position on immigration, believing that “securing our southern border must be a top priority in dealing with our national security.” John Cornyn supports building a wall on the Southern Border.  However, he has recently distanced himself from Trump on this issue. Cornyn said in Oct. 2020 that he opposed Trump’s use of money from the defense budget, but in Feb 2019 when the issue was on the table, his opinion seemed mixed. He voted against the use of funds in the Senate while publicly supporting Trump’s efforts and saying that the legality of Trump’s decision should ultimately be decided in court.

This inconsistency is the foundation to Cornyn’s philosophy to navigating Donald Trump’s Republican Party, managing his positions while remaining in Trump’s good graces. Cornyn said to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, “What I tried to do is not get into public confrontations and fights with him because, as I’ve observed, those usually don’t end too well.”

Current polls show a likely Cornyn victory. The most recent poll from the Siena College Research Institute (the same poll used by the New York Times’ “The Upshot”) showed Hegar down ten percent from Cornyn (Cornyn – 48%, Hegar – 38%) on Oct. 25. 538, a popular poll analysis website, put Hegar nine percent behind Cornyn (Cornyn – 53.0%, Hegar – 44.7%). 538’s simulation model, in which they simulate the election thousands of times, gives John Cornyn an 88 percent chance of winning the seat. 

Although it is unlikely that Hegar will make up the gap in such a short time, this election marks the second time since 1988 (the last year a Democrat won a Texas Senate race) that a Democratic candidate for Senate in Texas has come within ten percent of the Republican candidate. M.J. Hegar, and 2018 candidate Beto O’Rourke, mark the beginning of a trend of more contested races across Texas and possibly the state shifting from red to blue in the not-too-distant future.