By Patrick Svitek
Even before a pandemic struck, protests over racial justice took to the streets and a vacancy opened on the U.S. Supreme Court, this year's U.S. Senate race was poised to be different from the last one in Texas.
Add in a wave of news and other high-profile 2020 contests, and Texas voters are getting a much lower-octane race, a far cry from Cruz's battle royale against O'Rourke and all its theatrics.
But that does not mean this year's race is lacking in contrast.
As he embarks on the final several weeks of his quest for a fourth term, Cornyn is pitching himself as a "steady hand on the wheel" who has the stature to guide Texas through a turbulent time. Hegar, meanwhile, is happily running to the contrary — as a disruptive change agent who can usher in a new era of federal representation for a changing Texas.
While Hegar's pitch is broadly similar to what O'Rourke's was, Cornyn is taking a notably different path than Cruz, a student of base-first politics who believed what he needed most in 2018 was maximum conservative turnout. Instead, Cornyn is running for reelection with more appeals to the political center, often inviting questions — most vocally from Hegar — about whether his rhetoric matches his record.
But in any case, it is a dynamic destined to shape the final several weeks of the top statewide race after the presidential contest.
"The thing I enjoy the most about my job is actually solving hard problems, and sometimes it takes years to actually pass legislation, but … we're kind of in a precarious time, not just in our state, because of the pandemic, but in the nation, and … so I think a steady hand on the wheel is even more important than usual," Cornyn said during an interview earlier this month from his campaign headquarters in downtown Austin.
Underscoring the mutually embraced contrast, Hegar shot back in an interview: "I don't know how much more Texas can survive John Cornyn's experience. He's got a steady hand on the wheel driving toward a cliff."
While Texas is changing — and November will be the state's most consequential election in decades — Hegar still has her work cut out for her. She had to weather a crowded March primary and then a postponed July runoff, each stage requiring seven-figure interventions by her national Democratic allies to ensure her success. And while her campaign has touted fundraising momentum since locking down the nomination, she is all but guaranteed to remain at a massive cash disadvantage with Cornyn through Election Day. He had more than $14 million in the bank at the end of June, while she had less than $1 million.
To the contrary, Hegar believes she can overcome those disadvantages, at least in part, because she is up against an incumbent who continues to register as relatively unknown, especially given his long career in public life. In a Dallas Morning News/University of Texas at Tyler poll conducted in late August, 27% of respondents said they either did not know enough about Cornyn to have an opinion or had no opinion. That same figure was 49% for Hegar.
Recent statewide polls suggest that Cornyn is the favorite. But Hegar maintains she is well within striking distance, with margins usually in the mid to low single digits.
Cornyn has previously acknowledged his name ID challenge, and he said in the interview that as someone who runs statewide every six years, he is "not top of mind" for voters, especially those who make up the influx of new residents. But he expressed confidence that his campaign's paid media program would be "very effective" in changing those numbers.
"I know that [Senate Minority Leader] Chuck Schumer was looking at those numbers and thinking, 'Hey, if we could just put enough money into Texas, we can define Cornyn before he can define himself, and this is an opportunity,'" Cornyn said. "But ... we're not gonna let them do that, so we're gonna talk about what we've done for my constituents, and I think it's a good story to tell."
Asked if she felt she was winning the sprint to define Cornyn, considering her huge financial deficit, Hegar retorted that Cornyn is "100% defining himself through his actions." As an example, she pointed to Cornyn's comment that Congress made a "mistake" in early coronavirus aid, which featured an extra $600 a week in unemployment benefits, by creating a situation where some Texans were making more on unemployment than when they previously worked.
While Hegar has hammered away at Cornyn — even in her 12-way primary, when she ran an unabashedly general election-focused campaign — he has largely ignored her and sought to make his reelection pitch on his own terms. That story, according to Cornyn, is one of a quiet workhorse who has chipped away on issues that do not always dominate headlines. Asked for three of his proudest legislative achievements, he cited legislation to combat human trafficking, Hurricane Harvey relief and the Fix NICS Act, a 2018 law that he authored to improve the FBI's background-check system after the Sutherland Springs church shooting.
Cornyn's first three TV ads have a set a similar tone, carrying the tagline: "Thoughtful. Leadership. For Texas." The commercials have been about the coronavirus relief package he voted for early on in the pandemic, his work to reduce the rape-kit backlog in Texas and most recently, his support for protecting "Dreamers," young people brought to the country illegally as children.
By contrast, Hegar's first TV spot was all about her military heroism, evoking a gritty image consistent with her campaign-trail bravado billing herself as a "bad-ass" working Texas mom who flew helicopters for the Air Force.
More than any other race this fall in Texas, though, the U.S. Senate contest could be shaken up by the Friday death of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, which promptly sparked a battle to fill the vacancy, potentially before Election Day. Like many Democrats, Hegar argued that the next president should get to make the nomination, while Cornyn has not said exactly how he thinks the process should be handled. However, he was among the Senate Republicans in 2016 who refused to give a hearing to then-President Barack Obama's high-court nominee, Merrick Garland, claiming it was too close to the election.
Cornyn said Monday the Senate should not rush the process this time around but that the Senate "will vote on that nominee sometime this year," either before or after the election.
Hegar has called on the Senate to wait until after the election to act and said that by indicating they won't, Cornyn and other Senate Republicans are "showing the American people once again that they lack the integrity to act in the best interests of our country."
Hegar's top issue is health care, and like virtually every Democratic challenger across the country, she has seized on her GOP opponent's involvement in his party's yearslong crusade to dismantle the Affordable Care Act and its popular protections for people with preexisting conditions. Like many Republicans in Congress, Cornyn has a long history of votes to chip away at Obamacare, and he was the Senate GOP's top vote-counter during its ultimately unsuccessful drive to repeal the law in 2017.
Cornyn said it is a lie to say he is "opposed to covering preexisting conditions" and that he has "co-sponsored legislation to do that" independent of Obamacare. Cornyn co-sponsored the 2019 PROTECT Act, which bans insurance companies from denying coverage to people due to preexisting conditions. However, experts have said the PROTECT Act and similar Republican-backed bills do not go as far as Obamacare does in ensuring such protections.
Regardless of legislative efforts, the Trump administration is still in court pushing to dismantle Obamacare and its protections for people with preexisting conditions, arguing the law is unconstitutional. Asked if he wanted to see the lawsuit succeed, Cornyn did not say.
"I would like to see the Constitution enforced," he said. "To me, it's that simple, and that's been the problem all along."
Immigration is also shaping the general election, with Cornyn leaning in to his support for a permanent legislative solution for Dreamers, young undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children. Cornyn is airing a Spanish-language TV ad that says he "strongly supports legalization of Dreamers."
Cornyn's record is more complicated than that, with Democrats and immigration reform advocates countering that he has had ample opportunities to vote to protect Dreamers over the years and did not do so. Perhaps most notably, Cornyn voted against the 2013 "Gang of Eight" immigration reform bill, which passed 68-32 with bipartisan support. Cornyn had introduced an amendment seeking to address border security concerns with the legislation, but multiple sides in the debate called the amendment a poison pill, and it failed.
Asked where his record backs up his rhetoric on Dreamers, Cornyn said he has "voted for a pathway to citizenship for 1.7 million DACA-eligible young people" — referring to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — but acknowledged it was part of a larger package that was ultimately unsuccessful. The Dreamer protections were included in the 2018 Secure and Succeed Act, which mirrored President Donald Trump's preferences at the time and also included more border security spending and legal immigration limits.
In the interview, Cornyn lamented how unwieldy immigration reform efforts have become in the past, and he said his "view on DACA specifically has evolved."
"I don't think it's fair to those young people to hold them hostage to a larger deal," Cornyn said. "I think we ought to do that on a standalone basis, and I'm for giving them a permanent status."
Perhaps the most timely issue framing the final weeks of the race is the coronavirus pandemic.
Recognizing the political potency of the issue, Cornyn made his first general-election TV ad about school reopenings, featuring a mother saying he "gets it" when it comes to safely returning children to school this fall. The mom then alludes to Cornyn's support for the CARES Act, the coronavirus relief package that the Senate passed unanimously in March. The legislation offered $31 billion in emergency relief for K-12 and higher education, including $2.6 billion for Texas.
Hegar counters that Cornyn's pandemic messaging is undermined by things like his mid-March tweet urging people not to panic about the pandemic, accompanied by a photo of a Corona beer. There was also his inaccurate July comment to a Dallas TV station claiming Americans "still don't know whether children can get [the virus] and transmit it to others." Thousands of people under the age of 20 have tested positive for the coronavirus in Texas. Recent data suggests that children can get and transmit the virus, but at a lower rate than adults.
Cornyn defended the Corona tweet as an effort to keep the public calm, while acknowledging not everyone found it effective. On his misleading comment about children and the coronavirus, Cornyn's office said he could have used better language but that he was questioning the extent of transmission among children, not whether they can become infected in the first place. His office pointed to a tweet around the same time from former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, who said data showed kids are "less likely to become infected and less likely to transmit infection," though it was not certain.
Throughout the pandemic, Cornyn has remained generally aligned with the leader of the state's response, Gov. Greg Abbott. Abbott's approval ratings have taken a dive as he has navigated the pandemic.
"I think the governor's done a good job," Cornyn said, "and I think everybody's tried to do their best under unprecedented circumstances."
At the end of the day, Cornyn's fate may be tied to Trump more than anyone else come November. Asked about his biggest challenge this November, Cornyn brought up the massive turnout that is expected, largely driven by the polarizing president, and how different it will be from when he was last on the ballot. A total of 4.6 million people participated in the 2014 Senate election, and Cornyn said he likely will have to garner more votes than that alone this fall to win a fourth term.
With Trump dominating the political landscape across the country, Cornyn said he does not "just want to kind of surf the waves of national news cycles" and wants to make a case for himself independent of Trump. The president gave Cornyn an early reelection endorsement, helping to ensure a noncompetitive primary.
Cornyn occasionally offers gentle dissent with the president but has not emphatically broken with him on any major issue in recent memory. When it comes to the November election, he said he would like Trump to talk more about his accomplishments, namely on the economy — and that he has expressed as much to the president.
"To me the real question in this election is: Who do you think is best suited to help rebuild our economy in the wake of the pandemic?" Cornyn said. "Is it Joe Biden and Kamala Harris? Or is it Donald Trump and Mike Pence? And for me, it's not even close."
Beyond policy, though, Hegar has sought to make the race almost as much about character, pitching herself as a stronger avatar of Texas toughness.
In ads, Hegar talks up her military heroism and rides her motorcycle, and on the stump, she has denounced Cornyn as a "spineless, pantywaist, bootlicking ass-kisser." She defended the approach in the interview, saying it is "important people understand his level of cowardice because I've been to D.C." — to lobby for women in combat — and she has seen firsthand what it takes to overcome adversity there.
Cornyn laughed in the interview when asked about Hegar's insinuation that he is not tough enough, predicting voters would be turned off by the "personality stuff."
"I don't think this election is about me, and it's not about her," Cornyn said. "This is about the policies that have made Texas the envy of the nation when it comes to opportunities and people pursuing their dreams."
More on the Senate race:
Austin FC's opening match at LAFC has already gotten plenty of buzz, and not just because the team will be playing its first-ever match. The opener will also see two famous fans pitted against each other: Will Ferrell and Matthew McConaughey.
Since he joined the club as a part-time owner in 2019, McConaughey hasn't been quiet about going Verde. The Austin icon has been a hypeman for the team on the Jimmy Kimmel show, spoken with MLS Commissioner Don Garber at SXSW and is vocal about the club on Twitter.
On Tuesday, McConaughey talked all things Austin FC from what appeared to be an Airstream.
"We've been talking about this," McConaughey said. "We've been building this brick by brick. We understand it's Verde, it's listos, but now it's live."
"I just got some chills saying that," McConaughey added.
This weekend will put the club to the test for the first time against LAFC, which also happens to be part-owned by a big Hollywood name. Comedian and actor Will Ferrell will be on the other side of the pitch come Saturday, and he's ready to start a rivalry.
After talking to McConaughey about both teams, Ferrell told Spectrum News he's excited to watch his team play the so-called "Austin Cacti" this season.
"I can only hope for a rivalry," Ferrell said. "I think Austin is going to be a fantastic market for a brand new soccer team, and I can't wait to be there when LAFC plays the 'Austin Cactuses.'"
Talked to Will Ferrell about his connection w/ @McConaughey as @MLS owners. He welcomes a @LAFC rivalry w/ @AustinFC and has his own nickname for the team. 🌵⚽️ @SpecNewsATX #DownhillMovie pic.twitter.com/yTPfTzVchM
— Victor Diaz (@VictorOchoDiaz) February 14, 2020
Now with five days to go, McConaughey said that he and Ferrell had been having a "war with words" over the match and are planning on placing bets before game time.
It's not the first time the two have found themselves on opposing sides of a sport. Back in 2018, Ferrell made his way to Austin to see USC football duke it out with the Longhorns (psst,—UT won.)
McConaughey and Austin FC are hoping to see yet another loss for Ferrell as they head to their first game on Saturday, but the match will be quite the challenge.
The MLS set the opening schedule for more than fame; the newly-formed Austin FC has been one of the most talked-about teams this preseason, and LAFC is projected at No. 2 in the league's power rankings. Austin FC currently sits at No. 21.
Head Coach Josh Wolff has said LAFC has one of the best offenses in the league.
"LAFC has one of the best attacking teams in the league," Wolff said. "They will punish you. They've never been shy of putting up goals, and again, I expect them to be one of the best teams in the league this year."
The club has lived up to Wolff's words: in just their second season of existence, LAFC took first in the Western Conference and were Supporters' Shield winners in 2019.
Austin FC will need to hold off LAFC captain Carlos Vela, a versatile winger/attacking midfielder who won the Most Valuable Player title in 2019, as well as high-scoring forward Diego Rossi.
Meanwhile, LAFC will face challenges in DP Cecilio Dominguez and midfielder Alex Ring, the former NYCFC "ringleader" who has worn the captain's armband already for his newest team. Forward Rodney Redes may or not be playing Saturday due to a "ding" on his knee, but if he does, he'll be a force to be reckoned with as well.
Austin FC's inaugural match will be nationally broadcast on FOX and FOX Deportes and will be featured on Alt 97.5 FM.
- Matthew McConaughey featured on the cover of People Magazine ... ›
- Minister of Culture Matthew McConaughey talks preserving Austin ... ›
- Austin FC fans to host Matthew McConaughey in memers-only Q n A ... ›
- Austin FC, MLS release full 2021 schedule - austonia ›
- Austin FC ends La Copita with 5-1 win over San Antonio FC - austonia ›
- Austin FC to play at Q2 Stadium on June 19, season opener against ... ›
- Before kickoff: the ultimate guide to all things Austin FC - austonia ›
- McConauhgey and Don Garber say ATX will be the next big soccer ... ›
Starting Monday, Austin voters will decide whether to reinstate a ban on sitting, lying and camping in certain areas of the city. Proposition B is one of eight proposed city code or charter amendments on the May 1 ballot, but it is perhaps the most contentious.
Spearheaded by the political action committee Save Austin Now, Prop B is a direct response to City Council's 2019 decision to overturn a 23-year-old ban on such activities. This is the second time the group has tried to get the issue on the ballot since the first petition was ruled invalid by the county clerk for duplicate signatures and other issues last year. Homeless advocates campaigned against the ban, arguing that it criminalized homelessness and led to citations and tickets that prevented homeless people from accessing housing, employment and other resources. Since then, the city's homeless population has grown in size and visibility.
SAN, advocates and council members generally agree that the situation is untenable, but they disagree about the ban's merit. Austinites who are directly impacted—including people who live near camps, downtown business owners and homeless residents—feel similarly embattled, telling Austonia that, regardless of how they plan to vote, not enough is being done to house the homeless.
Word on the street
Lisa Novak bought a condo in the East Riverside neighborhood in 2013, drawn in by its affordability and Guerrero Park. She attributes the increase in camping along the Riverside Drive median to council's decision to repeal the ban. "It turned into open season," she said.
Lisa Novak took this photo of campers along the Riverside Drive median, near where she lives. (Lisa Novak)
Novak worries about the recent spate of fires and how camps affect area business owners and incoming tourists. After her husband witnessed a violent exchange between two panhandlers, the couple stopped walking to their neighborhood H-E-B. She will vote for Prop B and disagrees with advocates who say it criminalizes homelessness. "I'm sorry, but as a member of society there are certain rules and regulations," she said.
Kevin Ludlow's Windsor Park home sits right behind a long-time homeless camp along Little Tannehill Branch Creek. He estimates he has spent hundreds of hours talking to city staff, council members, nonprofits and police about trash and safety concerns.
Ludlow is undecided on Prop B. He thinks a ban will address these issues, but he also feels police could be more responsive to reports of theft, vandalism and other crimes without penalizing campers who are otherwise law-abiding. "There's no winning hand, and I feel it's by design," he said.
Longtime Downtown business Kruger's Diamond Jewelers often has homeless residents camping outside the entryway. (Emma Freer)
David Kruger, fourth-generation owner of Kruger's Diamond Jewelers on Congress Avenue, is similarly ambivalent. Although homeless residents often camp out in his entryway, his issue is with city leadership, whom he feels are incapable of developing solutions. "I'm probably going to vote in favor of it, I guess, but I'd feel better if there was another item that addressed the problem," he said, comparing Prop B to trying to put toothpaste back in the tube.
Christopher Carr, a member of the Austin Homeless Advisory Committee who has been intermittently homeless since graduating from the University of Texas at Austin in the 1990s, is more decisive. A poet who loves opera and has bipolar disorder, he camps near the intersection of 15th and San Antonio streets. When the ban was in effect, he was often harassed by police he says. "You felt like you might have a few seconds before the cops showed up (if you sat down on a sidewalk)," he said.
Christopher Carr attends a meeting of the Challenger Street Newspaper, for which he is a contributor and distributor, outside of City Hall on Sunday. (Emma Freer)
Since the ban was lifted, Carr feels Austin's housed residents have turned against the homeless: "If you don't like seeing all these tents everywhere, why don't you not like the country where this level of indigency exists?"
A stopgap measure
Save Austin Now argues that repealing the ban has adversely impacted public safety, residents and businesses and left homeless people to live in unsafe conditions. Ken Casaday, president of the Austin Police Association and SAN board member, added that the council vote left residents out of the process. "For me, the big issue is 'let the citizens vote,'" he said. "If the citizens vote down Prop B, we'll live with it."
But the May 1 election is likely not the end of this debate. Texas lawmakers are considering a statewide ban on public camping in a clear rebuke of local policy.
Chris Harris, director of Texas Appleseed's Criminal Justice Project and an activist who helped overturn the ban in 2019, argued that the decision has made homelessness more visible, leading to greater investment by the city and nonprofits. "No matter what happens with Prop B or with these bills at the Legislature, our community can't forget about this issue," he said. "We decriminalized homelessness not because we saw it as a solution to homelessness but because we thought it was (an issue of) right-or-wrong."
- Austin City Council's homeless camp housing plan moves ahead ... ›
- Video shows 'massive problems' with homeless camp in Austin ... ›
- Calls, counts and camps: Homelessness in Austin by the numbers ... ›
- Save Austin Now relaunches petition to reinstate camping ban ... ›
- Texas Senate considers statewide homeless camping ban - austonia ›
University of Texas students can expect a "near normal" fall semester this year.
The plan, sent to the Daily Texan via email from communications manager for the Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost Kathleen Harrison, is to hold 91.7% of classes in person, 4.2% of classes in a hybrid format and the remaining 3.1% of classes will stay online.
The announcement is a stark increase from last fall, during which over 60% of classes were online, 24% were hybrid and only 16% were in-person. President Jay Hartzell said last month he expects the upcoming semester to look more similar to fall 2019 than fall 2020.
The new schedule is not set in stone—Harrison said UT will continue to monitor the COVID-19 situation on campus and that safety of the community is a top priority.
"The University's decisions are based on the latest data and information available," Harrison said. "If conditions change, we will continue to keep the safety of our community a top priority and adjust as needed."
- UT professor played role in Pfizer and Moderna's COVID vaccines ... ›
- 95 UT Austin students test positive for COVID ahead of game ... ›
- UT Austin reports 72 student COVID cases after first week - austonia ›