Democratic divide strikes deep in the heart of a post-Beto Texas

Crowded Senate primary underscores divisions about how to win

Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez is one of a dozen Democrats running for Senate in Texas.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez is one of a dozen Democrats running for Senate in Texas. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted February 27, 2020 at 5:00am

FRISCO, Texas — Four months ago, Rocio Dumey was in Iowa, volunteering for former Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s ill-fated campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Now she’s back in Texas, thinking about volunteering for another candidate who’s trying to finish what O’Rourke started two years ago, when he tried to oust Republican Sen. Ted Cruz

The 35-year-old teacher is backing activist Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, one of 12 Democrats vying to take on GOP Sen. John Cornyn because she believes Tzintzún Ramirez can turn out young and Hispanic voters. 

“I do feel that she has that energy behind her,” Dumey said after watching Tzintzún Ramirez meet with voters here at Rudy’s Country Store and Bar-B-Q. 

Dumey is waiting to volunteer, however, until after Tuesday’s crowded primary, because she expects Tzintzún Ramirez will be in a runoff. If no Democrat wins a majority in the primary, the top two contenders face off on May 26. 

Air Force veteran MJ Hegar, who ran unsuccessfully for the House in 2018, is expected to secure the top spot, and four candidates are neck-and-neck in the race for second place. 

Like the presidential race, the crowded Senate primary in Texas has centered around how best to win. Fire up the Democratic base and turn out new voters? Appeal to independents and moderate Republicans? Or, somehow, try to do both at the same time?

And like the battle at the top of the ticket, Democrats in Texas are divided.

The Beto effect

Texas isn’t exactly at the top of Democrats’ target list as they look to retake the Senate. They need a net gain of three or four seats, depending on who wins the White House, since the vice president breaks ties. Other Senate races in states that either Hillary Clinton carried or President Donald Trump won narrowly could be more competitive.

But the Lone Star State is on the map in no small part because of what happened here in 2018.

O'Rourke, then an El Paso-area congressman, came within 3 points of unseating Cruz. Democrats flipped two GOP-held House seats in red territory and several other races were much closer than expected.

O’Rourke captured national attention for an unorthodox campaign that saw him livestream his travels across the state and raise a record $80 million in the process. Turnout soared in 2018, with 53 percent of registered voters showing up — the previous midterm election in 2014 saw a turnout of just under 34 percent. More than three times as many young Texas voters turned out in 2018 compared with 2014, according to a study by Tufts University.

Republicans interpret O’Rourke’s close effort as unique to his energizing candidacy, but Democrats see a fundamental shift happening in the state. They particularly see room to grow in engaging voters of color. The Texas Democratic Party estimated that 2.4 million African American, Hispanic and Asian American voters were registered but did not vote in 2018.

This election cycle, Democrats are targeting seven Republican-held House seats in Texas. And they’re also taking aim at Cornyn, a three-term senator and former state attorney general. O’Rourke was pressured to jump in the race but declined, opening the door for other Democrats.

A dozen Democrats are running for the Senate, but five have emerged as top contenders: Hegar, Tzintzún Ramirez, state Sen. Royce West from Dallas, Houston City Council Member Amanda Edwards and former Texas Rep. Chris Bell, who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2006.

“Growing up here in Texas, I’m not used to seeing a lot of people going into a Democratic primary,” Hegar said in a phone interview. “So it’s really exciting. It’s a sign of the times changing.”

Hegar said she isn’t drawing too many lessons from O’Rourke’s campaign because this is a different race, but she likened his approach to her own 2018 House race, which she lost to GOP Rep. John Carter by 3 points in a reliably red Central Texas district.

“I saw it work for both of us, that you need to get out everywhere and talk to everyone,” Hegar said.

But Tzintzún Ramirez took a different lesson from O’Rourke’s campaign. As the founder of Jolt, a group which mobilizes Latino voters, she authored O’Rourke’s Latino outreach strategy for his Senate run, and former O’Rourke campaign staffers recruited her to run for Senate herself.

“He embraced the diversity of Texas,” Tzintzún Ramirez said after her meet and greet at the barbecue restaurant, noting O’Rourke’s support for immigrant families and the Black Lives Matter movement.

“He was the most progressive candidate I can remember, again, running statewide in a very long time,” she added. “And that’s because people are hungry and desperate for someone to be honest with them and to actually provide solutions to the problems they face.”

Others saw the success of other Republican statewide candidates in 2018 as proof of O’Rourke’s adeptness in reaching out to moderate voters, independents and disenchanted Republicans.

“There's no magic button to just get a bunch of new voters out,” said Texas Rep. Marc Veasey, who has endorsed West. Veasey noted that there were thousands of voters who voted for both O’Rourke and GOP Gov. Greg Abbott, a sign of O’Rourke’s appeal to moderates.

How to win

The different takeaways from O’Rourke’s race underscore the divide among Democratic Senate hopefuls about how best to win statewide in Texas.

“Democrats all over Texas want a nominee who will be able to win,” West spokesman Vince Leibowitz said. “That means bringing together not only Democrats but independents and some Republicans in order to be able to win.”

For most of the candidates, that has meant shirking more liberal policy proposals. Of the top five contenders, Tzintzún Ramirez is the only one who supports “Medicare for All,” the Green New Deal, and O’Rourke’s proposal to mandate a government buy-back of assault weapons.

“I don’t believe progressive ideas are actually out of step of the norm,” Tzintzún Ramirez said. “What’s radical to me is the fact that we have the highest uninsured rate in the country, that we have a senator that’s been willing to align himself with a president that has demonized and targeted the majority of our state’s population, who are people of color and children of immigrants.”

Her progressive stances won her the backing of New York Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose PAC made its first round of endorsements Friday. Tzintzún Ramirez’s campaign said the endorsement led to 3,000 new donors, totaling $20,000.

For Hegar, the choice between liberal base voters and moderates is a false one.

“People are really tired of politicians, and they’re looking for a fighter,” she said. “Somebody who’s like them. Somebody who is just a regular Texan. And I am a combat vet who served our country, and I am a working mom. And people can identify with that a lot more than career politicians.”

Hegar’s profile appealed to Nancy Bryant, 64, who cast an early vote for her Saturday morning in Dallas.

“I love her. She is strong, she knows the issues,” Bryant said. “I tend to like veterans, people who stepped up and volunteered.”

Hegar has stressed that she is the best candidate to take on Cornyn, citing her endorsement from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Tzintzún Ramirez slammed the committee for making an early choice and worried it could turn voters off. But Hegar called the criticism “disingenuous,” saying her opponents would not have rejected the endorsement had it been offered to them.