Battle over Ginsburg successor could add a charge to Texas Senate race

GOP’s Cornyn will be in Judiciary Committee spotlight during confirmation hearing

Senate Judiciary member John Cornyn, left, and Chairman Lindsey Graham are both facing competitive reelection races.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Senate Judiciary member John Cornyn, left, and Chairman Lindsey Graham are both facing competitive reelection races. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted September 24, 2020 at 5:30am

The looming Senate fight over confirming a Supreme Court nominee will put members of the Judiciary Committee in the spotlight, particularly Texas Republican John Cornyn, a former state Supreme Court judge. 

Cornyn’s reelection campaign against Air Force veteran MJ Hegar has not been one of the marquee races in the battle for control of the Senate this year, partly because Hegar has not posted the same eye-popping fundraising totals as Democratic contenders in other states. The limited number of polls have also shown her doing worse against Cornyn than her party’s nominee at the top of the ticket, former Vice President Joe Biden, does against President Donald Trump.

But that could change if the Supreme Court battle pushes voters, especially suburban women, further into their partisan corners as Republican efforts to confirm Trump’s replacement for the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg start to dominate news coverage. 

Asked at the Capitol on Monday how the Supreme Court vacancy could affect his reelection, Cornyn told CQ Roll Call it would be a “major factor.”

“But I can see it cutting both ways, in terms of people’s response,” he added. “They seem pretty polarized already.” 

Energy boost

Texas, which Trump won by 9 points in 2016, is expected to be competitive this year, but it isn’t at the top of most Democrats’ list of potential pickup opportunities. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the Senate race Lean Republican.

But Democrats in Texas believe they may be at a turning point, citing a surge of new voter registrations and GOP Sen. Ted Cruz’s narrow reelection win two year ago. Democrats’ largest hurdle is the state’s size and price tag, since candidates have to raise their name identification across 20 different media markets. Cruz’s 2018 opponent, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, raised a record $80 million, and still fell short by 3 points. 

Money remains a significant obstacle for Hegar.

“I still think that MJ winning is a reach,” Texas Democratic strategist Matt Angle said. “It’s a reach now though, not because of the political makeup of Texas or any political strength of John Cornyn. It’s a reach because of finances.” 

At the end of the second fundraising quarter on June 30, Hegar’s campaign had $900,000 on hand while Cornyn’s had $14.5 million. Hegar’s resources were drained in part by a lengthy primary, which was delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic. She won the Democratic nomination in mid-July

So the battle over the Supreme Court could provide Hegar with a much-needed financial boost. Ginsburg’s death sent record amounts of cash to Democratic campaigns. It’s not clear how much Hegar raked in, but she received more than 200,000 online donations over the weekend, according to her campaign.

Along with Cornyn, three other Judiciary Committee Republicans face competitive reelection races this fall: Iowa’s Joni Ernst, North Carolina’s Thom Tillis and South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, the committee’s chairman. Ernst, Graham and Tillis were facing tight races before Ginsburg’s death, however.

Some Republicans weren’t concerned about a potential fundraising bump for Hegar.

“The amount of money that would have to flow in would [need to] be utterly staggering,” said Chris Homan, a Texas-based Republican consultant. “It’s too late in the campaign.”

Cornyn’s campaign declined to comment on fundraising after Ginsburg’s death. Campaign spokeswoman Krista Piferrer said in a statement that the campaign’s volunteers who were knocking on doors and talking to voters over the weekend found the Supreme Court vacancy “was top-of-mind.”

The vacancy has further highlighted the differences between the two candidates, who took opposing stances on whether the Senate should consider Trump’s nominee. 

“If the president sends us a nominee, we ought to process the nominee, have a hearing and determine whether they deserve to be confirmed,” Cornyn said Monday. 

Hegar noted in a Saturday statement that Republicans, including Cornyn, had reversed their positions from 2016, when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blocked a hearing or vote on President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, leaving the seat vacant until after Trump took office.

“We will determine who we are as a country on November 3rd, and it should be the President and Senate we elect who select a qualified individual to serve a lifetime appointment,” Hegar said. 

In the spotlight

As a member of the Judiciary Committee, the battle could take Cornyn off the campaign trail in the final weeks of the race, but the senator didn’t seem concerned.

“Most of what I’m doing is by Zoom anyway,” he said. 

Some Republicans said Cornyn’s seat on the committee could help him.

“It’s obviously an opportunity for him in terms of being more of a national figure and being visible,” Texas GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak said. “That’s always helpful because earned media is valuable.”

Strategists in both parties believe the high court fight will inject even more energy into the race. Some Democrats also believe it will push critical swing voters in the suburbs, where the party made gains in 2018 House races, further into their corner. 

“I see all of this really revving up the Democratic base but also appealing to suburban women who may have been conservative in the past but are not seeing any kind of reason to stay with the Republican Party,” Texas Democratic consultant Sonia Van Meter said. 

Not a game-changer? 

While the Supreme Court battle could boost fundraising, energy and attention around the Senate race in Texas, it may not fundamentally alter the contest. 

Democrats remain laser-focused on health care, quickly tying the Supreme Court vacancy to the Trump administration’s lawsuit to dismantle the 2010 health care law. The high court will hear arguments in the case one week after Election Day. 

“I kind of doubt it’s a dynamic-changer,” said Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. Henson noted that independent voters who don’t have strong ideological leanings do not view the Supreme Court as a top issue. 

And for Hegar, those independent voters are critical. 

“A third of Texas self-identifies as independent,” Hegar said Tuesday at a Texas Tribune Festival event with The Washington Post. “I believe we are an independent state that has been a low-voter state for a long time.” 

Public polling has been scarce in the Senate race, with the latest RealClearPolitics average showing Cornyn with an 8-point advantage over Hegar. The presidential race in Texas appears to be closer, with the polling average showing Trump with a 2-point advantage over Biden. 

One Democratic strategist suggested the Supreme Court battle could help the Senate race catch up to the presidential numbers, with Biden voters who currently don’t know Hegar still checking the box for the Democratic Senate nominee.

Hegar said Tuesday she expects to “outperform the polls.” 

Democrats remain optimistic about their chances in Texas because the state has changed in recent years. Henson noted that the Democratic gains in the suburbs are because those places are diversifying and growing, rather than because GOP voters are rejecting Trump. 

On Tuesday, Texas Secretary of State Ruth R. Hughs announced that the state hit a record number of more than 16.6 million registered voters, roughly 1.5 million more than November 2016, when Trump won Texas by just over 800,000 votes. That year, nearly 9 million voters turned out. Cornyn told reporters at the Capitol on Wednesday that he expects 11 million Texans to vote this year.

Hegar suggested that an increase in new voters could propel Democrats to victory.

If people who had not been reliable voters are newly engaged, she said, that is “not good news for whatever political party is in power.” 

Ellyn Ferguson contributed to this report.