While Waiting On Beto O’Rourke, Other Democrats Eye Taking On GOP Sen. John Cornyn

O'Rourke is expected to soon say whether he's running in 2020— and for what.
Left to right, Texas Democrats Beto O'Rourke, M.J. Hegar, Wendy Davis and Republican Sen. John Cornyn of the Lone Star State. Depending on what O'Rourke decides about his political future, Hegar or David could emerge as Cornyn's challenger in what will likely be a key 2020 Senate race.
Left to right, Texas Democrats Beto O'Rourke, M.J. Hegar, Wendy Davis and Republican Sen. John Cornyn of the Lone Star State. Depending on what O'Rourke decides about his political future, Hegar or David could emerge as Cornyn's challenger in what will likely be a key 2020 Senate race.
Illustration: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost; Photos: Getty

AUSTIN, Texas ― While Democrat Beto O’Rourke gets ready to announce whether he will run for the U.S. Senate in 2020 — or, what looks more likely, president — other prominent Democrats from his native Texas, including Wendy Davis, M.J. Hegar and Rep. Joaquin Castro, are waiting on the sidelines and weighing possible challenges of their own against Republican Sen. John Cornyn, who’s on the ballot next year.

O’Rourke fell short in his underdog race against Texas’ other GOP senator, Ted Cruz, last year, but he energized progressives and boosted voter turnout in the Republican-dominated state. On Wednesday, he said he had reached a decision — without specifying what it was — and sources told the Dallas Morning News that he had decided against a Senate run. If O’Rourke decides to take on Cornyn, the Senate’s second-ranking Republican, “I would be fully on board with supporting him,” Davis told HuffPost in a phone interview Monday. “I think people across Texas feel similarly.”

But if O’Rourke instead opts to run for president, a run against Cornyn is “something that I would look very seriously at,” she said.

Davis attracted national attention in 2013 as a state senator when she waged a filibuster for more than 11 hours against restrictive anti-abortion legislation. She subsequently ran for governor in 2014 but was routed by Republican Greg Abbott. She has since become the founding director of Deeds Not Words, a nonprofit that aims to empower young women in public and political discourse.

Davis’ good friend M.J. Hegar is also eyeing Cornyn’s seat. Hegar is a military hero whose gripping personal story helped her becoming a fundraising powerhouse as the Democratic nominee last year against GOP Rep. John Carter. She lost the race but gave Carter a scare in the Central Texas district ― he prevailed by about 3 percentage points; in 2016, he had won re-election by more than 20 points.

Hegar told HuffPost that a lot of circumstances would have to fall into place for her to run for Senate, but it remains one of the options she’s considering.

She made a big financial sacrifice when she quit a job to make her 2018 run for the House, saying she felt compelled to enter the political fray. She now has a job working as chief patient advocate for Hippo technology company, where she’s able to “take a paycheck and help people,” she said.

She’s trying to save money in the event she decides to run for office again, “but I’m not going to hurt my family to do it,” she said.

Hegar said it would be difficult to persuade her to run against Davis in a Senate primary ― not because of their friendship, she added, but because she respects what Davis has accomplished. She also said she wouldn’t be inclined to challenge O’Rourke or Castro in a primary, though “that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t” if she “felt like I posed a greater threat to Cornyn.”

She’s also considering whether to again challenge Carter.

As for Castro, a “source close to” him told Politico the congressman would support O’Rourke if he runs for Senate but otherwise would “absolutely consider jumping in.” A source familiar with Castro’s thinking confirmed to HuffPost the accuracy of that characterization.

Asked by Roll Call this week whether he’s weighing a run against Cornyn, Castro said, “I’ll be glad to talk about that on another day.”

Joaquin’s twin brother, Julián, a former mayor of San Antonio who served as the Housing and Urban Development secretary under President Barack Obama, has already announced a White House bid, though some Democrats reportedly would like him to consider challenging Cornyn. A Castro spokesman passed on commenting on the upcoming Senate race.

Retired Air Force Col. Kim Olson, a Democrat who waged a competitive bid for Texas agriculture commissioner last year, though she lost, is also considering challenging Cornyn. “I will run where I can win and best serve Texans,” she told HuffPost in an email.

Sema Hernandez, a Houston activist who as a first-time candidate won almost a quarter of the Democratic vote in the 2018 Senate primary against O’Rourke, has already declared she is running for U.S. Senate again in 2020.

O’Rourke, who is expected to announce the decision on his political plans soon, did not respond to a request for comment.

‘It’s Different Than A Race Against Ted Cruz’

It’s still early enough in the 2020 campaign cycle that the potential lineup for Texas’ Democratic Senate primary can remain fluid. Progressives are eager for strong contenders, though, because they stress that Cornyn — who first won his seat in 2002 — is vulnerable.

Although he easily triumphed against his Democratic opponent in 2014, the hope among progressives is buoyed by Democrats’ successes in the 2018 midterm elections in Texas. Bolstered by O’Rourke’s strong showing, the party picked up two House seats and several state legislative seats, and swept out of office Republican judges in the Houston area.

“As we look towards 2020, the path for us is very clear: We have a single-digit race for U.S. Senate,” said Manny Garcia, executive director of the Texas Democratic Party.

He cited polling showing that many Texans don’t seem to have an opinion about Cornyn, who isn’t as publicly combative as Cruz. And in a state with a heritage of politicians with “big, bold personalities” — like former Gov. Ann Richards and President Lyndon B. Johnson, both Democrats — it’s a “vulnerability and weakness” for voters not to have a sense of Cornyn’s character after he has been in office so long, Garcia said.

“It’s different than a race against Ted Cruz was,” said Davis. “I feel like Cornyn is equally, if not more dangerous for the values that we hold dear. However, I don’t know that voters understand as much about him as they did about Ted Cruz,” she said.

Cornyn did not respond to requests for comment. But he has reportedly been watching O’Rourke: “He captured people’s imaginations and came very close to winning,” Cornyn said earlier this month, according to The Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “It only makes sense ... that candidates running in 2020 learn from that.”

“Whoever decides to run for president, let ’em have it, and if they want to run for Senate, we’ll be ready,” Cornyn told reporters Wednesday, according to the Dallas Morning-News.

This article has been updated with a statement from potential candidate Kim Olson and information about declared candidate Sema Hernandez.

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