Editor’s note: This story is part of a series reporting on the latest Bexar Facts poll. Find more coverage on our Bexar Facts page.
While political history and money aren’t on Democrat MJ Hegar’s side, she poses a serious challenge that Republican incumbent John Cornyn hasn’t dealt with in the U.S. Senate race in Texas since he defeated former Dallas mayor Ron Kirk in 2002.
According to a new Bexar Facts-KSAT-San Antonio Report poll released Tuesday, Hegar leads Cornyn 49-38 among registered voters in Bexar County. Thirteen percent of respondents said they are undecided in the survey, which is the first publicly released polling of Bexar County voters for the November election.
Those figures aren’t quite as promising for Democrats as Beto O’Rourke’s performance in Bexar County in 2018, when he won 59% of the vote compared to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz’s 40%.
Still, Cruz managed to eke out a statewide victory by a few percentage points. And Hegar knows that a Democrat hasn’t won a statewide race since 1994, when then-Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, Attorney General Dan Morales and Comptroller John Sharp scored state office victories.
The former Air Force helicopter pilot, whose first run at elected office came during an ultimately unsuccessful bid for Congress in 2018, also faces a huge campaign war chest disadvantage. Hegar only has about $1 million compared to Cornyn, who has $14.5 million, according to figures last released in late June.
So, how can Hegar pull the huge upset over the Senate majority whip?
One strategy will be to criticize Cornyn’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Voters who cast a ballot in the November general election are expected to judge how President Donald Trump and lawmakers responded this year.
“I’m not satisfied at all with the handling of the pandemic. I don’t know any Texans that are,” Hegar said during a virtual debate series in mid-September hosted by the Texas Tribune. “The first big mistake was downplaying it and acting like it wasn’t a big deal, and John Cornyn is certainly guilty of that.”
“It’s easy to criticize and I occasionally do that myself, but I tend to try to be focused on what needs to be done and trying to get it done,” Cornyn countered. “We’ve certainly thrown a lot of resources at it. If you told me six months ago, I would have voted for $3 trillion worth of spending, I would not have believed you.”
The candidates also disagreed about expanding vote by mail in Texas, which current law only allows for residents over 65 or people with certain disabilities.
Cornyn said he believes there’s no need to change the law right now.
“I’m a little bit of a stickler for the law … but if they want to change it in the future, that’s something we ought to talk about,” he said. “It’s not so much the mail I’m worried about, it’s the voter rolls that have not kept up with the people moving out of town. People passing away and the like. And I just think we don’t need any additional chaos or uncertainty, particularly during this pandemic.”
Hegar said she can’t understand why 34 states allow all eligible voters to cast a ballot by mail this year and Texas doesn’t.
“When I hear people trying to fight against vote by mail, it tells me they’re trying to keep us from voting,” she said. “When they are counting on fear to keep us from the polls and keep us from being able to exercise our right to vote, then it’s because they have a fear of being held accountable for their failures.”
Cornyn, a former Texas attorney general and former state Supreme Court justice, also knows he is facing a tough political environment that may have been created by Trump’s performance, policies and declining favorability.
The poll, which was conducted between Sept. 17-21, has a margin of error of 4%, shows that likely voters in the county don’t plan to re-elect Trump.
According to the Bexar Facts poll, 52% of likely Bexar County voters say they will vote for Joe Biden while 35% percent said they’ll vote for Trump. The remaining 13% said they didn’t know who they would vote for, or they would vote for another candidate.
But a bigger picture across the state shows show Cornyn leading Hegar in most non-partisan polls. According to FiveThirtyEight.com, the Republican held the slimmest of margins, only 2%, in a Data for Progress poll taken between Sept. 15-22. Other polls conducted in September showed likely voters giving Cornyn the nod by an average of 6%.
Cornyn, who serves on the powerful Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the Senate Finance Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee, has fended off past challenges and he skated through the March 2020 primary.
But Hegar didn’t have it so easy. She secured the Democratic nomination by winning a tough July runoff race against State Sen. Royce West, defeating him by only a 4% percent margin.
According to FiveThirtyEight’s forecasting model of the race, Cornyn has an 89% chance of defeating Hegar in the November election and is expected to receive just over 10% more of the popular vote than her.
KSAT will publish more results from the Bexar Facts poll — from local propositions and approval ratings to the biggest issues facing San Antonio and evolving public opinion on the coronavirus pandemic and policing — in the coming days in our Bexar Facts section.
See the full poll and find more information about it on the Bexar Facts website. There, you can also take the survey for yourself (those results will be recorded but not reflected in the scientific results.)