John Cornyn embarks on final reelection sprint as late Democratic spending crests in U.S. Senate race

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn at College Station on Wednesday as part of his statewide bus tour. Credit: Amna Ijaz/The Texas Tribune

COLLEGE STATION — U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, began the final push of his reelection campaign Wednesday, embarking on a statewide bus tour as a wave of late Democratic outside spending continued to rush into the race.

After early voting in the morning in Austin, Cornyn told reporters that the 11th-hour spending surge is the "thing that worries me the most" about his reelection bid at this point, calling it "unusual" and predicting his side will be "outspent by more than 2-to-1." Appearing hours later here for the bus tour's first stop, Cornyn rallied the crowd with warnings that allies of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and "Silicon Valley billionaires" are scrambling to turn Texas into California and New York.

“Do you think they did that because they want Texas to be exceptional? Because they share our values?" Cornyn said. "Absolutely not, absolutely not."

While Cornyn has maintained varying single-digit leads in recent polls, the contest is reaching a volatile finish as Democratic outside groups make a late play to unseat him. Senate Majority PAC, the top Democratic super PAC in the fight for Senate control, launched an $8.6 million TV ad buy against Cornyn two weeks ago, and it has since been joined in a major way by another super PAC, Future Forward, which has poured $11.3 million into the race.

And on Wednesday, a third major outside spender entered the fray: EMILY's List, the Democratic group that works to elect women who back abortion rights. Its super PAC arm disclosed to the Federal Election Commission that it had spent nearly $1 million on advertising against Cornyn, and EMILY's List subsequently announced it was going "all-in in Texas."

Cornyn has acknowledged his challenge is not only outside money, though. In Austin, he said Texas is "seeing an enormous number of people voting, which is a good thing, but obviously it's been six years since I was last on the ballot and there's been a lot of changes in the state ... and there are a lot of folks who frankly have not heard a lot about me, which has been part of our advertising campaign."

The comparison between Cornyn's last reelection campaign — in 2014 — and now is staggering. There were 4.6 million voters in the 2014 election for U.S. Senate. Through Tuesday, 8.1 million Texans had voted in this November's election — and the early voting period continues through Friday.

Casting her own early ballot Tuesday in Round Rock, Hegar said she felt "very confident" but downplayed surveys showing her still trailing, saying she does not "look at polls because polls aren’t accurate in Texas and even elsewhere it’s just not a good practice."

While Cornyn traveled the state Wednesday, Hegar hosted a call with three Republicans who are supporting her this November after previously voting for Cornyn.

“John Cornyn has basically done and said whatever Donald Trump has told him to, no matter how outrageous the behavior,” said Murray Newman, a Houston lawyer. "The senator from Texas hasn’t stood up to him a single time. Quite frankly, it’s embarrassing.”

Cornyn and his surrogates did not shy away from Trump as the bus tour got underway. Former Gov. Rick Perry said in College Station that Cornyn will "stand with President Trump," and Cornyn asserted it is Trump, not Joe Biden, who is best prepared to lead the country out of the coronavirus pandemic and oversee its economic recovery.

After early voting in Austin, Cornyn headed to Houston, where he appeared at a news conference with Gov. Greg Abbott and other state leaders to tout Abbott's pledge against "defunding the police." Cornyn used his speaking time to jab Hegar multiple times, including her criticism of Abbott's proposal to freeze property tax revenues for cities that cut police budgets. Hegar said the proposal was part of a hypocritical GOP crusade to "strong-arm" local government.

“My opponent said this is a matter of local control," Cornyn said. "Well, when public safety is in jeopardy, it’s not just a matter of local control."

The GOP attacks on Hegar have taken on a more personal note this week, however. After the Washington Free Beacon reported Tuesday that Hegar's mother-in-law had said she would "never vote" for Hegar because "she is not a good person," the Texas GOP shared the article on social media and the National Republican Senatorial Committee issued a statement seizing on the drama.

Asked Wednesday if Hegar's mother-in-law was fair game, Cornyn sought some distance.

"My sympathy goes out to any family going through intrafamily squabble, fight," Cornyn told reporters in College Station, saying he did not think it would be appropriate for him to comment on it. Asked if GOP groups should stand down on the story, Cornyn replied: "I'm speaking for myself. I don't think it's an appropriate thing to talk about."

The bus tour stop in College Station brought about 90 people to a corner of the parking lot outside the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum. Appearing from the balcony of the bus with local lawmakers, Cornyn received a spirited introduction from Perry, who noted the two go back to 1990, when Cornyn was first running for the Texas Supreme Court and Perry for agriculture commissioner.

The relationship is "almost as old as this old sweatshirt I've got on," said Perry, who was wearing a grey sweatshirt embroidered with his alma mater, Texas A&M.

Afterward, Cornyn supporters said they noticed the increased Democratic activity in the contest but were not concerned about his reelection overall.

"I don't think it's gonna be that close, it's just I've seen some ads from the opponent on TV — a little bit worrying, but I think he'll pull it off pretty good," said Jason Buley, a 19-year-old student at Texas A&M University.

Disclosure: The George H.W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum and Texas A&M University have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.