AUSTIN (KXAN) — Twelve Democrats are vying to represent their party in the November election against John Cornyn, and on Tuesday 11 of them met on the debate stage in Austin. The event coincided with the first day of early voting in the primary election.
The 90-minute debate covered issues ranging from healthcare and immigration, to marijuana legalization and gun policies.
The five front-runners sat in the front row. The latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll reports Air Force veteran MJ Hegar has widened her lead among other candidates, with the support of 22% of self-identified Democratic primary voters. Support for other candidates ranged from 5% to 9%. A candidate must win more than 50% of the vote in the primary to avoid a runoff.
“The data looks great, the tens of thousand of Texans I’ve met driving across the state tell me that they are ready and hungry to send somebody to DC to deliver a healthy dose of Texas values,” Hegar said Tuesday night.
Candidates turned to their records to try to stand out.
“The fact is, if you look at Dallas County, I helped turn Dallas County blue,” State Sen. Royce West said.
But former Congressman Chris Bell said accomplishments at the state level don’t necessarily translate to national success.
“The Texas legislature is not the U.S. Congress,” Bell said. “If you think about who the most successful U.S. Senators, democratic U.S. Senators have been in recent memory, most would say Lyndon Baines Johnson and Lloyd Bentsen. Both had service in the House.”
Others emphasized the importance of getting new voters to the polls.
“We need a candidate that can speak to those populations and build those coalitions,” former Houston City Council member Amanda Edwards said.
And some candidates are looking for their chance to break through the crowded field.
“This is about old vision and big ideas,” teacher Jack Daniel Foster Jr. said. “I am a rural county guy, born and raised in Chambers County. I understand the rural counties.”
Pastor and car dealer Michael Cooper called on his campaign for Lieutenant Governor in 2018 as an example of a need for a new face in Texas politics. He lost in that primary.
“That’s a statewide seat, and (I) almost got half-a-million votes,” he said. “My opponent said I exasperated him, so we’re looking for fresh faces and I was a fresh face that made a difference on the outside.”
On healthcare, seven of the Democrats said they would not endorse Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All bill. The legislation, as written, would phase out private health insurance.
Community organizer Sema Hernandez, Annie “Mamá” Garcia, an attorney and small-business owner, and labor activist Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, said they supported the legislation.
“Texas voters want someone that is honest with them, that will tell them exactly where they stand,” Tzintzún Ramirez said. “I made a commitment that i was going to win on the merit of my ideas. With me you may not agree with every issue but you will know exactly where I stand.”
All 11 of the candidates who participated in the debate said they supported legalization of marijuana.
“Let’s free the weed,” Hernandez said, admitting she has smoked marijuana.
Whichever candidate Texas Democrats choose for the nomination faces an uphill battle in a red state against the Republican nominee in November.
Cornyn himself has four challengers in the Republican primary, though he has broad support among GOP voters. Cornyn is Texas’ senior U.S. senator and has held the role since 2002. Before that, he was the state’s attorney general.
“In a race that’s been called ‘sleepy,’ ‘boring’ and a ‘six-car pileup,’ it’s no wonder Texas Democrats are tuned out,” Cornyn’s campaign manager, John Jackson, said. “With ‘Undecided’ as their leading candidate, we’ll be ready for whichever Bernie Sanders clone limps out of the primary on Memorial Day.”
The debate was hosted by the Texas Tribune, KVUE and KUT.