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Hotly contested Republican U.S. Senate race highlights Thursday’s primary ballot in Tennessee

Voters in East Tennessee will also pick a successor for retiring GOP U.S. Rep. Phil Roe

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

NASHVILLE (CFP) — Tennessee Republicans will decide a contentious battle for an open U.S. Senate seat in Thursday’s primary election, settling what has become a proxy battle between libertarian and establishment voices within the national GOP.

Also, Thursday, 14 Republicans are competing for the nomination in the 1st U.S. House District in East Tennessee, with the winner a prohibitive favorite to take over the seat of retiring Republican U.S. Rep. Phil Roe.

Poll opening times in the Volunteer State vary by county; polls close in the Eastern time zone at 8 p.m. and at 7 p.m. in the Central time zone.

Bill Hagerty and Manny Sethi

In the Senate race, Bill Hagerty, the former U.S. ambassador to Japan, is locked in a tight race for the Republican nomination against Manny Sethi, a Nashville orthopedic trauma surgeon.

Thirteen other Republicans are also in the race, including former Shelby County commissioner and unsuccessful 2018 U.S. House candidate George Flinn, who has poured $5 million of his own money into the contest.

The seat is open because of the retirement of Republican U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander, who has held it for the past 18 years.

Hagerty, the establishment choice, has put together a collection of disparate endorsements that includes not only President Donald Trump, his son Donald Jr., and Fox News host Sean Hannity, but also support from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush.

Sethi has countered with endorsements of his own from U.S. Senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky, along with conservative groups such as the Family Research Council, Gun Owners of America, and the anti-abortion Tennessee Heartbeat Coalition.

Hagerty’s campaign has branded Sethi as a “Never Trumper” and highlighted the fact that he was a finalist for a White House fellowship under former President Barack Obama. Sethi has returned the favor by noting that Hagerty gave large campaign contributions to Romney’s presidential campaigns and served as a delegate for Jeb Bush during his 2016 race against Trump.

Tennessee does not have primary runoffs, so whichever candidate emerges from Thursday’s vote with a plurality will be the party’s nominee.

The Democratic contest features six candidates, with Nashville attorney James Mackler, who is backed by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, seen as the favorite.

Tennessee hasn’t elected a Democrat to the Senate in 30 years, and the nominee who emerges from the Republican will be a prohibitive favorite in November, although Mackler has raised more than $2 million so far.

In the 1st District, which stretches from the Tri-Cities west toward Knoxville, the Republican primary has turned into a 14-candidate free-for-all.

The fundraising leader in the race is Diana Harshbarger, a Kingsport pharmacist who has raised nearly $1.5 million. She’s followed by Josh Gapp, a Knoxville pathologist who had initially run in the Senate primary until Roe announced his retirement, and former Kingsport Mayor John Clark.

Also in the race are State Senator Rusty Crowe from Johnson City; State Rep. David Hawk from Greeneville; State Rep. Timothy Hill from Blountville; and former Johnson City Mayor Steve Darden.

The winner of the Republican contest will face Democrat Blair Walsingham, a farmer from Hawkins County. The Republican nominee will be the prohibitive favorite in the state’s most Republican district, which the party has held continuously for 140 years.

Uniquely among states, Tennessee holds its primary elections on Thursdays, rather than Tuesdays, although the general election in November will be held on a Tuesday as it is in the rest of the country.

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MJ Hegar wins Texas Democratic U.S. Senate runoff, will take on John Cornyn

Donald Trump’s former White House doctor Ronny Jackson wins U.S. House runoff in Panhandle; Pete Sessions makes a comeback

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

AUSTIN (CFP) — Former Air Force combat pilot MJ Hegar has won the Democratic nomination to take on incumbent Republican U.S. Senator John Cornyn for a seat that Democrats have hopes of flipping in November.

Hegar, who had the backing of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, defeated State Senator Royce West of Dallas by a margin of 52% to 48% in Tuesday’s runoff and now faces the task of pulling off something no Democrat has done in 32 years — win a Senate race in the Lone Star State.

Texas Democratic U.S. Senate nominee MJ Hegar

In a victory statement, Hegar vowed to run “a Texas-sized winning campaign that will take down Sen. Cornyn and deliver real results on health care, racial justice, economic opportunity, climate change, immigration and gun violence.”

The Cornyn campaign responded with a statement calling her “Hollywood Hegar,” because of her out-of-state support, and noting that she barely beat West even though she and her allies outspent him on advertising by a margin of 100 to 1.

“Senator Cornyn is prepared to face whatever comes his way,” his campaign said.

In other Texas runoff races, Ronny Jackson — the former White House doctor whom President Trump tried and failed to install as Veterans’ Affairs secretary in 2018 — won a Republican runoff for a U.S. House seat in the Panhandle, making him the favorite to win in November in the Republican leaning 13th District.

Jackson now faces the winner of the Democratic runoff, Gus Trujillo, who works for a Latino business group in Amarillo.

In the Waco-based 17th DistrictPete Sessions, a former House Republican leader who lost his Dallas-area seat in 2018, made a comeback by winning a runoff in a new district. He will face Rick Kennedy, a software developer from Round Rock, in November; the Republican lean of this district will also make Sessions the favorite.

In other Texas U.S. House runoffs Tuesday:

In the 10th District (East Texas between Austin and Houston), Mike Siegel won the Democratic runoff for the right to face incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul in a race that Democrats have targeted as a pickup opportunity.

In the 22nd District (Southern Houston suburbs), Fort Bend County Sheriff Troy Nehls won the Republican runoff and will face Democrat Sri Preston Kulkarni in a race that Democrats have also targeted. The winner will replace retiring Republican U.S. Rep. Pete Olson.

In the 23rd District (West Texas between San Antonio and El Paso), the Republican runoff may be headed into overtime after Tony Gonzales ended election night with a scant seven vote lead over Raul Reyes in a race fill the seat of retiring Republican U.S. Rep. Will Hurd.

The runoff pitted U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, who endorsed Reyes, against Trump, who endorsed Gonzales. In the closing days of the race, Trump’s campaign sent Reyes a cease-and-desist order over a mailer that implied he had the president’s endorsement.

The winner will face Democrat Gina Ortiz Jones, who nearly defeated Hurd in 2018 in the state’s most competitive House district.

In the 24th District (Metro Dallas-Ft. Worth), Candace Valenzuela, a school board member in Carrollton-Farmers Branch, won the Democratic nomination and will face the Republican nominee, former Irving Mayor Beth Van Duyne, in the race to succeed incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. Kenny Marchant, which Democrats are also targeting.

In the 31st District (Northern Austin suburbs), Donna Imam, an Austin computer engineer, won the Democratic runoff to face incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. John Carter, who is also on the Democrats’ target list.

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Beto O’Rourke ends quest for 2020 Democratic nomination

O’Rourke tells supporters in Iowa that “we do not have the means to pursue this campaign successfully”

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

DES MOINES, Iowa (CFP) — Seven months after beginning his quest for the presidency with high hopes and lavish media attention born of political star power, former Texas U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke has brought his campaign to an abrupt and quiet end.

O’Rourke’s exit from the race, amid anemic polling results and fundraising numbers, was made official November 1 in front of a crowd of supporters in Des Moines, Iowa, where he had been scheduled to speak at a Democratic event with the rest of the 2020 field.

Beto O’Rourke withdraws from Democratic race in Iowa (NBC News via YouTube)

“This is a campaign that has prided itself on seeing things clearly and speaking honestly,” O’Rourke told a small crowd of subdued supporters. “We have clearly seen at this point that we do not have the means to pursue this campaign successfully and that my service will not be as a candidate, nor as the nominee of this party for president.”

An aide to O’Rourke later told reporters that he would not enter the U.S. Senate race in Texas, as some Democratic leaders have been urging him to do. The filing deadline in Texas is December 9.

Watch video of Beto O’Rourke’s speech leaving the 2020 race

O’Rourke’s short-lived campaign will perhaps be best remembered for a moment in a September debate where, in a call for mandatory buybacks of assault weapons, he said, “Hell, yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47.

While the audience cheered, even some of his fellow Democrats winced at a soundbite likely to be weaponized by Republicans — and which may have extinguished any hope of a statewide political future for O’Rourke in Texas.

But O’Rourke offered no apologies during his withdrawal speech, saluting his campaign for being “unafraid to confront the conventional wisdom of what it was possible to say in the public sphere.”

O’Rourke, 47 — whose given first name is Robert but who uses his childhood nickname, Beto, a Spanish diminutive — served three terms in Congress representing El Paso before deciding to challenge Republican U.S. Senator Ted Cruz in 2018.

Given little chance at the beginning, O’Rourke and his campaign fired the imagination of Democratic activists around the country, raising more than $80 million and coming within 3 points of ousting Cruz, the runner up to President Donald Trump in the 2016 GOP presidential contest.

O’Rourke hoped to ride that momentum to the Democratic nomination when he entered the race in late March. While his initial fundraising and polling numbers were strong amid an avalanche of media attention, both began to fade after uneven performances in early presidential debates.

O’Rourke pivoted to the gun control issue in August after a gunman killed 22 people at a Wal-Mart in his hometown of El Paso, but it did not resonate enough to propel him to the front of the Democratic pack.

O’Rourke was polling at 2 percent or less nationally and didn’t even register in one recent poll in Iowa, the first caucus state where he was drawing large crowds back in April.

His fundraising had also dried up, leaving his campaign with just $3.2 million at the end of September with early contests in Iowa and New Hampshire looming.

O’Rourke’s departure from the race leaves just one Southerner in the presidential race, former San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro.

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Chasing Cornyn: Gaggle of Democrats vie to take on Texas’s senior U.S. senator

Wild card in Democratic primary remains Beto O’Rourke, although window to switch to Senate race may be running out

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

AUSTIN (CFP) — As he faces re-election in 2020, Republican U.S. Senator John Cornyn can boast of nearly two decades of experience; he has more than $9 million tucked away in his campaign coffers, with millions more on the way; and he represents a state that hasn’t elected a Democratic senator since the days of Ronald Reagan.

And yet, Democrats are falling all over themselves to get into what appears to be, at least on paper, an enterprise with dubious chance of success.

Nine Democrats are already running, with a little more than three months to go before the filing deadline. And the question mark hanging over their primary is whether former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke will abandon his campaign for president and return to the Lone Star Star state to try once again for the job that eluded him in 2018.

Indeed, it was O’Rourke’s 2018 race that has inspired the Democratic energy now aimed at Cornyn. O’Rourke didn’t beat Republican U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, but he came closer than any Democrat since the late Lloyd Bentsen won in 1988. After getting kicked in the teeth in statewide races for 20 years, Democrats have seized on that result as a sign of happier days ahead.

U.S. Senator John Cornyn

However, there are some shadows over such a sunny assessment. For one thing, Cornyn is much less polarizing than Cruz and has a higher net approval rating. The vaunted “blue wave” — which, in the end, was unable to carry O’Rourke to victory — is unlikely to be replicated in an election with Donald Trump at the top of the ticket, in a state where his approval ratings are better than they are nationally. And the Democrats will have to slog through a competitive primary, which was a hurdle O’Rourke didn’t face.

O’Rourke and his campaign team insist, with some vehemence, that he will stay in the presidential race and has no interest in switching to the Senate. And even if he were inclined to change his mind, his time may be running out.

Texas has an unusually early primary, in March 2020; the filing deadline is in December 2019, well before O’Rourke will know how he fares in Iowa or New Hampshire. Just six months remain to put together a credible campaign in the nation’s second-most populous state, and it is unlikely that the other Democrats in the race are going to abandon their campaigns to accommodate a failed presidential candidate settling for his second choice.

The candidate in the Democratic race who is perhaps the most O’Rourke-like is MJ Hegar, 43, a retired Air Force fighter pilot. Like O’Rourke, she excited the Democratic grassroots during 2018 with what was ultimately a losing campaign for a U.S. House seat in suburban Austin, and she got into the Senate race after O’Rourke decided to make a White House run instead of taking on Cornyn.

Hegar is the only Democrat who was in the race and raising money during the first half of 2019. According to Federal Elections Commission reports, she raised just over $1 million — about one-tenth of Cornyn’s haul over the same period.

The Democrat chasing Cornyn with the most robust political pedigree is State Senator Royce West, 66, who has represented a metro Dallas district for more than 25 years and is among the state’s most prominent African American leaders.

State senators in Texas actually represent more people that members of the U.S. House, giving him a strong geographical base, and the state now has the largest African-American population of any state, at more than 3.8 million.

The decision by West — a veteran lawmaker not given to tilting at political windmills — to challenge Cornyn was seen as an indication of Cornyn’s perceived vulnerability. However, West doesn’t have to give up his seat in Austin to run.

African Americans and Latinos together make up a majority of Texas Democratic voters, which is reflected in the Senate primary field, where seven of the nine candidates come from those two communities.

Three African-American candidates are running in addition to West, including Houston City Councilwoman Amanda Edwards. The race has also drawn three Latino candidates, including Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, 36, a Latina community activist who founded the civil rights group Jolt Texas.

Rounding out the top tier of candidates is Chris Bell, a former congressman from Houston who was the Democratic nominee for governor in 2006.

Geography also plays a role in Texas politics. West has the Dallas lane mostly to himself; Bell and Edwards will compete in Houston, and Hegar and Tzintzún Ramirez are both based in Austin.

Fundraising totals for the third quarter, due in October, should provide more clarity about which of these candidates are actually going to be viable. But none of them are going to come anywhere close to the $80 million O’Rourke raised in 2018, for a race he didn’t win.

Cornyn has not drawn a primary opponent, which will allow him to aim all of his financial firepower at whomever survives on the Democratic side

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Wendy Davis returns to Texas politics by running for U.S. House seat

Davis, who became a national figure after a 2013 filibuster against new abortion restrictions, is running against U.S. Rep. Chip Roy for an Austin-area seat

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

AUSTIN (CFP) — Former Texas Democratic State Senator Wendy Davis, whose 2014 run for governor started with high hopes but ended in a crushing 20-point defeat, will run for the 21st District U.S. House seat in 2020 against freshman Republican U.S. Rep. Chip Roy in the Austin suburbs.

She is the first high-profile Democrat to take on Roy, who finds himself on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s 2020 target list after winning the seat by less than 10,000 votes in 2018.

Wendy Davis

“I’ve learned I’m at my best when I’m fighting for people,” Davis said in a campaign video launching her campaign. “I’m running for Congress because people’s voices are still being silenced.”

Davis, 56, a Harvard-educated lawyer, shot to national fame in 2013 when, on the closing day of the Texas legislative session, she led a filibuster against a bill that would have imposed new restrictions on legal abortion, including a ban on elective abortions after 20 weeks.

While the filibuster succeeded in killing the bill, then-Gov. Rick Perry quickly called a special session, where the bill passed.

Davis, who wore pink sneakers during the filibuster, parlayed her notoriety into a race for governor the next year that galvanized Democratic activists around the country. She went on to lose to Republican Governor Greg Abbott by 20 points, carrying just 18 of the state’s 254 counties.

In the Texas Senate, she represented a Fort Worth district but later moved to the Austin area. The 21st District includes the southern suburbs of Austin, the northern suburbs of San Antonio and rural areas to the west.

Roy, 46, is a former federal prosecutor who before going to Congress worked for three of the most powerful figures in Texas GOP politics, Perry and U.S. Senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz.

Roy responded to Davis’s announcement on Twitter, saying that while her “radical & extreme views will no doubt excite the likes of Nancy Pelosi & other DC liberals,” he would “continue fighting for the hardworking families of #Tx21 & the commonsense values that make Texas everything Washington is not.”

Before Roy’s election in 2018, the 21st District seat had been held for 30 years by Republican U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, who repeatedly won re-election by comfortable margins. After Smith retired, Roy kept the seat in GOP hands but by less than 3 points.

The seat is one of six Republican-held seats in Texas that Democrats are targeting next year.

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