Texas heads to polls for Senate runoff as virus rages

By PAUL J. WEBER Associated Press

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — As Texas struggles to contain a raging coronavirus outbreak, voters on Tuesday were heading out to polls for runoff elections that include choosing a Democratic nominee in a U.S. Senate race that offers the party another chance to break through in America’s biggest red state.

Texas has become one of the world’s virus hot zones and is in far worse shape now than when the runoff was postponed in March. Last week was the deadliest of the pandemic for Texas, and Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has warned that the infection numbers will likely get even worse.

Abbott did not include polling places in his recent statewide mask order, and unlike many states, Texas has fought efforts to expand mail-in balloting during the pandemic. More than 1 million ballots were cast in early voting — higher than most primary runoffs in recent years — but only a fraction of the state’s 16 million registered voters.

The election will settle primary battles that include President Donald Trump’s former doctor, Ronny Jackson, trying to win the Republican nomination for a rural congressional seat. But the biggest race is who Democrats will pick as their Senate nominee to face Republican incumbent John Cornyn — who isn’t as threatened as several GOP senators in battleground states, but is confronting new signs of vulnerability in rapidly changing Texas.

The Senate runoff is between Air Force veteran MJ Hegar, who narrowly lost a race for a House seat in 2018, and state Sen. Royce West, who if he wins would become Texas’ first Black U.S. senator. That leaves for Democrats a choice over whether their best bet for an upset is the top vote-getter in the March primary who is backed by Senate Democrats’ campaign arm, or a historic nominee in West, who has racked up endorsements from his former rivals in the race and Texas lawmakers.

For now, both remain underdogs against Cornyn, a three-term Senate veteran who has a hefty stockpile of campaign dollars. But the race is still the biggest reelection test of his career as Trump’s sagging poll numbers stir GOP anxiety, two years after Republican Sen. Ted Cruz only narrowly held onto to his own seat in Texas.

Also on the ballot Tuesday is former Republican congressman Pete Sessions, who was ousted from his longtime Dallas district in 2018. He is trying to return to Washington by running for a rural seat in Waco. His challenger, Renee Swan, has the backing of the retiring incumbent, Rep. Bill Flores, who has criticized his former colleague in Congress for abruptly switching to a more GOP-friendly district to run.

The runoff was originally scheduled for May. But like many governors, Abbott in March pushed back the date as the virus began to take hold across the country, saying at the time that sticking to the original date “would threaten the health and safety of many.”

But the public health crisis in Texas is now much more dire. Hospitalizations are now doubling every two weeks and infection rates have soared in the aftermath of Abbott embarking on what had been one of the most aggressive reopenings in America.