State of Texas: Senate debate and races to watch across Texas

State of Texas

AUSTIN (Nexstar) – Sen. John Cornyn and Democratic nominee MJ Hegar faced off on Friday in the first statewide debate in the election to represent Texas in the U.S. Senate.

A question about how to handle Coronavirus relief brought tensions between Hegar and Cornyn early in the debate. Hegar cited the lack of action on stimulus in recent months as a failure of Cornyn and lawmakers like him. Sen. Cornyn pointed to his support for the initial Coronavirus relief package as evidence of support for helping people in need.

Two veterans in state politics joined a special edition of State of Texas to look closer at the claims. Former Democratic State Sen. Kirk Watson and former Republican State Rep. Larry Gonzales had differing views on the candidates. You can watch their responses in the clip above.

Vaccine question highlights differences between candidates

Debate moderators asked the candidates about whether they would get the Coronavirus vaccine, once it’s available, and whether children should get the vaccine before being allowed to return to school.

“I’m actually not a huge fan of the government mandating things on your body,” Hegar said, before saying she supported vaccinations. “We don’t have the right to make other people sick and to put other people and their kids at risk.”

“Children by and large tolerate the virus well,” Cornyn said, a contention that Hegar pushed back against. “This absolutely does impact children,” Hegar said.

Sen. Cornyn did not directly answer whether the vaccine should be required for young students. “I think local control is important when it comes to students going back to school,” Cornyn said.

“This is a very tricky thing to discuss,” said Eric McDaniel, a professor of government at the University of Texas. “It’s the line between public health and against civil liberties.”

Both Cornyn and Hegar said they would get the vaccine when it becomes available. Sen. Cornyn praised the push to speed up the vaccine approval process. He said he would not be among the first to get the vaccine, saying it should first go to people over age 80 and those with underlying health issues.

Hegar acknowledged concerns about politics playing a role in the expedited vaccine approval process. But she said, but said she trusted “servant leaders” who are following science in developing the vaccine.

“What you saw from both candidates in some ways was sort of a tepid embrace of vaccines,” said Joshua Blank, research director for the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas. He said each candidate is working to manage “crosscurrents” within their parties.

“For Senator Cornyn there is a small but active minority within the Republican Party who are very skeptical about vaccines,” Blank said. “For MJ Hegar, what she has is a party that definitely has more embrace of science in the vaccines but they’re not trusting the process right now.”

Questions remain about stances on immigration

Issues of immigration and asylum seekers were overshadowed in the debate by questions about the Coronavirus, racial justice, and the Supreme Court.

Our panel of reporters in our post-debate analysis discussed the missed opportunities for a deeper discussion of the issue. You can watch the discussion in the clip above.

Races to watch across Texas

Beyond the race for Senate, contests deeper down the ballot will also have a major impact on Texans. For instance, in Lubbock, anger over COVID-19 restrictions has Mayor Dan Pope facing a surprising challenge by political outsider Stephen Sanders.

COVID-19 is also an issue in south Texas and the Houston area, both of which have seen higher rates of cases than other parts of the state.

Congressional races in several parts of Texas are also drawing national attention, including the race for District 24 in the Dallas area. Incumbent Republican Kenny Marchant is retiring. Former Irving Mayor Beth Van Duyne is the Republican nominee. She faces Democrat Candace Valenzuela, a former school board member.

“That race is going to be interesting because demographic shifts have made it more favorable for a Democratic candidate,” said Gromer Jeffers, a reporter with the Dallas Morning News. District 24 is a Republican stronghold that Texas Democrats are hoping to flip.

“So is the time now, or is it later? We’ll see in November,” Jeffers said.

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