MJ Hegar leading in Democratic primary for Senate, but who will join her in a runoff?

MJ Hegar was leading the crowded Democratic primary for U.S. Senate in unofficial returns Tuesday night, though it remained unclear whom she would face in a runoff.

Hegar, the former Air Force helicopter pilot backed by national Democrats, had 25% of the vote with about a third of polling locations reporting. Several of her 11 competitors were clustered behind her, starting with Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez at 13%.

The unofficial results from the the secretary of state’s office did not reflect some of the state’s biggest counties, including Harris, Travis, Dallas and Tarrant.

Hegar took the stage at her election night party around 10 p.m., telling supporters, “I am really excited to tell you that we are walking into the runoff in the strongest possible position.”

Tzintzún Ramirez told supporters a short time earlier that it’s “still early” but touted her strength in some key counties and said she has been “underestimated by people in Washington” — including the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which has backed Hegar.

“But you know what? I’m used to being underestimated,” Tzintzún Ramirez said.

In third behind her was Dallas state Sen. Royce West with 10.8%. He tweeted that his campaign does “not expect that we will have a clear enough picture of results this evening to call it one way or the other” and that he would issue a statement in the morning.

Hegar, Tzintzún Ramirez and West are among 12 Democrats competing to challenge the state’s senior senator, Republican John Cornyn, who was cruising to a win in his primary after early voting came in.

The Democratic primary has played out in the shadow of Beto O’Rourke’s blockbuster near-miss loss to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018. However, none of the current candidates has been able to match O’Rourke’s star power, and polls showed the field was widely unknown up through the final days before the primary.

Hegar, who waged a surprisingly competitive U.S. House campaign two years ago in the Austin suburbs, was among the first serious Democratic candidates to declare against Cornyn, launching her bid in April. She went on to become the top fundraiser in the primary, even as it filled up with several other legitimate candidates, and in December earned the endorsement of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Hegar has leaned hard on her background as a military hero and working mom, presenting herself as the “badass” best suited to go toe to toe with Cornyn. Along the way, she has resisted some of the more liberal positions of her primary competitors.

West has run on his 27 years of experience in the Texas Senate, and he has the support of most of his Democratic colleagues in the Legislature.

There has been little drama in the primary apart from a few episodes. Most of Hegar’s rivals were harshly critical when the DSCC endorsed her, denouncing it as Washington meddling and dismissing the diversity of the state. (Hegar is white.) Hegar and Tzintzún Ramirez have also shared tensions over their competing ideologies and campaign fundraising.

Both Hegar and Tzintzún Ramirez saw significant outside spending on their behalf in the primary’s final few weeks. VoteVets, a national group that works to elect Democratic veterans running for office, spent over $3 million boosting Hegar on TV through its super PAC. A newer super PAC, Lone Star Forward, invested six figures on the air to help Tzintzún Ramirez.

Tzintzún Ramirez in particular built some late momentum in the primary, landing endorsements from U.S. Reps. Joaquin Castro of San Antonio and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York once early voting began.

As the Democrats waited to see who else would qualify for the runoff, Cornyn claimed victory in his primary during an election night party in Austin. He faced four little-known challengers.

“We are united as one party, and we go into the general election stronger than we have ever been before,” Cornyn said at the party. “The stage is now set for … the referendum of our lifetimes: Will Texans abandon the principles that have made our state the envy of the nation in order to live under the stranglehold of socialism, or will Texas do what we’ve always done — choose freedom, prosperity, the power of self-determination?”

Polls in recent weeks made clear Hegar was the favorite to advance to a runoff, while the No. 2 spot was less certain. Hegar was already looking forward to the overtime round during a get-out-the-vote event Monday evening in the Houston area.

“We gotta do it all again in May. I need y’all with me in May,” she said, heralding the potential for a runoff as a sign of Democratic ascendancy in long-red Texas. “I’m so excited about a runoff because, frankly, growing up in this state, I don’t remember a lot of competitive Democratic primaries and runoffs.”

Disclosure: The Texas secretary of state has been a financial supporter 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.

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