State of Texas: Democrats face off in presidential and senate races ahead of Texas Primary

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From left, Democratic presidential candidates, former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., former Vice President Joe Biden, former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., participate in a Democratic presidential primary debate Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020, in Las Vegas, hosted by NBC News and MSNBC. (AP Photo/John Locher)

AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Wednesday night’s Presidential debate was the most watched Democratic debate in history. The debate came at a time when Texas voters are heading to the polls for early voting.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders took the stage as the current front runner nationally and among registered Texas voters. Sanders will be in Austin on Sunday to host a rally at the Vic Mathias Auditorium Shores at 5 p.m. He held rallies in El Paso and San Antonio on Saturday.

RELATED: Sanders leads in Texas according to latest poll

The debate brought out a more contentious tone from the presidential candidates, as each pushed to gain an advantage as the decisive Super Tuesday primaries draw near.

“It will be difficult for anyone to rise above this,” said Josh Blank, Research Director for the Texas Politics Project. “I think it’s a war of attrition really at this point, who can outlast the others and amass just enough delegates to be the nominee.”

Texas Democrats had their eyes on another big debate last week. Eleven candidates running for U.S. Senate squared off on stage Tuesday night. The winner of the primary will go on to face Texas Sen. John Cornyn in November.

M.J. Hegar, Chris Bell, Amanda Edwards, Sema Hernandez, Cristina Tzinztún Ramirez and Royce West were some of the front runners in attendance Tuesday evening. Candidates sparred over environmental policies amid Texas’s fossil fuel industry, healthcare, and who could bring together the strongest coalition of voters.

In a recent poll from the University of Texas at Austin, M.J. Hegar leads with 22% support from self-identified Democratic primary voters. Cristina Tzinztún Ramirez received 9% support, with Chris Bell at 7%, and Amanda Edwards and Royce West were tied at 6%.

Despite Hegar’s lead, the race is still expected to go to a runoff, with none of the twelve candidates polling anywhere close to the 50% support required to win the primary outright on March 3. With early voting underway and less than two weeks before election day, election observers can only wonder if any of the candidates will break away 

During the debate’s closing remarks, labor activist Tzinztún Ramirez said she knows how to build a diverse group of voters to defeat Cornyn.

“I’m proud that I’m running second in this race and running on ideas that really solve people’s real-life problems,” Tzinztún Ramirez said. “We know that to defeat John Cornyn, we have to drive up voter turnout, and no one in this field knows how to do that better than me.”

RELATED: Meet Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, a Texas candidate for U.S. Senate

Former U.S. Rep. Chris Bell said his previous experience in Washington will give him an edge in the race against Cornyn.

“I’m the only one who’s actually served in the United States Congress and who’s run statewide and I think that in and of itself makes me stand out given I’m the only one with that congressional experience,” Bell said. “I think that will be invaluable in being able to go toe-to-toe with John Cornyn and take him out.”

RELATED: Chris Bell says experience gives him an edge to beat John Cornyn

Texas State Senator Royce West said his more-than-25 years of experience and list of endorsements made him stand out from the other 10 candidates on the stage. West has been endorsed by the State Tejano Democrats, which claims to be the largest Hispanic Democratic organization in the state, and dozens of his elected senate and house colleagues in the Texas State Capitol.

“The fact is I’ve had the experience, more experience than most of the people on this stage had. And I also want you to take a look at the references that I have. I have most of the major Democratic elected officials in this state have endorsed my campaign.”

RELATED: A closer look at Royce West’s U.S. Senate campaign

Amanda Edwards, former Houston City Council member, said she wants to use her municipal experience to address the gap between constituents and their elected officials at the national level.

“We’ve conditioned our public to believe that the only time you hear from an elected official, it must be election or campaign season, and we’ve got to change that dysfunction,” Edwards said. “I’m someone who brings that to the table, who’s been on the ground helping people to recover and I also bring that story with me here because someone who can connect to those communities who have not seen democracy work for them in the way that they would like, that’s the kind of person who can bridge the disconnect.”

RELATED: Dad’s cancer battle shapes health care policy for Texas candidate for Senate

Sema Hernandez touted her progressive economic policies and her campaign’s focus on issues instead of identity politics and large political donations. 

“I’m one of the only candidates who is not campaigning on upholding the political patriarchy by boasting about raising millions of dollars or upholding the war economy,” Hernandez said. “We’re talking about real issues that are systemic. We are talking about solutions that are intersectional. We are the only campaign that is talking about the issues instead of weaponizing identity politics.”

RELATED: Hernandez campaigns on issues ‘other candidates will not touch’

Retired Air Force officer M.J. Hegar spent most of the debate focused on going after Cornyn instead of the other Democrats in the room. She said Texans are hungry to elect someone who can deliver a dose of real Texas values to the U.S. Senate.

“We look at DC, we don’t see a lot of Texas reflected back,” Hegar said. “We don’t see a lot of strength and courage bringing people together.  When I went to DC to make our military stronger, to open jobs for women in the military I was told I wasn’t going to get anything done because I wasn’t a donor, I wasn’t a politician, you know, I didn’t have a lot of powerful friends. I rejected that politics as usual and I was still able to build a broad coalition of support for that.”

RELATED: ‘People want to see a change’ Hegar aims to replace Cornyn

Senator John Cornyn has called the Democratic field a “six-car pileup.”  Cornyn said he’s ready to take on whichever Democrat wins the primary.

“I think the biggest challenge that they’re going to have is trying to run while the Democratic party nationally has become completely radical and the party of Bernie Sanders,” Cornyn said.  “It’s going to be an interesting campaign and I look forward to it.”

Analysis: Texas voters as “kingmakers” in primary

Unlike other presidential primaries in the past decade, Texas could find itself to be a decisive battleground on Super Tuesday. While Sanders leads the Democratic field by two points at 24% in a recent poll over former Vice President Joe Biden, there has been no clear runaway winner ahead of election day unlike election cycles in the past.

“(Texas) could really decide this race,” Houston Chronicle politics reporter Jeremy Wallace said. “When you think of the number of delegates that are available in Texas. We have 228 pledged delegates. Whoever wins the majority of those on Super Tuesday is probably going to be leading the delegate count nationwide. There’s a lot at stake, and Texas just hasn’t been in this role before.”

“It’s almost as if Texas does not know how to behave in a primary, because typically it’s settled by the time it reaches us and we are an afterthought,” John Moritz, Texas politics reporter for USA Today, said. “But now, Texas Democrats are kingmakers.”

Texas voters got their first look at former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg’s debate performance. The other candidates took turns attacking the billionaire on allegations of sexual harassment, the New York Police Department’s ruled-unconstitutional “stop and frisk” doctrine, and whether or not he was an authentic Democrat.

“You saw these other candidates being able to take him down a few notches particularly with the African-American voters in Texas,” Wallace said. “Bloomberg was trying to make a really big effort there, talking about apologies for stop-and-frisk….(Other candidates were) trying to remind all of the voters out there that Michael Bloomberg was part of this policy that they should be offended by.”

Bloomberg had 10% support among registered Texas voters according to the poll which was taken before the debate by the University of Texas at Austin, fourth among the remaining candidates. The same poll shows former Vice President Joe Biden at 22%., former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg with 7% support, behind Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren at 15%.

RELATED: Breaking down the types of delegates up for grabs on election night

Kirk Watson announces plans to leave Texas Senate

State Senator Kirk Watson, D-Austin, announced Tuesday he would be leaving his office to become dean at the University of Houston’s School of Public Affairs. Watson’s resignation will be effective April 30. He represented the Austin area for over a decade in the state legislature, and served as the Austin mayor previously.

Watson said he was proud of the relationships he built and legislation he was able to pass during his time in office. He highlighted his work in the most recent session to increase government transparency. He noted that he wished he could have done more to empowerer survivors of sexual assault during his time in office by updating the definition of consent in the Texas Penal Code.

Kirk Watson was recognized as the Public Service Health Leader for his support of Texas medical projects by the Dell Medical School in June last year. 

“I think we’ve got some people’s attention, but we weren’t quite there,” Watson said.

Wallace said Watson’s resignation is a significant loss to Democrats in the Republican-dominated State Senate, where Watson’s experience with the chamber’s procedures often put him into leadership positions among the other Democratic senators.

“You’d be hard pressed to find anybody in the Texas Senate who knows the rules and the procedures as well as Kirk Watson has,” Wallace said. “He has put up whatever minor roadblocks Democrats have in a Republican dominated chamber.”

Shortly after Watson’s announcement, a few State Representatives including Eddie Rodriguez, and Gina Hinojosa both announced they were considering running for the seat. Other figures who signaled a possible campaign include Austin City Council member Greg Casar, Travis County judge Sarah Eckhardt, Pflugerville Council Member Rudy Metayer, immigration lawyer Chito Vela III, and Austin lawyer Adam Loewy.

The date of the special election has yet to be announced by governor Greg Abbott.

Justice on the Line: The Case of Rosa Jimenez

She has been behind bars for 17 years, but now attorneys, judges, advocates, and lawmakers are calling for a retrial, or even the “outright release” of Rosa Jimenez.

RELATED: State representatives want new trial for Texas sitter convicted in baby’s death

Jimenez, whose case has been picked up by the Innocence Project, was tried and convicted of murder and injury to a child in 2005 after 21-month old Bryan Gutierrez choked to death on a wad of paper towels while in her care.

Prosecutors at the time argued Jimenez forced the paper towels down the boy’s throat, causing him to choke to death.

According to the Innocence Project, however, Jimenez continues to maintain her innocence, calling the death a tragic accident.

Over the years, many judges have recommended and written rulings that Jimenez is deserving of a retrial, and in 2019, United States District Judge Lee Yeakel overturned her conviction, ordering a retrial of her case or her release from prison.

RELATED: EXCLUSIVE: Babysitter convicted in toddler’s death talks possible retrial, life in prison

However, just a month before the decision was to be made, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals approved a motion by the attorney general’s office to suspend Yeakel’s ruling.

RELATED: Heated hearing over future of babysitter convicted in Austin child’s choking death

Since then, five state representatives have called upon Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore in a letter to re-examine the case.

Representatives Donna Howard, Celia Israel, Gina Hinojosa, Sheryl Cole and Vikki Goodwin call the case “extraordinarily unique” and in need of “additional review to ensure that an innocent person does not linger in state custody.”

Moore responded to the letter, stating that she has appointed a team to determine whether the case can and should be retried. She also said she’s asked the county’s Conviction Integrity Unit to review the case.

To make matters more complicated, however, Jimenez has also just been diagnosed with stage 4 kidney failure, and her attorneys say she needs a life-saving kidney transplant, which is very difficult to get as an inmate.

The five state lawmakers also referenced this in their letter to Moore, arguing that Jimenez’s declining health “would effectively render her continued incarceration a likely death sentence.”

However, Moore says, “The ultimate question here is whether this little baby stuffed a wad of paper towels the size of a man’s fist down his throat, or whether the defendant did it.”

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