AUSTIN, Texas -- Democrat MJ Hegar, an Air Force veteran whose viral campaign ads nearly helped her get elected in one of Texas' most Republican-friendly congressional districts last year, set her sights higher on Tuesday and launched a run for U.S. Senate against Republican incumbent John Cornyn.
Hegar, 43, is the first big-name Democrat to jump into one of 2020's marquee races. Her decision to run sets up a potential rarity in Texas — a contested Democratic primary near the top of the ticket.
U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro is also considering running for the seat and signaled Tuesday that Hegar's entry wouldn't influence his decision.
For years, GOP dominance in Texas had kept the state's top Democrats on the sidelines in big election years, but the landscape suddenly looks less daunting because of former Rep. Beto O'Rourke's strong — if unsuccessful — showing in last year's Senate race against Republican incumbent Ted Cruz.
Cornyn remains a formidable incumbent in Texas, where a Democrat hasn't won a U.S. Senate seat since the 1970s. He was the No. 2 Republican in the chamber until this year and has never faced a serious re-election challenge since joining the Senate in 2002.
But in a four-minute video announcing her run, Hegar reminded voters that she's been counted out before. She ran last year as a political newcomer against Rep. John Carter, and in a safely Republican district near Austin, she lost by less than three percentage points.
She became a Democratic sensation on the strength of her military backstory and viral television spots that brought in millions of dollars from around the country. The ads highlighted her three tours in Afghanistan and surviving her helicopter being shot down by the Taliban, and her video kicking off her Senate run pays homage to those ads and O'Rourke's strong showing.
"Washington still has a lot of listening to do, and I'm gonna make sure they hear us," Hegar says in the video. "Texans deserve a senator who represents our values: strength, courage, independence, putting Texas first."
Hegar has openly flirted with a Senate run for months and has had talks with Democratic Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer. Texas has only had one female U.S. senator, Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison, who left office in 2012 and was replaced by Cruz.
Cornyn's campaign attacked Hegar as "Chuck Schumer's handpicked candidate," and it defended Cornyn's record on veterans and helping Texas through the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in 2017.
"Texas rejected her radical views once and they will again," said Cornyn's campaign manager, John Jackson.
Castro's campaign released a statement praising Hegar's decision while pointing out that Castro has won tough primaries before. Castro — whose twin brother, Julián Castro, is running for president — said last week that he expects to make a decision soon and suggested that Hegar's candidacy wouldn't deter him from running.
"I think that probably the era of uncontested primaries in both parties in Texas is over," Castro said.
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