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Cornyn and Hegar set Oct. 9 Senate debate as Democrat challenges him to two more

Three term Republican holds comfortable lead over decorated Air Force helicopter pilot seeking her first elected office.

WASHINGTON -- Sen. John Cornyn and MJ Hegar will meet next month for one hourlong debate. Within minutes of that announcement on Tuesday, the challenger demanded two more head-to-head televised meetings.

The three-term incumbent’s side indicated that’s a possibility.

The debate the rivals have agreed to will air Friday Oct. 9 from 7 to 8 p.m., broadcast live from the Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin.

Moderators will be news anchors Robert Hadlock and Sally Hernandez of KXAN-TV in Austin, and Dallas Morning News political writer Gromer Jeffers Jr., who also co-moderated one of the debates two years ago between Sen. Ted Cruz and challenger Beto O’Rourke.

“We owe Texas voters multiple opportunities to hear Senator Cornyn and me debate our plans for Texas,” Hegar said in a statement, calling on Cornyn “to honor his campaign statements on the importance of debates by having the courage to participate in three debates.”

“Senator Cornyn has agreed to debate MJ Hegar, and we look forward to considering other opportunities," said Cornyn spokesman Travis Considine.

Considine pointed to a comment the senator made earlier this month: “We’re gonna debate at least once, and I’m happy to do more.”

Nexstar Broadcasting will host the Oct. 9 debate and broadcast it on 15 stations across the state, including KDAF-TV (Ch. 33) in Dallas and KIAH-TV in Houston, both CW affiliates. The biggest market not covered is San Antonio.

According the Nexstar, questions will cover education, health care and the coronavirus pandemic, infrastructure and the economy. Questions from local voters will also be posed.

Viewers can submit questions for the debate by email to reportit@KXAN.com.

“The ‘US Senate Debate-Texas’ is the first statewide forum in which voters can hear directly from the candidates about the issues that matter most to them and their families before heading to the ballot box this November,” said Tim Busch, president of Nexstar Broadcasting Inc. “We are proud to harness the combined resources of our local station operations throughout Texas to bring this exclusive live debate to our viewers across the state. We are grateful to the candidates for their participation, and to the outstanding local communities we serve across Texas for their continued viewership and engagement.”

A recent Dallas Morning News/University of Texas at Tyler poll showed Cornyn with an 11-point lead among likely voters, down from 13 two months earlier. Challengers are usually more eager for debates than incumbents because they’re less well known. That’s certainly the case in this year’s Senate contest, as Hegar, a decorated Air Force helicopter pilot who served in Afghanistan, seeks statewide office for the first time. She lost a U.S. House race two years ago to longtime Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock.

But an unusually large 27% of voters hold no opinion of Cornyn in The News poll. Nearly half of those polled have no opinion on Hegar. And nearly 4 in 10 remain undecided, which gives both sides incentive to take advantage of the exposure, rather than play it safe by avoiding debates.

Hegar has also agreed to a debate in Dallas hosted by WFAA (Ch. 8) that would air on TEGNA stations across that state that reach 87% of the Texas populace.

She has also agreed to a debate hosted by Spectrum News that would air in Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, El Paso, Corpus Christi, Beaumont, Waco, Laredo, Wichita Falls, the Rio Grande Valley, and parts of Houston.

Both of those would be sometime in October.

“From the economic and public health challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic, to a health care crisis, to a broken immigration system, to the impact climate change is having on our communities, Texas is on the frontlines of the biggest challenges facing our country," Hegar said in justifying the need for more debates. “We all know John Cornyn hasn’t had to face the voters in some time, which is why Texans are counting on him to buck up and participate in three televised statewide debates ahead of the Nov. 3rd election.”

Considine noted that during the Democratic primary, Hegar’s rival, state Sen. Royce West of Dallas, accused her of skipping a number of candidate forums.

Todd J. Gillman. Todd became Washington Bureau Chief in 2009 and has covered East Texas, Dallas City Hall and politics since joining The News in 1989. He's been elected three times to the White House Correspondents’ Association board, with a term ending in 2023. Todd has a Master in Public Policy from Harvard and a BA from Johns Hopkins in international studies.

tgillman@dallasnews.com @toddgillman
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