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Former Trump doctor wins congressional runoff as Texans vote amid coronavirus

How the pandemic is reshaping the presidential race
How the pandemic is reshaping the presidentia... 01:25

Former White House physician Ronny Jackson won the primary runoff for the Republican nomination for Texas' 13th Congressional District. Lone Star State voters cast ballots for runoffs in a high-profile Senate race and 15 House districts as Texas grappled with growing numbers of coronavirus cases and hospitalizations. The outbreak sparked an effort to expand mail-in voting that was eventually quashed.

President Trump and Jackson both tweeted about his victory. Mr. Trump said he is "proud" of Jackson and said he would be "a fantastic Congressman - Will represent the wonderful people of the Great State of Texas, and the USA, very well."

Congressman Mac Thornberry, who holds the seat and is retiring, had endorsed Jackson's opponent. It's a safe Republican district.

In the highly-watched Democratic Senate primary runoff, MJ Hegar defeated state Senator Royce West to take on Senator John Cornyn in November.  After none of the 12 Democratic candidates achieved 50% in March, the top two, Hegar and West, advanced to the runoff. 

Hegar was endorsed by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and led West in fundraising throughout the cycle. West, who has served almost three decades in the state Senate, has touted his experience and criticized Hegar's credentials as a Democrat who could tighten the race. Cornyn capitalized on that with an ad last week propping up West as a "liberal Democrat" in an effort to boost West's candidacy ahead of the runoff.   

Former Congressman Pete Sessions, who lost in 2018 to Democrat Colin Allred in the 32nd district, won the runoff for the 17th district against Renee Swann. Outgoing Congressman Bill Flores had endorsed Swann.

In the 24th district, Candace Valenzuela won the Democratic nomination. Her challenger, retired Air Force Colonel Kim Olson, had come out on top in the March 3 primary with 41% of the vote, but failed to capture the 50% needed to avoid a runoff. 

Valenzuela was backed by a roster of former presidential candidates: former Housing Secretary Julián Castro and Senators Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and Cory Booker.

Valenzuela  will face Republican Beth Van Duyne for the Dallas-area seat, left open by retiring Republican Congressman Kenny Marchant.  

In Texas' 10th district, former Austin city attorney Mike Siegel, who had the backing of Congressional Progressive Caucus vice chair Ro Khanna and Senators Bernie Sanders and Warren, defeated the moderate Dr. Pritesh Gandhi. Siegel has also been endorsed by Olson, the Democratic candidate in the 24th district. 

Despite increasing coronavirus cases, early turnout for a runoff election was high. According to data from the Secretary of State's office, more than 1 million people voted early. Close to 700,000 Democrats showed up in part to cast their vote for a Democratic Senate nominee.  

Virus Outbreak Election Voting
Dallas County election worker Mark Bracken, left, checks in a voter at a polling station, Tuesday, July 14, 2020, in Richardson, Texas. LM Otero / AP

According to the latest CBS News Battleground Tracker, Cornyn leads both potential candidates in a general election match-up, but 15% of likely voters in each match-up are not sure who they will support so there will be movement in the four months ahead of Election Day. And for the first time in decades, Texas appears to be in play for Democrats in the 2020 presidential race, with the CBS News Battleground Tracker showing just a 1-point edge for President Trump. 

Texas has become a recent hotspot for COVID-19, seeing a high of more than 10,000 new cases on July 7. Even before the resurgence, Democrats launched multiple efforts to expand who can vote by mail. Their attempts fell short at the state's Supreme Court and a petition still remains at the U.S. Supreme Court, who said they would not accelerate the process for the runoff. 

In response to recent spikes, Republican Governor Greg Abbott issued a statewide mask mandate earlier this month, and was quickly censured by eight Republican county committees because of it. However, he exempted runoff voters and workers from his executive order. 

"We don't want to deny somebody the ability to go vote simply because they don't have a mask," he said in an early July press conference.

At least two Democratic poll workers have left because Republican workers didn't want to wear masks, according to Rose Clouston, the protection director of the Texas Democratic Party Voter, which provides workers during the primary and runoffs. 

"They left because they didn't feel like they could safely work in that space all day," Clouston told CBS News.  She said that while trying to recruit poll workers, people who normally work the elections are more timid. 

"People who normally work have been saying, you know, I'm here for this election and I support everything we're doing and I want to be there so badly," she said. "But, you know, I have been quarantining for three months and, you know, I live with an elderly person or I myself am at risk and I just can't take on that risk of being at a polling place for 14 hours and being exposed to other people, other voters and other election workers in that way."
One worker, 59-year-old Cynthia Riley, said she left her polling location in Plano, Texas just before polls were set to open. She said she didn't feel comfortable sitting next to people not wearing masks for 14 hours. "For me to be expected for $12 an hour to sit there next to a bunch of yahoo's who can't do the most basic thing; wear a mask. It's not worth it," Riley told CBS News. "I know if they can't even put a mask on they're not doing anything else. Lord knows where they've been."

Texas Democrats communications director Abhi Rahman told CBS News the state's Republican leadership has "basically made people have to risk their health in order to go out to vote" by not expanding the mail vote. 

"What we're seeing still is that Democrats are willing to do that, they're willing to stand up and say, 'Enough is enough,'" Rahman said. "You can always tell a movement is happening when there's obstacles thrown your way and people are still trying to get to the ballot box."

House campaigns in runoffs said they weren't sure what to expect from in-person turnout, but all pointed to a consistent streak of early voting. Early voting and counted mail ballots have accounted for about 6.5% in turnout so far, a number that's already higher than usual, according to Cal Jillson, a professor at Southern Methodist University in Texas.

"Runoff elections are low-turnout events. They tend to be sort of 5% of registered voters. This may be up in the range of 8. High for for a runoff election, but still a modest number of voters overall," Jillson told CBS News. "The broader thing is that people are feeling vulnerable, exposed and uncertain. And while this is not going to change anything, it's something they can do."

Adam Brewster & Cara Korte contributed reporting.

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