Texas Senate: Allred Is All In

by Erin Covey May 12, 2023 · 12:00 PM EDT

Democrats’ dreams of winning in the Lone Star State have failed to materialize for the past few decades. But with Sen. Ted Cruz up for re-election, they have a rare opportunity to seriously compete against an incumbent Republican senator in 2024.

The party landed a top recruit in Democratic Rep. Colin Allred, who announced his Senate campaign last week and resurrected the perennial question of whether a Democrat could win a statewide race in Texas. 

Now that Democrats’ have a strong contender in the race, Cruz is the most vulnerable Republican senator up for re-election in 2024 — though he’s still in a much stronger position than several Democratic senators in his class. 

Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke came 2.5 points away from defeating Cruz in the 2018 “Blue Wave,” and Donald Trump’s 5.6-point victory in 2020 showed that Republicans’ dominance in the state was eroding. But in 2022, Republicans held their ground with GOP Gov. Greg Abbott at the top of the ticket.

Allred’s campaign launch sparked a burst of excitement among small-dollar Democratic donors, and his campaign announced raising $2 million in the 36 hours following his announcement.

But he’ll need to sustain that enthusiasm over the next 18 months — and he won’t have the primary to himself. State Sen. Roland Gutierrez, who represents Uvalde in the state Legislature and has become a vocal proponent for stricter gun laws, is also gearing up for a Senate campaign, and could give Allred a run for his money.

The Democratic Primary
In many ways, Allred has the ideal profile for a Texas Democrat running statewide — a former NFL linebacker with a working-class background, a law degree, and experience taking on a GOP incumbent in a competitive race. The congressman, who is Black, could have the ability to mobilize Black voter turnout, which Texas Democrats struggled with in 2022. Texas is home to the largest Black population in the country.

Allred defeated longtime GOP Rep. Pete Sessions in 2018, flipping a district in the Dallas suburbs. The district was ripe for a Democratic takeover, and Allred actually underperformed O’Rourke by 4 points. After the latest round of redistricting, his district is so Democratic that Allred coasted to re-election in 2022 and would have again in 2024. 

Over the past four years, Allred has developed a reputation as a low-key, moderate lawmaker and has earned endorsements and awards from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for supporting business-friendly policies.

He’s received early plaudits from his peers in D.C., including Texas Reps. Veronica Escobar, Lizzie Fletcher, and Marc Veasey. And Sen. Tina Smith, the vice chair of the DSCC, Senate Democrats’ campaign arm, singled out Allred as a strong potential challenger before he announced his Senate campaign. 

Some Democratic strategists told Inside Elections in March that they expected Allred would clear the primary field, which would have allowed him to consolidate Democratic support and stockpile money ahead of an incredibly expensive general election. But Allred is likely to have a formidable opponent in Gutierrez, who intends to announce a Senate campaign this summer.

The 52-year-old state senator represents a district that stretches from San Antonio to Uvalde, and he’s become a staunch advocate for stricter gun laws after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School last May.

He has an early ally in former Rep. Filemon Vela, who held a seat in the Rio Grande Valley for 11 years before resigning in 2022. And Texas-based strategists warned that Democrats in D.C. might underestimate the state senator, whose profile has risen significantly over the past year.

Previous election cycles in Texas have shown that having a Hispanic surname is enough to win a significant portion of the Democratic primary electorate. Sema Hernandez, a political unknown who raised less than $10,000, garnered 24 percent of the vote in 2018 and ran ahead of O’Rourke in dozens of counties, many of which were along the U.S.-Mexico border.

But Allred is still the clear favorite in the primary. Former San Antonio Mayor and 2020 presidential candidate Julian Castro has made it clear that he doesn’t plan to run, and rumors that Sen. Mark Kelly’s twin brother Scott Kelly might run were quickly quelled. 

As Allred continues to fundraise, Gutierrez is hampered by a state law that doesn’t allow him to start accepting federal campaign contributions until June 19, after the state legislative session has ended. 

Republicans are excited about the prospect of a contentious Democratic primary, as it has the potential to drain Allred’s coffers and force him to run to the left. In 2020, a closer-than-expected Democratic primary hampered eventual nominee MJ Hegar’s ability to compete in the general election against Sen. John Cornyn.

In a preview of the likely general election match-up, Cruz’s allies are attempting to paint Allred as out of step with Texas’ voters on guns, boosting a clip of the congressman saying that it “would have been better if [the Second Amendment] had not been written” and comparing it to O’Rourke’s infamous comment about taking away assault rifles.

The Republican Incumbent
In 2018, Cruz was coming off of a brutal presidential campaign in which he was steamrolled by Trump, and the senator’s approval rating with Texas voters had dropped to the mid-30s.

He’s in a stronger position now, according to polling from the University of Texas that showed his approval rating in the low to mid-40s. But he’s remained a polarizing figure, and is less popular than Gov. Abbott, who defeated O’Rourke by 11 points last November in his re-election bid.

Two years ago, Cruz faced widespread criticism for traveling to Cancún with his family while the state experienced a massive power outage crisis following a winter storm. And Cruz was one of the 10 senators who voted against certifying the 2020 presidential election results after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

But the senator is making a concerted effort to moderate his image ahead of 2024, using his perch as the new top Republican on the Commerce Science and Transportation Committee to advocate for policies that strengthen Texas’ economy.

Cruz had a less than stellar fundraising quarter at the beginning of the year, raising $1.3 million in the first three months and reporting $3.3 million in his campaign account as of March 31. But now that he has an opponent, the senator is ramping up fundraising efforts.

The Lay of the Land 
It’s difficult to gauge the political ramifications of the state’s rapid population growth, particularly since Texas doesn’t register voters by party. 

The population increased by nearly half a million between July of 2021 and December of 2022, making it the fastest growing state in the country during that time period. That growth has been concentrated in the suburbs in recent years — Texas was home to six out of 10 of the fastest growing counties in the country between 2021 and 2022 (Harris County, Collin County, Denton County, Fort Bend County, Bexar County, and Montgomery County).

Presidential results across the past three cycles have shown gradual movement toward Democrats. Mitt Romney won the state by 16 points in 2012, Trump won it by 9 points in 2016, and the former president won it by just 5.6 points in 2020. 

For Allred, who isn’t known outside the metroplex, his initial challenge will be introducing himself to a wide swath of voters, an enormous task that requires spending millions of dollars in TV advertising. Since Cruz was last on the ballot, Texas’ population has grown from 28.7 million to 30 million.

O’Rourke set a high bar for fundraising in his 2018 campaign, raising more than twice as much as Cruz and ultimately raking in $80 million. Strategists anticipate both Cruz and Allred will need to raise at least as much to compete in 2024.

“I don't question [Allred’s] ability to communicate,” one Democratic strategist told Inside Elections. “I worry about him having enough money to do it broadly enough.”

The Bottom Line
Texas remains on the edge of the presidential battleground, and the high cost of airing ads in the state makes it unlikely that either party would seriously compete here at the presidential level. 

That could benefit Democrats’ Senate nominee, who will need to separate himself enough from the national party to run ahead of Biden.

Democratic sources who spoke with Inside Elections were cautiously optimistic about Biden’s prospects in the Lone Star State, estimating that he might perform a point or two better than he did in 2020, when Trump won the state by 5 and half points.

The 2018 Senate race showed that with the right candidate, in the right political environment, Democrats could compete in the Lone Star State. 

It’s unclear what the 2024 political environment will look like, but Democrats have found a solid contender in an emerging competitive state. Inside Elections is moving this race from Solid Republican to Battleground. We’ll shift to our more traditional rating categories this summer.