Texas Senate: Always on Democrats’ Mind

by Erin Covey March 22, 2023 · 3:00 PM EDT

Democrats believed Texas was on the verge of turning blue after 2018, when Beto O’Rourke came just two and a half points away from unseating Republican Sen. Ted Cruz. Half a decade later, the polarizing senator is preparing for his third Senate campaign — and Democrats in the Lone Star State have suffered a series of disappointing election cycles. 

In 2020, the party came 11,000 votes short of flipping the state House, while Republican Sen. John Cornyn won by nearly 10 points and Democrats failed to flip a tranche of competitive U.S. House seats. In 2021, Republicans who controlled the redistricting process drew new legislative and congressional maps that severely limited the number of competitive districts across the state. And last November, O’Rourke lost to Republican Gov. Greg Abbott by 11 points as Republicans picked up a battleground U.S. House district in South Texas.

Texas Democrats acknowledge that a steep climb awaits whoever challenges Cruz in 2024. But though they have limited options, they believe at least one potential candidate could make the race competitive.

“The real challenge is not to make [Cruz] unacceptable, which he is,” one Democratic strategist based in Texas told Inside Elections. “The real challenge is for our candidate to be acceptable.”

The Potential Democratic Field
Rep. Colin Allred, who represents the suburbs of Dallas, and Julián Castro, the former San Antonio mayor and HUD secretary, are seen as the two strongest potential contenders.

Aside from O’Rourke, Castro is probably the best known Democratic figure in the state. The 48-year-old former mayor and his twin brother, Rep. Joaquin Castro, have been involved in Texas Democratic politics since the early 2000s, when Julián Castro served on the San Antonio city council and Joaquin Castro served in the Texas state House.

As mayor of one of Texas’ largest cities, he was seen as a rising progressive star and delivered a keynote speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention that elevated his national profile. Two years later, President Barack Obama nominated Castro to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and he became the youngest member of the president’s Cabinet.

But his 2020 presidential campaign failed to pick up steam, and Castro, the only Latino candidate in the Democratic primary, dropped out of the race at the beginning of 2020 and endorsed Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. 

Democrats who spoke with Inside Elections were skeptical that Castro would make the jump — and some expressed concerns that the former presidential contender would be too progressive to win statewide.

Allred, however, appears to be seriously considering a campaign, though he’s yet to comment publicly on his intentions.

The 39-year-old Dallas native was a linebacker for the Baylor Bears and the Tennessee Titans before graduating from the UC Berkeley School of Law and becoming a civil rights attorney. Allred also served at the HUD under Castro’s leadership for a brief period. 

In the 2018 “blue wave,” Allred flipped a suburban Dallas district, defeating longtime Republican Rep. Pete Sessions by 7 points, and he won a competitive re-election campaign in 2020 by 6 points. 

Allred is now part of House Democratic leadership as a chief deputy whip (he previously served as the Caucus Representative to House leadership), and he could have a long tenure in what is now a safe Democratic seat after the latest round of redistricting. But Democrats are eager for a statewide candidate with the ability to win competitive races and could appeal to more moderate voters.

“He sees the world from the middle out. He’s not a knee-jerk idealogue,” a Texas-based Democratic strategist said.

Democrats agree that if Allred decided to run, he’d clear the primary field. At the end of 2022, the congressman reported having nearly $2 million in cash on hand.

“I do think that he has the best shot, and quite frankly, I haven’t really heard of anyone else that would be credible that’s thinking about running,” Democratic Rep. Marc Veasey, who represents a neighboring district in the Metroplex, told Inside Elections.

But if neither Allred nor Castro decide to run, the Democratic primary field is wide open. 

Democrats point to state Sen. Roland Gutierrez, who represents a sprawling district that stretches from San Antonio into West Texas, as a potential option.

Gutierrez’s profile has risen since the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde reignited the debate over gun laws. Throughout this year’s legislative session, the 52-year-old state senator has introduced several sets of bills to tighten the state’s gun laws and better prepare law enforcement to respond to shootings.

Other names mentioned include outgoing Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, 33-year-old state Rep. James Talarico, and even Scott Kelly, the retired astronaut and brother of Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly. Two years ago, Kelly, a Houston resident originally from New Jersey, responded to a tweet asking him to run against Cruz, saying “Hmm…maybe.”

If You’re Gonna Play in Texas
Even if Democrats do end up with a strong challenger to Cruz, they have a daunting task ahead of them.

The eventual nominee has to “energize an electorate that’s just beat,” as one Democratic consultant put it, after the party has seen little progress over the past several years despite insisting that demographic shifts across Texas could turn the state into a battleground.

For the past five years, O’Rourke has been the face of the Texas Democratic Party — and has effectively been running for office throughout that entire period. While the former El Paso congressman remains popular among the Democratic base in Texas, his presidential run in 2020 damaged his image as he veered to the left on issues including gun control, famously saying during one debate that he’d “take your AR-15.”

O’Rourke’s favorability rating remained underwater through his 2022 campaign, and Abbott’s campaign was laser-focused on immigration and economic issues even as O’Rourke tried to focus the race on abortion, guns, and the governor’s handling of the state’s electrical grid crisis in 2021. 

“It became the Beto show,” a Texas-based Democratic consultant told Inside Elections, arguing that Republicans successfully made O’Rourke “toxic,” damaging the rest of the Democratic ticket.

In his 2022 gubernatorial bid, he won only 19 of 254 counties, compared to the 32 he won in 2018. He came up short in key places like Tarrant County, a historically Republican-leaning county that O’Rourke narrowly won in 2018 and Biden won in 2020. And Abbott’s margin of victory shrunk by only 2 points from 2022 to 2018, when he defeated a lesser-known Democratic opponent.

Still, Democrats are hopeful that 2024 could play out differently — largely because their opponent is such a polarizing figure.

The latest survey from the University of Texas at Austin, conducted in February, showed 40 percent of Texas voters approved of the job Cruz is doing, while 46 percent disapproved. Among independents, the senator’s job rating was at 29 percent approval and 55 percent disapproval. For comparison, Abbott’s overall job rating in the same poll was at 46 percent approval and 43 percent approval, and 38 percent approval and 46 percent disapproval among independents.

Cruz is not quite as unpopular as he was during his failed 2016 presidential campaign, when his approval rating dropped to the mid-30s (according to an earlier UT Austin survey). But it’s not clear if the senator has won back support from the Texans who supported Cornyn and Abbott but voted against Cruz in 2018.

The Republican presidential nominee could also have a significant impact on how competitive the state is at both the presidential level and down ballot. 

In 2020, Joe Biden garnered 46 percent of the presidential vote — the highest vote share for a Democratic presidential candidate in Texas since Jimmy Carter won the state with 51 percent in 1976. 

Trump’s popularity among Texas Republicans is waning, and if he becomes the nominee, Democrats and Republicans expect Texas will be at least as close as it was in 2020, when Trump won by 6 points. Trump’s presence on the ballot would be a boon to the rest of the Democratic ticket as well.

And unlike in Florida — the one other Republican-leaning state where the Democratic Party could have an opportunity to pick up a Senate seat — the political trajectory of Texas appears to be moving in Democrats’ favor.

But it’s a slow drift, and in the meantime, Texas Democrats’ prospects in the 2024 Senate are still faint.