Colin Allred raised $6.2 million in 59 days for his bid to capture the Senate seat held by Republican Ted Cruz. Coupled with the transfer of $2.4 million from his House account, Allred had nearly $9 million in campaign receipts for the fundraising quarter.
But before the congressman from Dallas can fully focus on Cruz, he’ll have to use critical resources to beat Texas Sen. Roland Gutierrez and others in the March 5 Democratic Senate primary.
It’s the same scenario for Gutierrez, the San Antonio Democrat who must overcome Allred before getting to Cruz. And there are other candidates who are expected to enter the fray, including state Rep. Carl Sherman Sr. of DeSoto.
Democrats insist Cruz is vulnerable and a united front will result in victory in the November 2024 general election.
Yet a hotly contested primary could hamper the party’s ability to defeat Cruz by draining campaign resources, exposing candidate weaknesses and causing friction at a time when all factions must move in the same direction.
“Colin Allred and Roland Gutierrez are top tier candidates who are in it to win it and will have to go negative against each other,” said Mark Jones, a Rice political scientist who studies Texas elections and politics. “What you really want, if you’re a party leader, is for only one of them to run. What you don’t want is the party to get divided, as it has in other primaries.”
Matt Angle, a Democratic strategist and founder of the Lone Star Project, a research group, said trying to prevent competitive primaries often doesn’t work because would-be candidates are ambitious.
“All things being equal, though, if the goal is to beat Ted Cruz and finally win a statewide race, setting up an expensive or divisive Democratic primary is a bad idea,” he said.
Allred is giving up his congressional seat to run for Senate, while Gutierrez can seek to oust Cruz without forfeiting his state Senate seat.
Knowing the pitfalls of primaries, Democrats hope their internal contest will get the eventual nominee ready for battle against Cruz, while raising the candidate’s statewide profile and creating enthusiasm across segments of the party.
“It’s going to take up more resources,” conceded Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa. “But it’s also so much about building up more excitement, as much as it is about getting the candidates ready for the general election.”
In politics, primaries are akin to sparring matches boxers use to prepare for a fight. Unlike in boxing, a political sparring partner is trying to win.
“The primary will allow Democratic candidates to hone their skills on the campaign trail, so they are prepared for the ultimate battle, which is the general election against Ted Cruz.” said Dallas lawyer and former state Rep. Lorraine Birabil. “Elections are healthy and elections are a good thing.”
Birabil, who is a veteran of numerous political campaigns, said there is a downside to having a costly primary.
“The most obvious downside: It’s going to take everything to muster the financial resources to overtake Cruz,” she said. “We need all those resources channeled towards getting those less frequent voters out. And when you’re spending money on a primary, that’s less money you have available for the general election.”
Former U.S. Trade representative Ron Kirk, who in 2002 unsuccessfully ran for Senate against John Cornyn after a contested primary, said the competition helped in his preparation.
He added that Cruz is the balm that will heal the wounds of a primary.
“The one advantage that we have is that there is no more unifying figure in perhaps both the Democratic and the Republican Party than Ted Cruz,” he said. “There will be enough energy to make sure we’re competitive.”
Aiming at Cruz
Democrats haven’t won a statewide race since 1994. The closest they came to winning was in 2018, when former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of El Paso lost to Cruz by 2.6 percentage points.
Cruz is now seeking reelection to a third term, and his rivals hope their 2024 nominee can finish the job started by O’Rourke.
Allred, 40, was the first major contender in the race. He’s represented Dallas County’s Congressional District 32 since 2019. The civil rights lawyer and former NFL linebacker is known as a business Democrat who can work across the aisle and raise money for a tough fight against Cruz. In 2018, Allred flipped a Republican-leaning district after a crowded, competitive Democratic primary.
Earlier this month, Gutierrez, a 52-year-old immigration attorney, joined the race. The state senator is billed as more progressive than Allred. He’s been in the public eye as an advocate against gun violence and for the families of the victims of the Uvalde massacre that killed 19 students and two teachers.
His Latino surname makes him an instant contender in a Democratic, statewide primary. But he’ll have to raise enough money to amplify his message.
Later this summer, Sherman is expected to join the contest. He could run strong in the southern suburbs and would have some support outside of his base. A minister and former DeSoto mayor, Sherman’s biggest task would be to muster the resources necessary to raise his statewide profile.
The Senate race could feature a test of political ideologies that could split the party.
Earlier this summer Gutierrez’s political consultant called Allred “Republican-light” and questioned whether the congressman offered a progressive alternative to Cruz.
Allred, a moderate, could be better positioned to get crossover voters, though Gutierrez is expected to argue that Democrats have been trying a moderate approach for too long. Revving up the party faithful and dormant voters requires a progressive, bolder approach, he’ll contend.
The electability argument could be the central issue. Allred will cast himself as the candidate able to build the coalition necessary to beat Cruz, as well as raise critical campaign dollars.
Leading Democrats say they can’t allow an ideology split to impact unity, as it did in the 2016 presidential election. Supporters of the presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont didn’t embrace nominee Hillary Clinton, which helped propel Donald Trump to the White House, many analysts say.
“At the end of the day both Gutierrez and Allred are going to have to make their case to Democratic primary voters on why they’re the better candidate,” said Jones, the Rice political scientist. “Part of that is boosting themselves up, but part of it also is tearing down the other. That will give Cruz talking points in the general election.”
There are other factors that could disrupt party unity.
In the 2020 Senate primary, former Air Force combat pilot MJ Hegar of Cedar Park won a runoff against state Sen. Royce West of Dallas. But Hegar didn’t ask West for his backing after the contest, which led to a bitter dispute. Hegar didn’t do well in turning out infrequent minority voters.
Hinojosa, the Democratic Party leader, said it was important for Allred, who is Black, and Gutierrez, a Latino, to project unity. That’s because turning out Black and Latino voters is critical to beating Cruz.
“We really need to come together,” he said.
Unity a goal
Some Democrats say the party is better positioned to win a statewide race than in most cycles. They say unity won’t be elusive in the Senate primary.
“We as Democrats should have learned that we can’t win if we don’t come together,” said former Tarrant County Democratic Party Chair Deborah Peoples. “The Sankofa bird has to turn his head around so he can see where he’s been, so he knows where [he’s] going. You have to remind people about history, because we don’t want history to repeat itself.”
Kathleen Thompson, the executive director of Progress Texas, a liberal group that has a media campaign called Humans Against Ted Cruz, said a competitive primary would put the focus on issues like “abortion and reproductive rights, the climate crisis, protection of LGBTQIA+, meaningful gun violence prevention legislation.”
“We’re excited to watch these Democrats earn votes to send Ted off,” she said. “The good news is — he’s already packed.”