Colin Allred seeks to protect benefits in a crowded race to challenge U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz
U.S. Rep. Colin Allred is looking to protect his front-runner status as he enters the final weeks of the U.S. Senate Democratic primary, facing increasingly sharp criticism from an opponent and the uncertainty that comes with a crowded field.
The Dallas congressman has been dominant in fundraising, but while polls continue to show him leading, a large number of voters remain undecided. Meanwhile, state Sen. Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio, has been crisscrossing the state and working to turn Allred’s partisan instincts into a weakness.
The primary has reached a critical juncture, with Allred launching his first TV ad this week and preparing for his only scheduled debate against his opponents on Sunday. He has spent recent days intensifying his focus on abortion rights, reflecting a strategy focused on the general election, where the candidate is set to face US Senator Ted Cruz.
“Today, because of extremists like Ted Cruz, Texas women are being stripped of that basic freedom,” Allred said in a call last week with reporters marking the 51st anniversary of Roe v. Wade.
Later that day, Gutierrez raced through the Houston area with a message more suited to a competitive primary.
“I am a progressive candidate, and I make no apologies for that at all,” Gutierrez said in Mont Belvieu.
Tensions are expected to come to a head at a debate Sunday in Austin hosted by the Texas AFL-CIO — the only debate Allred has publicly committed to so far. The labor group invited only two other candidates, Gutierrez and state Rep. Carl Sherman of DeSoto.
Allred is a former NFL player turned civil rights attorney. He first ran for Congress in 2018, flipping a Republican-held seat in the Dallas area. Gutierrez joined the House in 2008 and then won a seat in the state Senate in 2020. He has become the Legislature’s most vocal critic of the state’s response to the 2022 Uvalde school shooting in his district, while calling for increased gun restrictions. .
They align with most Democratic priorities, but there are some obvious differences, such as health care — Gutierrez supports a single-payer system, while Allred does not. While Allred prides himself on being one of the most bipartisan members of Congress, Gutierrez has doubled down on being a one-man stalwart in the GOP-dominated state Senate.
There are nine candidates in the primary election. Also running are former Nueces County District Attorney Mark Gonzalez, as well as Fort Worth businessman Hailey Rodriguez-Brelman, San Antonio law professor Steven Keough, Mission tax consultant Merry Gomez, Houston political organizer Thierry Chenco and businessman Katie A. “Robert.” Hassan.
Many of these candidates, who are largely underfunded, hope they can make a breakthrough with their unique backgrounds. Keough, for example, relies on his experience as a former US Navy captain who guarded US officials abroad and was later appointed to advise presidential administrations on nuclear deterrence.
“I have worked for democracy around the world, and have more federal public service than any other Senate candidate in the Democratic primary,” Keough said in an email.
Allred led by a wide margin in the last two opinion polls, while Gutierrez came in second place, narrowly ahead of the others. But polls have found that voters are more undecided than anything else — 37% in an Emerson poll released earlier this month and 48% in a University of Texas poll last month.
“This primary race is a complete wild card,” Gonzalez said in an interview.
Allred continues to dominate fundraising, raising $4.8 million in the fourth quarter of 2023, according to his campaign. None of the other candidates voluntarily released their latest fundraising numbers before Wednesday’s deadline, but Allred swept the field in the previous quarter, raising $4.7 million compared to Gutierrez’s $632,000.
Gutierrez has portrayed himself as the underdog, telling the Mont Belvieu crowd that the primaries are “about the people, not the money — and certainly not about Washington’s money.”
Speaking on the patio outside a Mexican restaurant, Gutierrez tearfully reflected on one of the main reasons he decided to run — the Uvalde shooting — and boasted his support for progressive priorities like Medicare for All and eliminating the Senate filibuster.
Gutierrez also took aim at Allred over his recent vote for a House resolution condemning President Joe Biden’s “open border policies.” Allred was one of 14 Democrats to support it, along with South Texas Reps. Henry Cuellar and Vicente Gonzalez.
“Just nonsense is giving in to the false narrative of the Republican Party,” Gutierrez said [and] Ted Cruz.”
Allred defended his vote in an interview with Dallas TV on Thursday, saying there is a “crisis at the border and this is a way for me to send the message that it’s time for us to act.” He added that he did not agree with all the statements contained in the resolution.
U.S. Rep. Lizzie Pannell Fletcher, a Democrat from Houston who supports Allred, said his broader approach to legislation is emblematic of the House Democratic caucus that helped pass bills like the post-Uvalde gun safety law, which U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said It was negotiated.
“You can work with people on the other side of the aisle — and you should work with people on the other side of the aisle — to find common ground where you can and stand up for your principles, values and priorities where you have to,” she said.
Allred is also facing heat over his absence from the campaign trail. Some Democratic activists have spoken out about his stingy appearances during the campaign trial, something Allred had to balance as Congress convened.
After he skipped an event for The 134 PAC, a Democratic group focused on rural Texas, the PAC endorsed Chenko and said Allred “decided to run a fundraiser from Washington, D.C.”
Olivia Giuliana, a prominent Gen Z activist from Houston who supports Allred, said he “shows up and runs a smart, focused, accessible campaign while also serving the citizens of Texas in Congress.”
While the primaries demonstrated political contradictions, the candidates also presented themselves on the basis of their electability. Democrats have not won statewide office in three decades, and while Beto O’Rourke came within 3 percentage points of winning his blockbuster campaign in 2018, the party has not been able to replicate that narrow margin in any statewide race since.
“You and I know that in every general election, we have a statewide candidate that we don’t win, and it’s unfortunate that we don’t win,” Sherman told Stonewall Democrats in Dallas earlier this month. His experience is a former city manager, former mayor, state representative, and long-time pastor.
Sherman leaned on his faith in the primaries — calling for a “moral” leader — and boasts endorsements like that of Frederick Hines, a prominent megachurch pastor in Dallas.
Like Allred, Gonzalez points to his primary election as a selling point, noting that he was first elected local district attorney when Nueces County was “very red.”
O’Rourke was not endorsed in the primary, but his 2018 run looms large. At Mont Belvieu, Gutierrez repeatedly praised O’Rourke but also sought to distinguish himself.
“Beto and I are very similar in many ways – our politics are similar – [but] “I think the messenger is different,” Gutierrez said, noting that he was “born and raised in South Texas.” “I have more weapons than anyone else in this race – I promise you that.”
Messaging about guns is a major talking point in the primaries. A number of candidates, including Allred and Gutierrez, support a ban on assault rifles, while Gonzalez said he opposes it, calling it the “kiss of death” in the general election.
Joshua Markle, a 40-year-old teacher from Deer Park, said the way Gutierrez talked about the guns at Mont Belvieu might be the thing that appeals to him. Markle said Allred was the only candidate in the race he was aware of until he learned Gutierrez was coming to town.
“He’s very direct, and I feel like he’s someone I could sell to my Republican father,” Markle said of Gutierrez.
Winning the primaries
The Houston area is a potential battleground in the primary due to its large population and the fact that none of the more popular candidates are from there.
In addition to airing his television ad in Houston, Allred received the endorsement of Sylvester Turner, the city’s mayor whose term had just ended.
The lion’s share of national support in the primary went to Allred, although his biggest potential ally — the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee — remained neutral, at least publicly. In 2020, the DSCC sparked backlash within the state when it endorsed MJ Hegar in the Democratic primary to take on Cornyn.
The DSCC is excited to be playing the November election, as Texas ranks as one of the top pick-up prospects nationally. Last year, the commission announced plans to hire communications and research staff in Texas to participate in the general election.
“Ted Cruz’s long record of putting his self-serving policies before what is best for Texas, and his deep unpopularity, make Texas a prime attack opportunity for Senate Democrats,” DSCC spokeswoman Amanda Sherman-Paite said in a statement for this story.
Cruz continued to direct most of his attention to Allred, as did the pro-Cruz super PAC, the Truth and Courage Committee.
As time passes in the primaries, each candidate hopes to put together a coalition that can at least force Allred into a runoff. One major bloc is Hispanic voters, 43% of whom are undecided in the Emerson poll.
“Their vote right now is much more widespread than some other demographics,” Matt Taglia, a pollster at Emerson, said in an interview. “[Allred] He keeps himself out there, but I think he needs to talk to these people.
The same poll showed that both Allred and Gutierrez polled close to Cruz in hypothetical matchups. While there is still a primary, this race was most on voters’ minds after hearing Gutierrez’s speech in Mont Belvieu.
“The most important thing to me is who has the best chance of winning,” said Mark Carnes, a self-described “hardcore Democrat” from nearby Liberty County, who has seen Allred speak before and was leaning toward Gutierrez. “I don’t want to hear the word ‘money’.” I want to hear what you’re going to do.”