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News / Politics

His sights are on Ted Cruz, but Colin Allred likely to face primary challenge

By Gromer Jeffers Jr., The Dallas Morning News
Published: May 22, 2023, 6:00am
2 Photos
Rep. Colin Allred (D-TX) gestures towards the crowd during an award presentation at North Dallas Chamber on Oct. 4, 2022, in Dallas.
Rep. Colin Allred (D-TX) gestures towards the crowd during an award presentation at North Dallas Chamber on Oct. 4, 2022, in Dallas. (Shafkat Anowar/The Dallas Morning News/TNS) Photo Gallery

DALLAS — Since announcing his 2024 Senate campaign, U.S. Rep. Colin Allred has focused his attention on the potential bruising fight against incumbent Republican Ted Cruz.

Before Allred can get to Cruz, however, he’ll likely have to face a significant challenge in the Democratic Party primary.

State Sen. Roland Gutierrez of San Antonio is preparing to challenge Allred for the Democratic Party nomination against Cruz, according to four people with knowledge of his deliberations. Gutierrez, 52, is considering launching his campaign after the Texas’ legislative session concludes on Memorial Day. There could be special sessions that impact the timing of that decision.

Gutierrez has gotten media attention for his gun safety crusade for the victims of the May 24 Uvalde massacre, wants to provide party voters with an alternative.

Other contenders could emerge, including Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, according to numerous Democratic Party sources. Former Midland City Council member John Love is already in the field with Allred.

As the former Tennessee Titans linebacker launched his Senate campaign earlier this month, Allred told The Dallas Morning News that he understood he may have to fight for his party’s nomination.

“My focus is running a campaign to beat Ted Cruz and to get the people of Texas the kind of honest and pragmatic leadership they deserve,” he said. “Other candidates are welcome to get in the race, but we’re going to run hard and we’re going to run to beat Ted Cruz.”

Gutierrez did not comment on his political future.

But Colin Strother, a consultant for Gutierrez, said Allred does not have the right message. His comments are an early peek at how Gutierrez could try to contrast himself with Allred.

“Based on everything that (Allred has) said and tweeted, and posted thus far, he’s trying to appeal to Republicans, and he’s citing his work across the aisle and his support from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce,” Strother said. “The Chamber of Commerce has enough members in the Senate, and I just don’t see base Democrats getting excited to vote for Republican-light.”

Strother added: “The ground is very fertile for a progressive candidate to run.”

Allred, however, comes into a primary contest with broad support. He’s been endorsed by the political arm of the Congressional Black Caucus. Along with being backed for his congressional races by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, he’s been supported by organized labor.

Allred’s campaign did not comment on Strother’s criticism, instead pointing to the congressman’s remarks that he’s focused on defeating Cruz.

The early prognostication from political observers is that Allred, a sitting congressman, will have a fundraising advantage and support base that will make him hard to beat in the primary. The non-partisan Inside Elections moved the overall competitiveness of the race from “solid Republican” to “Battleground” after Allred got into the race.

Gutierrez has the Latino surname that can be a plus in a Democratic primary to go along with the media attention for his gun control advocacy after the Uvalde massacre, where 19 students and two teachers were killed at Robb Elementary School.

“The way it starts off is Allred has the advantage of probably being able to rely on the African American votes in Dallas and Houston, which is a substantial share of the Democratic primary electorate,” said Mark Jones, a political scientist at Rice University who is studying the race.

“Gutierrez is more likely to be able to appeal to Latinos,” he said, “so the group that will be the decisive group would be liberal Anglos. Where do they go?”

A contested primary, especially if it’s costly and contentious, could hurt the chances of Democrats to win their first statewide election since 1994.

“Cruz is the lowest hanging fruit that you have,” Jones said. “If you’re going to be forced to spend precious dollars in a primary, it’s only going to benefit Cruz.”

Bolting to the lead

Thirty-six hours after announcing his challenge to Cruz, Allred raised $2 million for his campaign, according to his communications team.

That total projects that Allred, 40, will have a formidable fundraising advantage in the primary.

Allred will try to lock down support in the major urban areas of Dallas and Houston, as well as East Texas. His aides are confident they can challenge Gutierrez and others throughout the rest of the state.

If Turner, the Houston mayor, or another high-profile Black candidate does not get into the contest, Allred is expected to get the lion’s share of the Black vote. If Turner does run, it could cause Allred problems.

“My sense is that Colin comes in stronger because he’s from a bigger metropolitan area and has a real track record of beating Republicans in competitive races,” said Democratic Party strategist Matt Angle, who does not expect Turner to run for Senate. “And there’ll be a lot of people that will be frustrated by a contested primary, when you’d like for all the attention to be focused on Ted Cruz.”

Allred has cast himself as a business-minded Democrat, which could get him support with white moderates across the state.

He’s battle-tested. In 2018, the former Hillcrest High School football standout beat incumbent Republican Pete Sessions to win the north Dallas and northeast suburban district that at the time leaned Republican. To get to Sessions, Allred had to win a seven-person primary field.

Offering a contrast

Gutierrez, who won’t have to give up his state Senate seat to run against Cruz, believes he can offer voters a contrast, sources close to him reveal.

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The state senator will try to run as a candidate more progressive than Allred, using his experience in fighting for gun safety legislation as a jumping off point for his campaign.

He’ll have the chance to win Latino votes in South Texas and the Rio Grande Valley, as well as in parts of Austin, Houston and, perhaps, Dallas and Fort Worth.

There’s a history of underdog Latino candidates doing well against well-funded frontrunners. In 1996, Crandall school teacher Victor Morales stunned U.S. Rep. John Bryant of Dallas to win the Democratic Party nomination for Senate against Republican Phil Gramm. Morales, who gained popularity by driving a white pickup across Texas, lost to Gramm in the general election. Last year Bryant emerged from retirement to win a seat in the Texas House.

In 2018 progressive and little-known Democrat Seema Hernandez raised less than $10,000, but got 24% of the vote on the strength of Latino voters, particularly in counties along America’s border with Mexico. She lost that primary to former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke.

In 2022, little-known former ACLU lawyer Rochelle Garza won the Democratic nomination for attorney general, beating former Galveston Mayor Joe Jaworski and North Texas civil rights attorney Lee Merritt. She lost the general election to incumbent Republican Ken Paxton, whose legal problems made him vulnerable.

“Last year, Rochelle Garza cleaned up against Joe Jaworski, though that was partly the male/female dynamic,” said North Texas-based consultant Jeff Dalton, who managed the 2020 Senate campaign of state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas. He said Garza appealed to Latinos from the Valley and San Antonio and other parts of the state.”

But Gutierrez’s challenge is raising enough money to be able to amplify his message. If he can’t, Allred will drown him out.

“Anybody with a Latino last name in the Democratic primary comes in with a base,” Angle said. “The question is whether or not you could take that and expand upon it.”

Angle added that both candidates, largely unknown outside of their hometowns, will have to build a coalition to win. That means they will have to extend beyond their Black and Latino support.

“You have to build a coalition,” he said.

Taking the plunge

Though it’s been an uphill struggle for Democrats to win a statewide race, it hasn’t stopped candidates from taking the Senate plunge.

In 2018, O’Rourke lost to Cruz by 2.6 percentage points, so next year Democrats think they have a shot against the controversial junior senator and former presidential contender.

O’Rourke had light competition in the primary.

Next year, a Democrat might have to win a family fight before challenging Cruz. Dalton said a competitive primary could help raise the profiles of the contenders and make them better candidates.

“Primaries are not necessarily a bad thing,” Dalton said. “Sometimes a primary can raise attention about the race or help people raise money.”

Most Democrats warn against a bitter fight.

“I hope that people run for only one reason and that is to beat Ted Cruz,” Angle said. “We don’t have the luxury of symbolic campaigns.”