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News / Politics

Texas Democrats bring differing styles in primary fight to take on US Sen. Ted Cruz

By Joseph Morton, The Dallas Morning News
Published: January 27, 2024, 6:00am

WASHINGTON – U.S. Rep. Colin Allred of Dallas says he’s delivered for Texans thanks to a consensus-building approach that crosses the partisan divide.

State Sen. Roland Gutierrez of San Antonio pitches his more confrontational style of putting Republicans on the spot as the best way to get results amid GOP obstructionism.

And state Rep. Carl Sherman of DeSoto, a longtime minister, says voters are tired of political bickering and want a moral leader who can rise above the fray.

Those are the three leading contenders in a crowded March 5 Democratic primary, all vying to take on Republican incumbent U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz. Early voting begins Feb. 20.

Texas hasn’t sent a Democrat to the Senate in more than three decades, but the party smells opportunity after Cruz’s narrow 2018 victory over former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke.

Cruz, who says he’s raising millions across his campaign committee and other fundraising entities, insists that he’s more aligned with Texas voters.

Allred, 40, enjoys frontrunner status in the primary based on prolific fundraising and public polling that shows him in the lead. He often sounds like someone who has already secured the nomination, directing much of his rhetorical fire at Cruz rather than primary rivals.

The three-term congressman highlights his willingness to reach across the aisle, with the nonprofit Common Ground Committee identifying him as the most bipartisan member of the state’s delegation.

That group’s scorecard is based on criteria such as co-sponsoring bills with members of the other party, rather than assessing ideology or evaluating voting records.

“I’ve been laser focused on the race against Ted Cruz, but I think that’s also my pitch to Texas Democrats,” Allred said. “I am best positioned to both beat Ted Cruz in November, and then bring our state and our country back together, through the way I’ll serve in the United States Senate.”

Gutierrez, 53, describes Allred as a “nice person” but views his emphasis on bipartisanship as misguided happy talk in the face of a Republican Party that has embraced bare-knuckle tactics.

He points to his battles with GOP lawmakers in Austin as evidence he’s better suited to take the fight to Cruz in November and then stand up to Republicans on Capitol Hill.

“No amount of bipartisan hand-holding or trying to sound like a Republican is going to make them like you more or make them vote for you, because they’re not,” Gutierrez said. “Those are the real differences between Colin and I.”

Sherman, 57, says he’s running an unconventional campaign, one that’s rooted in a call for moral leadership. He often quotes Bible verses when outlining policy views and avoided uttering Cruz’s name during a 45-minute interview.

“I don’t think it’s about him,” Sherman said. “It’s about the fact that we need people who are going to focus on the problems and the issues that everyday Texans have, not trying to score points and gin up people to get angry about this person or that person.”

How they got here

Gutierrez was born and raised in San Antonio, his father a Mexican immigrant. His mother, from South Texas, died while he was a baby, and his father remarried a Mexican immigrant.

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Gutierrez joined the Texas House in 2008 and defeated a Republican incumbent state senator in 2020. His Senate district includes Uvalde, where a gunman killed 19 children and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in 2022.

Gutierrez, an immigration attorney, said he was ready to retire from public service until that day’s horrors lit a fire in him. He describes being haunted after watching hours of law enforcement body camera footage featuring carnage beyond what’s shown in the most graphic horror movies.

Gutierrez worked closely with Uvalde victims’ families in the aftermath of the massacre, pushing for gun-safety bills.

He was stymied in the Republican-controlled Legislature, but his fiery and persistent advocacy raised his profile and established a reputation for challenging those in power.

Gutierrez says he wants to take the fight for gun-safety measures to the U.S. Senate, citing widespread support even among Republicans for proposals such as raising the minimum age to buy assault-style rifles and requiring universal background checks.

His blueprint for success is illustrated by a suicide prevention hotline for farmers that he pushed through the statehouse. He offered his proposal as an amendment to a broader bill. Conservatives have praised the hotline and credited it with saving lives.

Born and raised in Dallas by a single mom, Allred was captain of the Baylor University football team and played for several years in the NFL before a neck injury ended his playing career.

Allred went to law school and became a civil rights attorney, serving in the Department of Housing and Urban Development under President Barack Obama.

He points to projects he’s helped bring to Texas during his three terms in Congress.

That includes leading the drive to bring a VA Medical Center to Garland and a bipartisan bill signed into law authorizing construction of the Dallas VA Medical Center Spinal Cord Injury Center, as well as a new veterans medical center in El Paso.

He backed the CHIPS and Science Act that’s supporting new manufacturing facilities in Texas and the bipartisan infrastructure law that has funded a slew of projects in the state, from electric vehicle charging stations to road improvements.

Allred worked with U.S. Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Pilot Point, to bring a new federal biomedical research facility to Pegasus Park in Dallas.

“Those were all bipartisan accomplishments,” Allred said. “That’s what folks actually tell me that they want. They want us to put aside some of these differences, where we can, and try to get things done.”

Sherman was born and raised in the Dallas area. A senior minister in the Church of Christ, he represents much of southern Dallas County. He was elected as DeSoto’s first Black mayor in 2010 and reelected in 2013, serving until June 2016.

He served as the first black city manager in two nearby cities: Ferris and Hutchins.

He resigned in 2018 to run for the Texas House.

Sherman said the state needs someone who will go to Washington, get the job done and then return home, rather than acting as a career politician.

“I’m running to bring humanity and sanity to governance and to bring civility and humility to politics,” he said.

Sherman said local elected officials have responded well to his background, track record and advocacy for local control.

He says his experience as a small-town city manager, businessman, suburban mayor and pastor give him a unique ability to understand diverse issues facing Texans.

Sherman has the support of many fellow pastors, including Frederick Haynes III, who introduced O’Rourke at the 2022 Texas Democratic convention.

Sherman has been preaching at churches of different denominations across the state as he seeks the nomination.

“What I’m finding is an affinity to our message and people are just sick and tired of hearing politicians,” Sherman said.

Notable policy differences

Gutierrez has talked up the benefits of a “Medicare for all” approach to health care, while Allred opposes that kind a single-payer approach and instead promotes other steps to improve access, such as creating a public option.

The two have sparred over the Israel-Hamas war. Gutierrez has called for a cease-fire and criticized what he characterizes as overly aggressive bombing of Gaza by Israel.

Allred emphasizes Israel’s right to defend itself, within the bounds of international law.

Gutierrez says Allred is too willing to go along with Republican calls for physical barriers on the U.S.-Mexico border. Allred has criticized Gov. Greg Abbott’s “extreme tactics” on the border and Cruz’s politicization of the issue.

Both back safeguarding abortion access, passing gun safety legislation and protecting voting rights. But Gutierrez says he’s willing to eliminate Senate filibuster rules and expand the Supreme Court as strategies to break through conservative resistance.

Allred said he favors “reform” of the Senate filibuster rules because they’ve been abused but stops short of calling for their elimination. And he says it’s important to preserve the Senate as a place for thoughtful, bipartisan legislation.

He opposes expanding the Supreme Court, saying it would overly politicize the judicial branch.

But he rejects the suggestion he hasn’t been willing to battle Republicans on issues such as abortion access and voting rights.

“No one has fought harder for those than I have,” Allred said.

Sherman agreed with the need to protect abortion rights and adopt gun-safety measures. On the question of whether to abolish the Senate filibuster and expand the Supreme Court, Sherman said he hasn’t had the chance to listen to all sides of the argument and is wary of unintended consequences.

Money and polls

A December survey of Democrats by the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin showed Allred leading the field with 28% and Gutierrez second with 7%. None of the other primary candidates received more than 3%.

Federal Election Commission reports for the third quarter of 2023 showed Allred with a massive financial lead, having outraised Gutierrez 20-1.

Official reports for the final quarter of 2023 aren’t due until the end of January, but Allred recently announced that he had raised $4.8 million in that quarter and entered 2024 with $10 million on hand.

Allred said he’s been blown away by the response to his candidacy.

“I think we are now ready for what I think is going to be one of the most important elections in modern American history,” Allred said.

Guttierez said he has raised more than $1 million but acknowledged that’s far behind Allred. He said he’s going to put in the effort on the ground, however, and is wrapping up a 4,500-mile, 25-day road trip throughout the state.

“We’re working a real campaign. We’re traveling across the state in a real way, talking to working class families,” Guttierez said.

Sherman also acknowledged he’s well behind in fundraising.

“My campaign has never been about raising millions of dollars, but sincerely it’s about raising concerns and issues and fighting for millions of Texans,” Sherman said.

Gutierrez described Allred’s fundraising prowess as evidence that national Democrats have placed their bets on Allred and said that’s not what Texans want.

“They want to see people that are honest and hard working and deliberate,” Gutierrez said. “That’s who I’ve been my entire career volunteering in the Texas Legislature.”

While Gutierrez cast Allred’s approach as too willing to compromise with Republicans, Allred said it’s been effective.

He was first elected to Congress in 2018 by defeating a longtime incumbent Republican, U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, in a district with such a rightward tilt no Democrat ran in the previous election.

Allred said he beat Sessions, and prevailed in a tough re-election fight, by building a broad coalition that spanned the ideological spectrum.

“Particularly from my background as an athlete, playing football, in any locker room you’re going to have all kinds of different viewpoints and all kinds of different life experiences, but you have to come together and work towards a common goal to try and win games and get things done,” Allred said. “And I think that has given me great preparation for serving in Congress.”

Role models in the Senate

Asked for a current U.S. senator he admires, Sherman cited Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., a fellow pastor. He said Warnock doesn’t get bogged down in polarizing political disputes.

“As a nation, we are so morally bankrupt in our leadership,” Sherman said. “Americans deserve to have individuals in leadership that have a fidelity to God and that have a fidelity to principles and values that help to shape their legislative priorities.”

Gutierrez said he appreciates the candor of Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., even if he doesn’t agree with him on all policy questions.

“Sanders kind of speaks his mind, speaks the truth,” Gutierrez said. “That doesn’t mean I’m going to be like Bernie. A Texas Democrat and a Vermont Democrat are two different creatures. We just have different issues.”

Allred praised Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., one of the Senate’s moderates.

“He’s someone who has served in a bipartisan way, stands up for his values but also is widely respected,” Allred said. “Oftentimes when you see dealmaking being done, he’s at the center of it. That’s something that I see myself doing.”