In Representative Colin Allred’s announcement that he would challenge Senator Ted Cruz, he addressed the unspoken question everyone thought but few would say.
“Some people say a Democrat can’t win in Texas,” he said. “Well, someone like me was never supposed to get this far.”
In the minds of many Democrats, Texas should be fertile territory. In recent years, Democrats have turned other Sun Belt states like Colorado, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico into places they can be competitive, if not solidly blue territories. With a large Hispanic population as a holdover from when the state was part of Mexico and tons of college-educated voters migrating to the state in the past decade, it should present an opportunity for the party.
Hillary Clinton got within single digits of Donald Trump and her victories in Dallas County and Harris County, which includes Houston, showing that Democrats might be able to make headway in the Lone Star State. In 2018, Mr Allred, buoyed by Beto O’Rourke’s barnstorming campaign against Mr Cruz, beat longtime Represetative Pete Sessions and flipped the 32nd District, which includes Dallas and had voted for Ms Clinton, as part of the suburban revolt against Mr Trump.
He held it in 2020 despite Democrats shedding seats elsewhere and failed attempts to win other House seats. Of course, that same year, while Joe Biden got within 5.6 points in Texas and improved on the margins in Harris and Dallas Counties, Democrats crumbled in the largely Hispanic Rio Grande Valley as part of the larger shift rightward of Latinos nationwide that year.
Ever since then, Democrats have put much of their hopes of winning in Texas on ice. Even after Republican Governor Greg Abbott passed an unpopular six-week abortion ban, he routed Mr O’Rourke in his re-election campaign last year, largely by keeping the focus on immigration from the US-Mexico border and busing migrants to blue states.
At the same time, despite the fact he has won two elections in the state, Mr Cruz, a former presidential presidential candidate who led efforts to try and overturn the 2020 presidential election results, has cut a uniquely polarising persona in Texas and has underperformed compared to other Republicans.
Stories have abounded about Mr Cruz’s unlikeability within the larger Republican conference, given his efforts to shut down the government in 2013 and calling Mitch McConnell a liar in 2015. It reached its zenith when Mr Trump dubbed him “Lyin’ Ted” and accused him of being a phony Christian, when he said Mr Cruz was “always walking in with the Bible held high” but “puts it down, then he lies.”
That image is a bit outdated since Mr Trump’s presidency as the senator has mostly become a reliable footsoldier for Republicans and aggressively questions Biden administration nominees and officials. Even today, Mr Cruz and Senator Lindsey Graham chatted on the Senate subway only a few years after Mr Graham famously said “If you killed Ted Cruz on the floor of the Senate, and the trial was in the Senate, nobody would convict you.”
In 2018, two years after Mr Trump won Texas by a little less than 10 points, Mr Cruz only won his race by less than three points, even as Mr Abbott won by double digits.
Hispanic voters have typically prevented Democrats from outright drowning, but without sufficient support from Hispanic voters, they risk falling farther. Mr Allred also isn’t the only Democrat who will likely be in the race to unseat Mr Cruz: State Senator Roland Gutierrez, who represents Uvalde and is Hispanic, is planning to run for Senate as well. A Hispanic candidate from near the US-Mexico border might have a better shot at outreach with the demographic that increasingly does not trust Democrats.
Democrats have another huge problem in Texas: low voter turnout. In 2022, 45.7 per cent of all registered voters went to the polls in the general election, slightly below the national 52.2 per cent citizen-age participation rate.
Still, Mr Cruz’s national persona will likely lead to an influx of cash for any Democrat who becomes the senator’s main challenger.
But while campaign cash can make a difference in tight races like Arizona or Georgia in 2022, where Senators Mark Kelly and Raphael Warnock, respectively, had massive fundraising advantages, it cannot alone win campaigns.
Were Mr Allred to win the Democratic nomination, he’d need exorbitantly high turnout from the suburbs of Houston, Dallas and San Antonio to compensate for low Hispanic turnout or a rightward shift, plus Mr Biden’s low approval ratings in the reliably Republican state.