Democrat Mike Collier embraces his GOP past as he tries to unseat Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick

Mike Collier, Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, at a campaign event in Cedar Park last year. Collier is touting his past as a Republican to try and woo GOP voters in his bid to oust Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. (Allie Goulding For The Texas Tribune, Allie Goulding For The Texas Tribune)

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Democrat Mike Collier is increasingly leaning into his background as a former Republican as he tries to pull off an upset against GOP Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

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After making it through a Democratic primary and runoff in which his GOP past was a sensitive issue, Collier is making overt appeals to Republicans with his advertising, endorsements, stump speeches and public comments.

“There’s an awful lot of people in Texas who would rather not vote for Dan Patrick,” said Collier, who’s been a Democrat for nearly a decade but was previously a Republican and twice voted against President Barack Obama. “My job is to make sure they get to know me.”

Collier’s efforts to court Republicans paid off over the weekend as he landed endorsements from two of Patrick’s GOP critics, Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley and state Sen. Kel Seliger of Amarillo, both of whom are leaving office after this year. In explaining their decisions, Whitley cited Collier’s career as an accountant, when the candidate largely considered himself a Republican, and Seliger specifically pointed to Collier’s previous affiliation with the GOP.

“He’s always been conservative,” Seliger told The Texas Tribune after his endorsement. “He used to be Republican. And I think he will be conservative, but I think he’s going to … represent everybody in the state of Texas.”

Patrick’s campaign dismissed Seliger and Whitley as “dinosaur[s]” searching for relevance on their way out of office. And polling shows partisans have all but locked in their choices in the race — a survey released Wednesday gave Patrick 91% support among Republicans, with 4% backing Collier and 5% undecided.

But Collier is hopeful. He said those endorsements from longtime GOP names who oppose Patrick “dramatically accelerate” his efforts to reach out to disaffected Republicans and other voters who do not traditionally identify as Democrats — voters his campaign needs to have a shot at unseating the incumbent.

And Collier’s efforts are not over. During a visit to the Dallas area this week, Collier said he planned to visit with three Republican county judges to talk about his campaign. So should voters expect to see more GOP endorsements for his campaign?

“I’m hoping that more come out,” he said. “There’s an awful lot of them that are telling their neighbors and their communities and their friends that they’re voting for me. Whether they say something publicly in a way that I can then use as part of my campaign, I don’t know. That, only they’ll decide. I hope they do.”

Patrick made an adversary out of Whitley with his push to limit how much municipalities could raise property taxes. Whitley argued local officials would not have to raise tax rates if the state properly funded infrastructure and public schools.

Similarly, Seliger and Patrick frequently battled over the lieutenant governor’s support for private school vouchers, which Seliger opposed. After voting against some of Patrick’s legislative priorities, Seliger was stripped of committee leadership positions and ultimately drawn into a district he could not win during last year’s redistricting cycle.

Collier said that the recent GOP support has taken years to manifest. This is his third campaign for statewide office and in each of those races he tried to reach out to Republican voters. Those efforts have gotten his foot in the door with voters and elected officials who do not traditionally support Democrats, and Collier said it’s his campaign’s job to try to convince them to support his underdog run against a Republican incumbent.

Last month, Collier released an ad in which he identifies himself as a “former Republican” and says, “I know plenty of good Texas Republicans, and Dan Patrick ain’t one of them.” The spot has run digitally and on radio in GOP-dominated West Texas. The campaign has also bought ads on the video broadcasts of “The Joe Rogan Experience” and the “Howard Stern Show” — unusual places for Democrats to campaign — as it seeks to boost its numbers with Latino and white men who consider themselves politically independent.

In person, too, Collier said he is leveraging his past as an oil and energy expert, a former accountant for one of the largest professional services brands in the world and, importantly, as a former Republican.

But it’s his position on issues and Patrick’s unpopularity with disaffected Republicans and independents that convince voters to support him, he said.

“There’s gonna be an awful lot of people that really hate the partisan war and will gravitate towards this campaign specifically because it takes on not a partisan feel, but a policy feel,” he said. “Mike Collier versus Dan Patrick, who do you trust to fix the grid? Who do you trust to solve the property tax problem? Who do you trust to fund schools? All the things that Texans are worried about. It doesn’t feel like a D versus R contest.”

Becoming a Democrat

In his 2017 book, “Out of Comptrol,” Collier wrote extensively about his transformation from a Republican to a Democrat.

He charted the transition back to the late 2000s, when he said he had grown “ambivalent” about the Texas GOP under then-Gov. Rick Perry. Texas Republicans, he wrote, had become insular and arrogant in their dominance of the state. Collier became a fan of Democrat Bill White, a fellow business leader who was Houston mayor at the time, and he wrote he “enthusiastically voted” for White over Perry in 2010.

After White’s loss, Collier sought to get more involved in Democratic politics. He had recently moved to Kingwood, a famously conservative Houston suburb, and reached out to the president of the Kingwood Area Democrats at the time, Egberto Willies. He recalled getting a “random call” from Collier one day, expressing interest in the group, and they agreed to meet for coffee. Willies said he could “immediately tell” Collier was a Republican but also saw he was well-attuned to what was going on in the state and “wanted to do good.”

Afterward, Collier attended his first meeting of the Kingwood Area Democrats and was struck by how welcoming and issue-oriented they were.

“I think one of the things he realized is that, ‘Damn, everyone really wanted the same thing, eh?’” Willies recalled. “He was able to see on his own that a lot of this division we see in the state and the country wasn’t real. He was like, ‘Hey, the other side wants that, too.’ He doesn’t come from the position of being party-based.”

At the time, Collier was thinking about putting his accounting experience to use by running for Houston city controller. He considered himself a Democrat by then, but the position was nonpartisan and he met with Republican consultants about it, figuring he would “just go with the flow.”

One of those meetings cemented Collier’s decision to leave the GOP, according to the book. The consultant asked Collier if he opposed abortion, and when he responded he supported access to abortion, the consultant said that would be a deal-breaker for Republicans, even though it has nothing to do with managing the city’s finances.

Leaving the meeting, Collier wrote that he was “saddened by the feeling of alienation from a party I had felt attached to for twenty-five years.”

“The hard Right of the Republican Party had grown so rigid and uncompromising that ordinary people, like me, we’re just going to have to walk out,” Collier wrote.

“We’re very proud that people want to join us”

Two statewide campaigns later — comptroller in 2014 and lieutenant governor in 2018 — Collier’s partisan affiliation is not in doubt. In between the campaigns, he further burnished his Democratic resume by serving as finance chair for the state party and an adviser to President Joe Biden’s 2020 campaign in Texas.

Collier went all in for Biden, seeing him as a fellow pragmatist resisting some of their party’s leftward lurches at the time.

“If you line up his policy point of view with my policy point of view, you don’t see a lot of daylight,” Collier said in a January 2021 TV interview.

Collier got an early start on his latest campaign, making it known in April 2021 he would challenge Patrick again after losing by 5 percentage points in 2018. He seemed to be a lock for the Democratic nomination until the fall, when more opponents started cropping up.

The most serious threat appeared to come from Matthew Dowd, the Republican-turned-Democrat cable news commentator and former strategist for GOP President George W. Bush. Collier moved quickly to try to disqualify Dowd with Democrats, releasing an acidic statement on his campaign launch that welcomed him “back to the Democratic Party” and highlighting his Republican history on the campaign trail.

It frustrated some Dowd supporters who were well aware of Collier’s own GOP past, but Dowd said he wanted to stay above the fray and resisted responding in kind. Collier’s years of ingratiating himself to Texas Democrats also paid off as he secured an implicit endorsement from the state party chair, Gilberto Hinojosa, who released a supportive statement after Dowd announced his campaign.

Dowd ended up abandoning his campaign before the filing deadline for the primary, leaving Collier to face state Rep. Michelle Beckley of Carrollton and Carla Brailey, then the vice chair of the state party. Collier failed to win outright and headed to a runoff against Beckley.

Collier’s political background was also an issue in the runoff. Beckley ran as a more reliable Democrat, calling on Collier to drop out because, she said, he did not “inspire the base.” Toward the end of the runoff, Collier ran a TV ad in North Texas — Beckley’s home base — that emphasized his Democratic credentials, promising he would build a “stronger, more progressive Texas.”

Collier said he does not think his newfound Republican support will affect him negatively with Democrats.

“I haven’t had any blowback at all. I haven’t had anybody come to me and say, ‘Well, if he supports you, then that means you’re not who you say you are,’” Collier said. “My position has been perfectly consistent across nine years and it remains so. So I think just basically I’ve built up a lot of trust.”

Instead, Collier said, he sees the new support as a source of pride for his campaign.

“I’ve held my head high as a Democrat now for a decade: This is what I believe in, this is what I'm fighting for. And you have people saying, ‘You know what? Me, too. And we’re gonna join you,’” he said. “We’re very proud that people want to join us.”

Brailey, Collier’s former primary competitor, said she agreed with his approach, saying Republican leaders have veered so far right that “even Republicans are supporting Democratic nominees.”

“As a lifelong Democrat and public servant leader, I understand we need leaders who can reach across party, racial and geographical lines,” Brailey said in a statement.

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