Colin Allred looks to protect advantages in crowded race to challenge U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz

U.S. Rep. Colin Allred, D-Dallas, is one of the Democratic candidates for theU.S. Senate. (Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune, Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune)

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U.S. Rep. Colin Allred is looking to protect his frontrunner status as he enters the final weeks of the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate, facing increasingly sharp criticism from one opponent and the uncertainty that comes with a crowded field.

The Dallas congressman has been dominant in fundraising, but while polling continues to show he has the lead, a plurality of voters remain undecided. State Sen. Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio, meanwhile has been crisscrossing the state and working to turn Allred’s bipartisan instincts into a vulnerability.

The primary is reaching a critical juncture, with Allred launching his first TV ad this week and preparing for his only scheduled debate against his opponents Sunday. He has spent recent days intensifying his focus on abortion rights, reflecting a strategy with an eye on the general election, where the nominee is set to face U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.

“Today, because of extremists like Ted Cruz, Texas women have been stripped of that fundamental freedom,” Allred said on a call last week with reporters to mark the 51st anniversary of Roe v. Wade.

Later that day, Gutierrez swung through the Houston area with a message more suited for a competitive primary.

“I’m a progressive candidate,” Gutierrez said in Mont Belvieu, “and I don’t ever apologize for it.”

State Sen. Roland Gutierrez, D-Dallas, one of the Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate, at a multi-county meet and greet at Iguana Joeís Restaurant in Mont Belvieu on Jan. 19, 2024.

State Sen. Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio, and one of the Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate, at a meet and greet in Mont Belvieu on Jan. 19, 2024. Credit: Danielle Villasana for The Texas Tribune

The 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 linebacker for the NFL turned civil rights lawyer. He first ran for Congress in 2018, flipping a Republican-held seat in the Dallas area. Gutierrez joined the state House in 2008 and then won a seat in the state Senate in 2020. He has become the most vocal critic in the Legislature of the state’s response to the 2022 Uvalde school shooting in his district, while calling for increased restrictions on guns.

They align on most Democratic priorities, but there are some clear differences, like on health care — Gutierrez supports a single-payer system, Allred does not. And as Allred brags about being one of the most bipartisan members of Congress, Gutierrez has doubled down on being a go-it-alone brawler in the GOP-dominated state Senate.

There are nine candidates total in the primary. Mark Gonzalez, the former Nueces County district attorney, is also running, as well as Fort Worth entrepreneur Heli Rodriguez Prilliman, San Antonio law professor Steven Keough, Mission tax consultant Meri Gomez, Houston political organizer Thierry Tchenko and Katy businessman A. “Robert” Hassan.

Vastly underfunded, many of those candidates are hoping they can break through with their unique backgrounds. Keough, for example, is leaning into his experience as a former U.S. Navy captain who guarded U.S. officials abroad and later was appointed to advise on nuclear deterrence for presidential administrations.

“I have worked for Democracy around the world,” Keough said in an email, “and I possess more federal public service than any other Senate candidate in the Democratic primary.

Allred led by double digits in the two latest polls, with Gutierrez in second by slim margins over the others. But the polls found voters were undecided more than anything else — 37% in an Emerson survey 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 in fundraising, collecting $4.8 million in the fourth quarter of 2023, according to his campaign. None of the other candidates has voluntarily released their latest fundraising figures ahead of a Wednesday deadline, but Allred swamped the field in the prior quarter, with $4.7 million raised compared to $632,000 for Gutierrez.

Gutierrez has cast himself as the scrappy underdog, telling the Mont Belvieu crowd the primary is “about people, not money — and certainly not Washington 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 support for progressive priorities like Medicare for All and abolishing the Senate filibuster.

Gutierrez also took aim at Allred for his recent vote for a House resolution denouncing President Joe Biden’s “open-borders policies.” Allred was one of 14 Democrats to support it, along with South Texas Reps. Henry Cuellar and Vicente Gonzalez.

“Just nonsense,” Gutierrez said, “to cave in to the false narrative of the Republican Party [and] of Ted Cruz.”

Allred defended his vote in a Dallas TV interview Thursday, saying there is “a crisis at the border and this is a way for me to send a message that it’s time for us to act.” He added he did not agree with all the language in the resolution.

U.S. Rep. Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, a Houston Democrat who is supporting Allred, said his broader approach to legislating is emblematic of a House Democratic caucus that has helped pass bills like the post-Uvalde gun safety law, which U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, 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 on the campaign trail. Some Democratic activists have spoken out about his stinginess with campaign-trial appearances, which Allred has had to balance with Congress being in session.

After he skipped an event for The 134 PAC, a Democratic group focused on rural Texas, the PAC endorsed Tchenko and said Allred has “decided to run a fundraising campaign from Washington D.C.”

Olivia Julianna, a prominent Gen-Z activist from Houston supporting Allred, said that he is “showing up and running a smart, focused and accessible campaign while also serving Texans in Congress.”

While the primary has featured policy contrasts, candidates are also pitching themselves on electability. Democrats have not won statewide office in three decades, and while Beto O’Rourke came within 3 percentage points of winning with his blockbuster campaign in 2018, the party has not been able to replicate as tight of a margin in any statewide race since then.

“You and I know that every general election, we have a statewide candidate that we just don’t win, and it’s unfortunate that we don’t win,” Sherman told the Stonewall Democrats of Dallas earlier this month, saying he stands apart for his experience as a former city manager, former mayor, state representative and longtime pastor.

Sherman has leaned in to his faith in the primary — calling for a “moral” leader — and boasts endorsements like that of Frederick Haynes, the prominent Dallas megachurch pastor.

Like Allred, Gonzalez is pointing to his initial election as a selling point, noting he was first elected district attorney when Nueces County was “very red.”

O’Rourke has not endorsed in the primary, but his 2018 run looms large. In Mont Belvieu, Gutierrez repeatedly paid homage to O’Rourke but also sought to distinguish himself.

“Beto and I are a lot alike in a lot of ways – our policies are alike — [but] I think the messenger’s different,” Gutierrez said, noting he was “born and raised in South Texas.” “I have more guns than anybody running in this race — I promise you that.”

Messaging around guns is a major point of debate in the primary. A number of candidates, including Allred and Gutierrez, support a ban on assault rifles, while Gonzalez has said he opposes it, calling it a “kiss of death” in the general election.

Joshua Markle, a 40-year-old teacher from Deer Park, said the way Gutierrez talked about guns in Mont Belvieu may be the thing that wins him over. Markle said Allred had been the only candidate in the race he was familiar with until he learned Gutierrez was coming to town.

“He’s very direct,” Markle said of Gutierrez, “and I feel like he’s somebody I could sell to my Republican dad.”

Winning the primary

The Houston area is a potential battleground in the primary given its huge population and the fact that none of the better-known candidates is from there.

In addition to airing his TV ad in Houston, Allred has gotten the endorsement of Sylvester Turner, the mayor of the city whose tenure just ended.

The lion’s share of the national endorsements in the primary have gone to Allred, though his biggest potential ally — the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee — has maintained neutrality, at least publicly. In 2020, the DSCC sparked an in-state backlash when it endorsed MJ Hegar in the Democratic primary to take on Cornyn.

The DSCC is happy to play up the November election, where Texas ranks as one of its best pickup opportunities nationally. Last year, the committee announced plans to have communications and research staffers in Texas for the general election.

“Ted Cruz’s long record of putting his own self-serving politics ahead of what is best for Texas and deep unpopularity makes Texas a prime offensive opportunity for Senate Democrats,” DSCC spokesperson Amanda Sherman Baity said in a statement for this story.

Cruz has continued to train most of his attention on Allred, as has a pro-Cruz super PAC, Truth and Courage PAC.

With the clock ticking in the primary, each candidate is hoping to put together a coalition that can at least force Allred to a runoff. One key bloc is Hispanic voters, 43% of which were undecided in the Emerson poll.

“Their vote currently is far more diffuse than some of the other demographics,” Emerson pollster Matt Taglia said in an interview. “[Allred] holds his own there, but I think he does need to speak to those folks.”

The same poll showed both Allred and Gutierrez polling close to Cruz in hypothetical matchups. While there is still a primary, that was the race more on voters’ minds after hearing Gutierrez speak in Mont Belvieu.

“My biggest thing is who’s got the best chance to win,” said Mark Karns, a self-described “diehard Democrat” from nearby Liberty County who had seen Allred speak before and was leaning toward Gutierrez. “I don’t want to hear ‘money.’ I want to hear what you’re gonna do.”

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