Democrats Colin Allred, Roland Gutierrez show contrasts during U.S. Senate primary debate

Candidates running for the U.S. Senate in the Texas Democratic primary participate in a debate in Austin on Sunday, Jan. 28, 2024. From left: state Rep. Carl Sherman, D-DeSoto; U.S. Rep. Colin Allred, D-Dallas; and state Sen. Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio. (Maria Crane/The Texas Tribune, Maria Crane/The Texas Tribune)

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Colin Allred and Roland Gutierrez showed off their differing styles and ideas during their first — and maybe only — debate together Sunday in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate.

The Austin debate, hosted by the Texas AFL-CIO, also featured state Rep. Carl Sherman of DeSoto, though the conflict centered on Gutierrez, a state senator from San Antonio, and Allred, a Dallas congressman. Gutierrez repeatedly suggested Allred was pandering to Republicans, while Allred defended his bipartisanship as necessary to winning in GOP-dominated Texas.

Gutierrez took his hardest swings at Allred over a recent U.S. House resolution he supported that denounced President Joe Biden’s “open-borders policies.” Gutierrez suggested Allred was throwing their party’s president “under the bus … just for political expediency.” Allred defended the vote.

“Listen, I’ll be honest with you: That was a tough vote for me,” said Allred, one of 14 Democrats who backed the resolution. “It was a vote that I saw as being about whether we stood for the status quo or not.”

There are nine Democrats on the March primary ballot, though the Texas AFL-CIO invited only the three for the debate. Its president, Rick Levy, said they were selected “based on polling of our executive board.”

Allred has had a clear lead in polling and fundraising — especially fundraising — though surveys show a plurality of voters remain undecided. This was the only debate he has publicly committed to, so far.

The Democrats are competing to challenge U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who is running for a third term. He faced an unexpectedly competitive challenge the last time he ran for reelection, defeating Democrat Beto O’Rourke by less than 3 percentage points.

How to win in 2024 was a major topic at the debate. Allred emphasized that he has already flipped a Republican-held seat — beating U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Dallas, in 2018 — while Gutierrez pitched a strategy more focused on energizing Democrats.

Democrats will win “not by moving to the middle, but by inspiring every Democrat in this state to get new voters,” Gutierrez said, adding that “no amount of handholding with Republicans is going to get this done.”

Allred’s appeals across the aisle came up throughout the debate. Beyond the anti-Biden resolution, Gutierrez objected to Allred touting his previous support from both organized labor and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, saying, “You cannot be for the wolf and the sheep too.”

“I’ve built broad coalitions in my campaigns,” Allred responded. “That’s how you win tough races.”

To be sure, there were more than just stylistic differences among the candidates. On health care, Gutierrez stood out for backing the closest thing to a single-payer system, branding his preferred approach as “Medicare for all that want it.” He qualified it by saying people who like their private insurance plans should be able to keep them.

Allred said he did not support Medicare for All, while Sherman said he would prefer to prioritize expanding Medicaid as a legislator.

On abortion rights, all three supported codifying Roe v. Wade, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the court overturned in 2022. But they were not entirely unified on how far they would be willing to go, including on whether to abolish the Senate filibuster that has prevented passage of such legislation in a closely divided chamber.

Gutierrez said “damn right” to both abolishing the filibuster and expanding the Supreme Court if necessary. Allred only said he would “not let the filibuster stand in the way.”

There were also differences over how the United States should respond to the war in Gaza, which was sparked by Hamas’ October terrorist attack that killed 1,200 Israelis. Gutierrez reiterated his call for a ceasefire, saying, “You cannot bring justice to 1,200 people by killing 30,000, a third of which are women and children.”

Allred, who has not called for a ceasefire, argued a ceasefire “without conditions” would not free Israeli hostages and would keep Hamas in power.

“It is unacceptable that we would pursue something along those lines,” he said. “We can limit — and do everything we can to limit — civilian casualties while also prosecuting this conflict against Hamas, but a ceasefire is not a magical term” to fully solve the problem.

Allred continued to stand out when term limits came up. Both Sherman and Gutierrez backed the idea in some form, but Allred invoked the storied legacies of veteran Black lawmakers like John Lewis and noted term limits would have kept them from serving. Allred said voting rights and campaign finance reforms are a better way of "getting rid of bad incumbents, not by setting kind of arbitrary deadlines."

Sherman steered clear of the conflict between Allred and Gutierrez but distinguished himself by making a general-election case centered on his background as a pastor. He opened by pitching himself as a “fighter for social justice.”

He talked about November being about “good versus evil” and alluded to the 2020 breakthrough election of a fellow Black pastor, Raphael Warnock, in another historically red state, Georgia.

“This is not a theory,” Sherman said. “Look to Georgia to see if someone who’s a mayor, a city manager, state representative and pastor can win.”

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