Rep. Victoria Neave Criado launched a surprise bid against fellow Democrat Sen. Nathan Johnson. Here’s why she did it.

State Rep. Victoria Neave Criado, D-Dallas, and state Sen. Nathan Johnson, D-Dallas are facing off in the March primary as Neave Criado challenges the incumbent Johnson. (Shelby Tauber For The Texas Tribune And Julius Shieh/The Texas Tribune., Shelby Tauber For The Texas Tribune And Julius Shieh/The Texas Tribune.)

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Hours before the December deadline for candidates to file their paperwork for this election cycle, an influential House Democrat rolled the dice.

House County Affairs Chair Victoria Neave Criado challenged a well-funded and popular member of her own Dallas County delegation for his Senate seat with a fiery announcement and a promise to better represent the constituents of Senate District 16.

“As Democrats, we must decide if we’re satisfied with business as usual, or if we are going to up our game,” read the Dec. 11 announcement.

On the surface, Neave Criado’s move to unseat Sen. Nathan Johnson in the March 5 Democratic primary does not seem entirely unusual.

Incumbent officeholders typically wait until their desired seat opens up rather than risking their own so they don’t have to compete against an incumbent with a big war chest. But contests between elected members of the same delegation do happen occasionally, usually a result of changes to district boundaries or, less commonly, strong disagreements between the lawmakers.

This was one rift that few saw coming, however. So the question on everyone’s mind was … why?

“Women are often told we need to wait our turn,” Neave Criado said in a recent interview with The Texas Tribune. “But you know, I'm not waiting my turn when I see that this district is not being represented like it should be.”

Johnson, an attorney and composer fighting for his third four-year term, says his record on a broad range of issues affecting his constituents proves otherwise.

“My opponent is trying to create this distinction between us as to who's a fighter, and it's false — except that I’ve been more effective at it,” he said in a recent interview with the Tribune. “She fights. I fight. All the Democrats down there are fighting. But about what? And with what success? That's the question.”

It was the first time the public had heard of any bad blood between the two. Johnson’s centrist voting record is nearly indistinguishable from most of the other Democrats in the Texas Senate, political scientists note, and so he has generally avoided partisan attacks from the left.

Those were usually reserved for the more conservative Senate Democrats who regularly vote for measures pushed by the hard-right Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, such as Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen.

Even he didn’t draw a primary challenger this time.Neither, in fact, had Neave Criado — guaranteeing her a return to the House for a fifth term and more seniority in the chamber. Now, that’s not even an option.

“Neave Criado making that decision was a surprise,” said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University who tracks legislative races, voting and fundraising. “I’m sure she meditated on it back and forth for plenty of time, but outwardly, even in the district, it was such a secret that people were scrambling to fill in her House seat.”

Neave Criado’s seat, which she vacates no matter if she wins or loses in March, will likely be filled by Dallas financial adviser Linda Garcia, a Democrat who is running unopposed in the primary and in the general election. Garcia filed her candidacy within hours of Neave Criado’s announcement.

Fundraising gap for the challenger

Neave Criado’s early polling showed favorable conditions to enter the Senate race, she said. Her fundraising, however, hasn’t kept up with Johnson’s.

Neave Criado has raised $127,670 since July, with nearly $30,000 of that last month. She’s spent some $75,000 and had $33,000 on hand as of Jan. 25.

Johnson is sharply outpacing her, raising nearly half a million dollars since July and spending the same amount — including $326,000 last month — and as of late January had a war chest of nearly $750,000.

There had been no public battles between the two lawmakers, no outward criticism of each others’ votes or standing in the party, no scandals about them getting hounded by their party or constituents for bad behavior in Austin.

Both veteran lawmakers have represented safely Democratic districts and were all but guaranteed to win reelection in November. Both fought vocally and with their votes against Republican efforts to ban abortion and target gender-affirming care for trans kids, among other social issues.

Johnson is visible, popular, and well-funded. He frequently plays the role of loyal opposition in the heavily conservative Senate chamber, and had not, up until that point, drawn much criticism from his fellow Democrats for his center-left voting tendencies.

For her part, Neave Criado has achieved a measure of power in her four terms in office and is considered a rising star in the House. She is one of Republican House Speaker Dade Phelan’s lieutenants in the staunchly conservative and highly volatile lower chamber, chairing a committee that often holds power over bills that affect members’ districts on a local level. She chairs the Mexican American Legislative Caucus at a time when border and immigration issues are in the spotlight, both in Texas and nationally.

Observers viewed Neave Criado’s defiant act as a gamble, pushing her into a high-stakes contest that lays her successful career on the line and threatens to trade her growing influence in the House for a full-time seat on the sidelines.

“High risk, high reward,” Jones called it.

It wouldn’t be her first uphill battle. In the 2016 general election, she unseated Republican state Rep. Kenneth Sheets in the most expensive Texas House race of that cycle.

Her already-diverse district is continually trending toward communities of color. After the lines were redrawn in 2021 as part of constitutionally required redistricting and packed in more Democrats, half the constituents in the district are now Hispanic.

She sees demographics as a sign that the Senate district she’s running for needs fresh representation.“These are urgent times for the residents of Senate District 16,” she told the Tribune. “You know, this is an incredibly diverse district with over half speaking a language other than English at home. And, this district deserves representation that understands them and speaks up for them no matter what. I know that I have the skills and the leadership to do that — as the daughter of an immigrant, as a lawyer, I have used those skills and my lived experiences. I understand the needs of my fellow neighbors in the district.”

She has the endorsement of some fellow House members as well as the Texas Organizing Project, which champions issues important to communities of color.

“Representative Neave Criado is not only a consistent champion for policies that lift up everyday Texans, she fully understands the gravity of this political moment, and how the far-right extremism enabled by today's MAGA Republicans threatens the well-being of our state's growing Black and Latino communities,” Julie Vazquez, a TOP board member from Dallas County, said in a statement. “TOP members endorsed Representative Neave Criado because of her proactive stance on critical issues like immigration, reproductive rights, and voting.”

Neave Criado has a platform heavy on women’s issues such as domestic violence, and her record is burnished by the passage of the Lavinia Masters Act, which she carried to address an egregious backlog of untested rape kids in Texas and which came with $50 million in funding.

Immigration fight sparked Senate run

But the issue Neave Criado says finally drove her to challenge Johnson was the immigration fight in the Legislature last year.

During the third special session in October, Johnson — along with nine of the other 12 Senate Democrats — voted in favor of a bill that enhanced penalties for human smugglers.

Neave Criado voted against it in the House, along with many other House Democrats, saying it would put mixed-status and immigrant communities like those in her district at risk.

Johnson counters that the bill addresses smugglers who had already been convicted and gave law enforcement no new basis for arresting anyone. Three times last year he voted against the immigration bill considered among the worst by Democrats, which creates a state crime for immigrants who illegally enter Texas.

“She’s trying to turn this into some sort of racial issue, and I take offense to anybody saying that I have anything to do with, or any sympathy for, or anything other than contempt for Abbott's racial profiling tendencies and legislation, his rhetoric,” Johnson said. “She knows it’s not true. I have contempt for all of that, and it's been very clear in my votes and in my public statements.”

Johnson hits back at Neave Criado for her own record, which he says is “troubling” on some social issues — including a vote in favor of posting In God We Trust language in public schools. But, more importantly he says, her work has been far too narrow to qualify her for the job of a senator, who must carry legislation covering a broad swath of issues.

He points to a bill he passed last year that allowed some 350,000 uninsured Texans to get health care coverage as just one example of a broad record of work on Medicaid expansion, water issues, economic stability, infrastructure, support for abortion rights and other issues important to his constituents.

Johnson was recently endorsed by several fellow senators and community leaders, including Ambassador Ron Kirk, the former mayor of Dallas. The Dallas Morning News also endorsed him in an editorial that said Johnson has "quietly become one of the most effective Democratic legislators in Texas.”

He’s also been endorsed by the Texas Medical Association, which supports his work to increase access to health care, and the National Abortion Rights Action League, which scores him 100% on abortion rights.

“I will compliment my opponent on work that she has done in the area of domestic violence and violence against women. She's done very good work there, and I hope that someone continues doing it,” Johnson said. “What I haven't seen is any evidence of particular interest in the other needs of the state like health care, electricity, water, roads, employment opportunities. And a senator has to have a comprehensive portfolio of interests and strengths and achievements. And that comes from putting in the work.”

Disclosure: Rice University and the Texas Medical Association have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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