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Why Colin Allred Is Going to Make Ted Cruz Sweat

A recent poll shows the Texas Democrat only 5 percent behind the lightning-rod GOP incumbent. Here’s how he might pull off the cycle’s biggest upset.

Rep. Colin Allred joins members of the Congressional Black Caucus on the House steps of the U.S. Capitol.
Tom Williams/Getty Images
Representative Colin Allred joins members of the Congressional Black Caucus on the House steps of the U.S. Capitol.

It’s been 33 years since a Democrat was elected to statewide office in Texas. Now U.S. Representative Colin Allred, a three-term congressman, voting rights attorney, and former NFL linebacker, is out to break that losing streak with his challenge to controversial GOP Senator Ted Cruz. 

Many political insiders in the state doubt Allred can win, even though a statewide May survey showed Cruz leading him by only 5 percent. They recall other big-time Texas Democrats who failed in recent cycles: Beto O’Rourke (twice), Wendy Davis, M.J. Hegar. But Allred doesn’t seem fazed. He knows what’s at stake and what it will cost him. He’s giving up his safe seat to challenge Cruz, a Trump loyalist who helped fuel the Capitol insurrection, voted to decertify President Joe Biden’s legitimate election, and has been something of a joke since he fled to Cancun during an Arctic storm in Texas. 

“I think a lot of Texans are embarrassed by Ted Cruz. They’re embarrassed by the kind of stunts that he pulls. They’re embarrassed that he’s always manufacturing outrage. He seems to think it’s funny that he went to Cancun during the freeze, but I don’t think it’s funny at all,’’ Allred says, starting our interview. “My temperament is very different. I try to stay even-keel. I work in a bipartisan way. I don’t yell at people. I want to represent Texas in a way that’s sort of what I think a senator’s job should be, which is to introduce legislation that helps Texans—not to be a kind of media personality.”

Allred, who is 40, married to an attorney, Alexandra Eber, and father of two boys, represents a suburban Dallas district he won in 2018 against Republican Congressman Pete Sessions, who had held the seat for 22 years. Allred benefited from redistricting and an increasingly diverse district, a factor that Republicans seemed to ignore or underappreciate.

Now, against Cruz, who is seeking his third six-year term at 52, Allred is defying the odds again. First, he has to win his party’s nomination in the March primary against a large field led by State Senator Roland Gutierrez, whose district includes San Antonio and Uvalde, site of the massacre of 19 schoolchildren and two teachers at Robb Elementary in May 2022. Allred is considered the heavy favorite.

The first stage of the campaign is playing out in the background while a vicious fight is splintering the state’s Republican Party over the impeachment of a top leader, Attorney General Ken Paxton, on charges of corruption and abuse of power. Since Republicans control the legislature and hold every statewide office, the fight pits Republican against Republican, with Democrats happily watching.

On one side is the pro-Paxton faction—both in the state and nationally—led by Donald Trump and backed by Cruz, who has said that “what’s happening to Ken Paxton is a travesty.” On the other side, GOP tactician Karl Rove and former Governor Rick Perry have come out against Paxton in opinion pieces in The Wall Street Journal.

Against this spectacle, and even without it, an Allred-Cruz race could well turn into one of the most exciting and close elections of 2024, one with national implications—and with the Senate majority at stake. Or it could fizzle into another disappointing Democratic hunt for an elusive victory in the Lone Star State, the nation’s second-most-populous state and ground zero for the right-wing cohort playing havoc with culture and social issues.

“I’ve seen Republicans doubling down on these culture-war issues,” Allred says. “I’m also seeing they’re clearly in a kind of race to the bottom that is turning off ordinary folks who are sitting there hoping that their elected officials are working as hard as they are.”  

“Allred is an attractive candidate,’’ says Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University and a scholar of American politics. “He doesn’t sound ideological. He takes moderate positions, middle of the road, that appeal to Texans. He has a compelling personal background.”

Allred was raised in Dallas by a single mother, a white teacher who held several jobs to support him. He never knew his Black father. “I grew up in Texas in the ’80s and in the ’90s.… We’ve come a long way since then on racial relations. But growing up the way I did gave me a perspective in how we see each other. I think that between Anglos and African Americans or Latinos in Texas, we can often feel there’s these differences, and of course there are. But in terms of values? What do people want? The conversations that are being had between different groups—be it a group of Black kids sitting around talking or a group of Anglo kids, the conversations aren’t that different.

“Being an athlete and being good in school—because my mom made me be good in school—I stood out a lot. And so, in so many ways, from an early age, I had to sort of just accept that I was going to be different and to embrace it. And so I carried that with me.… What I really fell in love with about the United States was when I started to understand the civil rights movement, and some of the movements that we’ve had towards equality. Because to me I can see the potential just lurking there. I can see these founding ideals put out there. I can see how far we’ve strayed from it and how much work we still have to do.”       

He adds, “Outside these personal experiences are these people in my own life who have given me a chance when no one else would, or who learned to accept me when I thought they wouldn’t. And so I think it’s possible, and I believe in our potential. It was in some ways a lonely way at times to grow up. I didn’t have any siblings to share it with, not even cousins or anything like that. But I think it gave me a unique perspective. And in a lot of ways, watching people interact from the outside looking in, I gained an understanding that maybe they’re a lot more similar than they thought they were.”     

Allred describes himself as a Texas politician, not a national politician, a label that came to damage Beto O’Rourke, the former El Paso congressman who rocketed out of relative obscurity in 2017 to gain national recognition—and money. But the media attention, even a cover story in Vanity Fair, and the backing of national and local Democrats didn’t carry him over the line. In his home state, in the small towns and rural areas that define much of Texas, he was seen as an outsider. In many of those counties, when he ran against Cruz, he struggled to get 30 percent of the vote.

Allred is making sure that doesn’t happen to him. But he has already caught national media attention. In just two months after his announcement in May, he raised $6.2 million, nearly $2 million more than Cruz. It was a record score that drew the attention of national media and pollsters, all of which made him one of the GOP’s top targets in 2024. Grassroots fundraising has since been slow, and his campaign came online nearly every day making the case for money to mount a campaign across the state’s 254 counties that strategists estimate could cost around $50 million minimum.

Buttoned-up, affable, Allred speaks cautiously but deliberately. He is studiously centrist. He likes to stick to the basics: jobs, education, health care, infrastructure. On climate change, he is cautious, recognizing that “we are an energy state, and even as we try to—and I think we have to—combat climate change, that has to be consistent with the hundreds of thousands of jobs in our state that are tied to the industry.”

Texas has some of the country’s most permissive gun laws, with more than one million gun owners, despite its recent history of mass shootings. The state allows most adults to carry a handgun without a license, and 18-year-olds may purchase guns legally. Allred backs background checks and raising the age to 21, but, unlike O’Rourke, he hasn’t called for confiscating AR-15 rifles, the weapon used in most mass killings. That pledge by O’Rourke, made in an intemperate moment during a debate when he was running for president in 2020, ended up being regularly tossed back in his face in his 2022 gubernatorial run, which he also lost.

On the border and immigration, where Texas has imposed harsh, sometimes inhumane, policies, he says, “I know that it’s possible for us to both secure our border and make the immigration system better meet the needs of our economy.”

Mostly he steers away from controversial statements. On Texas’s draconian ban on abortions, he says, “I hear from a lot of people who are worried that what has made us successful is at risk because of how extreme people see our politics. And they point to people like Ted Cruz as the first example but also to policies like our abortion ban that are leading to all these heartbreaking stories.”

While mounting a busy online campaign and touring parts of the state, Allred’s start-up has drawn relatively little statewide media attention. Ted Cruz is widely known, Allred not so much. “It’s not a problem that Allred is not well known in Texas,” Vinny Minchillo, a Republican strategist who supports Cruz but is not involved in his campaign, tells me. “Twenty million in marketing and advertising will buy him name recognition. Everyone in Texas will know who he is. He is a quality candidate, handsome, smart, but he’s a blank slate at this point. What is his brand? At this point it seems his brand is, ‘I am not Ted Cruz.’ He’s not progressive. He’s wishy-washy, speaks in platitudes. Cruz is tough, an unapologetic conservative. He’s not afraid to kick over the table, but he may be a jerk.”

Matt Angle, the director of the Lone Star Project, a partisan Democratic PAC, sees Allred as the right candidate at a time when Texas is moving in the wrong direction under the Trumpian MAGA axis. “Taking on Republicans is an uphill climb for any Democrat in Texas,” Angle says, but Allred, he believes, could pull off a victory. “He cares about facts and real issues like jobs, schools, health care. He’s a solid person, not a performance politician like Cruz. What Allred needs is a strong racial and ideological coalition. You’ve got to have Blacks, Hispanics, and also moderate Republicans, building from the middle out.’’

“The broad math for Allred to win is straightforward,” Angle says, noting that he does not speak for or represent Allred’s campaign or the Democratic Party. “Reaching the goals is hard. It requires both marginally increasing minority participation and then getting just over one of three Anglo votes.”

He explains, “Democrats need the Anglo percentage of the total turnout to be at 60 percent or ideally lower. That means Hispanic and Black turnout needs to increase slightly beyond their normal rate. Ideally, Hispanics will make up 23–24 percent of the vote. Blacks will make up 12–13 percent of the vote, and Asian Americans will be around 4 percent. The Democratic candidate must then get 65–70 percent support of Hispanics, 90–95 percent support from Blacks, and 65–70 percent support from Asians. Then—and this is the hardest—the Democrat must get 33 percent support from Anglos.”  

He says, “It’s a heavy lift, but I believe Colin Allred has the best background and the ability to increase minority turnout, earn minority support, and win a larger share of the Anglo vote.”  

A look at the Cruz-O’Rourke race of 2018 gives some indication of what it will take for Allred to win. O’Rourke lost to Cruz by only 2.6 points. To get to 50.1 percent, Allred will need to pump up the women’s vote, the 18–44 age bracket, and nonwhite voters. O’Rourke won women 54 percent to 46 percent with a surprising 49–49 tie among white college women. He also won the 18–44 group 59 percent to 40 percent and won the nonwhite vote, including Blacks and Hispanics, 69 percent to 31 percent. There might be a chance now, with the Supreme Court’s unpopular decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, Texas’s controversial abortion ban, and an indicted Trump heading the ticket, for Allred to nudge those numbers upward.

Focusing on suburban women, the young, and nonwhite voters has been an effective formula for Democrats in some battleground states, but Texas, a majority-minority state with a population of 40 million split almost half and half between Hispanics and non-Hispanic whites, remains conservative Republican. Black men voted in fewer numbers in 2020 and 2022, Professor Jillson says, and the Hispanic vote is moving in the Republican direction, especially among men, in the formerly solid Democratic Rio Grande Valley. “The Hispanic Valley culture is machista, conservative, traditional, and ridden with client politics—money and other favors in exchange for votes,” says Jillson. “Trump’s narrative appeals to them.”

Does it? On the contrary, Angle claims. He says Texas Democrats have a better chance of winning with Trump as the head of the GOP ticket because the Republican Party today is even more extreme than Texas itself.

Allred agrees. He doesn’t think that George W. Bush, the famous “compassionate conservative,” could win a primary in Texas right now. As a fourth-generation Texan, Allred says, he has seen the state go from being known for independent leaders who were important on the national stage to a state that is just following the national conservative trend. “That’s not the Texas I know,” he says.

Texas leaders “have always looked out for the state first, knowing that we are a unique, enormous state that has incredible challenges but also incredible potential. And I think they’ve gotten away from that. Ted Cruz has been the leader of that in many ways, and that’s part of why we’re going to beat him in this election.”