Update: Texas is still a battleground state

by | May 24, 2023 | 2024 Elections, Texas Legislature

Colin Allred has only officially been a candidate for United States Senate against Ted Cruz for a few weeks, but to say the North Texas congressman has made the most of that time would be a wild understatement.

Allred made a massive splash in the race against Ted Cruz in only a handful of hours, quickly raising more than $2 million while striking fear deep into his embattled opponent’s heart. 

National observers quickly took note. In recent weeks, multiple election handicappers have declared the race for Cruz’s Senate seat a tossup, with Allred raising serious resources and voters responding to his biography and message.

It’s unwelcome news for Cruz, who nearly wilted under the pressure of an insurgent challenger once before. Cruz barely managed to escape the 2018 election cycle with his Senate seat after Beto O’Rourke came within a little more than 200,000 votes of beating Cruz while posting impressive margins in large counties like Harris and Dallas and capturing swing county Tarrant for a Democrat for the first time in generations.

Cruz faced an interesting combination of challenges in 2018, and based on current polling in the Republican presidential primary and the decidedly rightwing lurch the Texas Legislature has taken this session, Cruz should be worried that history may be repeating itself.

In 2018, voters across Texas went to the polls to reject disgraced former President Donald Trump and his politics of hate. At the same time that voters across Texas and nationally were rising up to object to the Trump agenda, Texas Republicans were blissfully spending the 2017 legislative session on red-meat issues that voters were soundly rejecting. 

While Texas parents were worried about school funding, Dan Patrick and the Texas GOP were trying to regulate school bathrooms and discriminate against trans-Texans. Instead of focusing on policies that could create jobs and opportunities for Texans, the Texas GOP was telling business owners how they should treat their customers and manage their companies.

It led to a powerful combination of voter mobilization, with anti-Trump voters sweeping Democratic candidates into office up and down the ballot, including Allred, who first won his seat in Congress in a heated battleground race against Pete Sessions that cycle, with suburban women especially powering Beto’s performance and falling just a dozen seats short of Democrats taking back the Texas House.

Fast forward five years, and the playing field for the 2024 election cycle looks…largely the same. Trump, who posted the two worst performances for any Republican presidential candidate in Texas in generations in 2016 and 2020, holds a commanding lead in the Republican Primary, with his most-watched challenger (Florida Governor Ron DeSantis) expected to enter the race on May 24th in a Twitter Spaces event with enigmatic billionaire Elon Musk.

While some voters might assume that sharing a ticket with Trump in a state that he carried twice would be helpful to Republican candidates, the truth of the matter is that Trump only beat Biden by around 5 points in Texas in 2020, and the past three years has done little to inspire voters to move over to Trump’s column. From attempting to lead an insurrection to being found liable for sexual abuse in a civil trial, Trump has racked up one embarrassing loss after another.

And the Texas Legislature seems to have learned…nothing. Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick loaded the Texas Senate agenda with a series of culture war bills designed to bolster his bonafides as the true conservative champion of Texas, while House Speaker Dade Phelan has struggled to reign in the most extreme members of the Texas House.

And Phelan himself has found himself in a sticky situation: a showdown with long-indicted Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton that has thrown a multi-million dollar legal settlement that Paxton hoped to sneak past taxpayers into question and sparking some startling accusations against the Speaker.

There are no two ways about this: over the weekend, a clip of Phelan presiding over the Texas House went viral. There was nothing remarkable about the clip except for the apparent condition of the Speaker, who was heavily slurring his words while swaying at the dias.

Far-right commentators like former State Rep. Jonathan Stickland, himself something far short of a paragon of moral virtue, circulated the clip and condemned the behavior, and Paxton seized on the opportunity to plunge a knife into his newfound rival by issuing a public call for Phelan to resign, citing his apparent “debilitating intoxication” while presiding over the body.

The crux of their conflict is as simple as it gets. Earlier this year, Paxton agreed to pay a $3.3 million settlement to a group of whistleblowers who allege that Paxton fired them when they raised concerns about his conduct with a campaign donor named Nate Paul, who is alleged to have remodeled Paxton’s home and provided a job to his supposed mistress. 

Paxton summarily fired the whistleblowers, who filed a jaw-dropping suit in response. Paxton offered up the settlement in the hopes that the lawsuit would go away, but as there always seems to be with our ethically slippery Attorney General, there was a catch.

The $3.3 million settlement from the Office of the Attorney General would have to be funded with taxpayer funds, meaning every Texan would help cut a check to get Paxton out of hot water. That meant that the funds needed to be approved by the Texas Legislature, something Paxton’s team seemed confident they could facilitate when making the offer.

Phelan and other leaders in the Legislature balked at the thought that taxpayer money would be used to bail Paxton out of trouble, yet again, and an investigation into the settlement and Paxton’s conduct has been underway in the Texas House since at least March.

While Paxton certainly had some evidence to back up his claims that Phelan was drunk on the dias, it is hypocritical at best to try to force his resignation now. Rumors about Phelan’s drinking are nothing new, with capitol staffers and lobbyists telling Texas Signal that Phelan’s penchant for drinking has been well-known within the building for years.

And it isn’t even the first time this issue has raised its head this session. Earlier this year, one of our readers sent in a photo of Phelan standing in the back of a committee hearing looking exceptionally haggard. While we weren’t able to confirm what Phelan was up to the night before, throughout the day we received reports of rumors that he was obviously hungover and his appearance had raised the ire of several conservative members.

While it’s easy enough to say that none of this has anything to do with Cruz, the public ethics fracas between the attorney general and speaker of the house is just the latest symptom of Texas GOP dysfunction that hang a cloud over Texas Republicans up and down the ballot in 2024, especially Cruz.

A large number of the voices calling out Phelan for his behavior on the House floor are not honest brokers. Many of them had close relationships with disgraced former State Rep. Bryan Slaton, who resigned in an effort to avoid expulsion after an investigation confirmed he had plied a 19-year-old intern in his office with alcohol before having sex with that staffer. When word started to leak out about the troubling behavior of Slaton, who led conservative efforts to discriminate against LGBTQ Texans and voted against banning child marriage, he did his best to cover up his impropriety. 

Slaton was a movement conservative with a deep Rolodex and extensive ties to Ted Cruz. Cruz’s father even officiated Slaton’s wedding. And Cruz has such deep political history with Paxton, Phelan and Patrick that he can’t possibly evade their bad behavior forever.

How can Cruz effectively distance himself from the terrible public policy decisions Texas Republicans have made in the lege? Cruz has been one of the biggest public cheerleaders for the Republican Party becoming more extreme in its conservatism, and as a national leader in the Republican Party, Cruz has frequently set the worst example for Americans that care about discourse in our country. 

Time will tell if Allred can sustain his impressive start, and he may not have the primary to himself much longer. While there are a few candidates formally in the race that haven’t drawn much attention, we’ve heard rumors for months that Texas State Senator Roland Gutierrez (who represents Uvalde in the Texas Senate) is considering entering the race this summer, and whispers have persisted that other candidates might be eying the race as well.

But Allred’s head start has given him a powerful opportunity to define his biography while raising serious resources and building a statewide operation. Cruz may be the most beatable Republican incumbent in the country, but you can’t beat an incumbent US Senator without checking all the boxes required to run a professional operation. 

Through the first weeks of his campaign for Senate, Colin Allred is doing just that.

Senior Advisor | + posts

Joe brings over a decade of experience as a political operative and creative strategist to Texas Signal, where he serves as our Senior Advisor and does everything from writing a regular column, Musings, to mentoring our staff and freelancers. Joe was campaign manager for Lina Hidalgo's historic 2018 victory for Harris County Judge and is a passionate sneakerhead.

Are you tired of Texas Republicans pushing big lies and trying to steal your vote? So are we, that’s why we’re fighting back against the right-wing lie machine. Our commitment to ethical, fact-based journalism is vital to our democracy, and we can’t do it without you. Consider donating today to help us stay in this fight.

Continue Reading

Lina Hidalgo Announces Mental Health Leave

Lina Hidalgo Announces Mental Health Leave

This afternoon Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo announced she has been taking a leave of absence from her position to seek treatment for depression. The Houston Chronicle broke the news about Hidalgo, who has been at an inpatient facility since July. Throughout her...