Who Can Beat Ted Cruz?

by | Feb 22, 2023 | 2024 Elections, Politics

Senator Ted Cruz, who watched his presidential ambitions crushed under a Trump-shaped tidal wave in 2016, has announced that he’ll seek a third term in the United States Senate in 2024, potentially giving national Democrats fresh hope at a pickup opportunity in what many expect to be a difficult cycle for Senate Democrats.

Ordinarily, a two-term senator with the national name recognition Cruz carries around within the Republican Party announcing their plans to seek re-election would be a home run for their party, but Cruz is no ordinary incumbent, and the years since he barely survived the 2018 Senate race with Beto O’Rourke haven’t been kind to the firebrand’s reputation at home.

There was his insistence on helping Donald Trump attempt an insurrection after the latter lost the 2020 presidential race to President Joe Biden. And who could forget the way Ted fled Texas just weeks later, in the midst of a deadly winter storm, for the friendlier confines of a luxury hotel in Mexico? 

Cruz voters have little to show for his time in the upper chamber, and his inability to turn back O’Rourke in 2018 may make this race appealing to a number of up-and-coming candidates, both within the Democratic Party and just outside it.

The Class of 2018

While Cruz was barely overcoming the toughest challenge of his political career against Beto in 2018, a new class of Democratic lawmakers ascended to Congress in spectacular fashion, giving Texas Democrats a new crop of exciting leaders to build the foundation for the party’s future.

Colin Allred made waves this week by acknowledging that he’s weighing a bid against Cruz to the Dallas Morning News, and the Dallas-area congressman would make an incredibly compelling candidate for Texas Democrats. 

The child of a single mother who worked his way from the Friday Night Lights of North Texas to the National Football League before going on to work in President Obama’s administration, Allred has the type of biography that helps parents believe a better future can exist for their children, and inspire a younger generation of voters to get in the game and vote.

Crucially, Allred is one of the highest-profile Black elected officials in Texas. For two decades, Texas Democrats have nominated a series of mostly white candidates to lead our statewide tickets, while at the same time questioning why the party hasn’t been able to turn out a greater proportion of one of their most vital constituencies.

Allred can speak to those voters in ways that past Democratic candidates haven’t necessarily been able to, and in a race as close as the 2018 Senate race that saw Cruz escape by a margin of just over 200,000 votes, a spike in Black turnout could help close the gap.

Another factor working in Allred’s favor: he and his wife are young parents who understand the challenges Texas families face, in our classrooms and at the kitchen table when they’re trying to make ends meet.

A more practical consideration that should excite Texas Democrats about an Allred candidacy: he’s won three consecutive races in the expensive and crucial Dallas-Fort Worth media market, investing millions of dollars in television advertising in the state’s largest media market since entering politics in 2017. That level of name ID is a powerful headstart for any statewide candidate.

Elected alongside Allred in the class of 2018 were Lizzie Fletcher and Veronica Escobar, two rising stars in the Democratic Party who have been rumored as potential statewide candidates for years. 

Fletcher, hailing from Houston, enjoys many of the advantages that Allred does because of the size of the Houston media market and enjoys the public profile of an emerging, moderate leader in the House. Fletcher has been on a glide path to bigger and better things as a member of the House since getting elected, landing key committee assignments and building a robust policy portfolio on issues like energy that are critical to her home district. 

Would Fletcher give up the opportunity to wield that influence to help her constituents build better lives? It’s difficult to say, and El Paso’s Veronica Escobar is in a similar position. A powerful voice for Latinas in Congress, the former El Paso County Judge has made waves throughout her three terms while fighting for sensible gun policy and helping her colleagues see our border communities for the beautiful and vibrant places that they are, not what Fox News wants you to believe.

Escobar would be a tremendous statewide recruit for Texas Democrats, but many veteran operatives openly speculate if her track record as a county executive would make her a better fit to one day lead the state of Texas as governor than in the U.S. Senate.

The Close Race Ace

There isn’t a single Texas Democrat with more experience in close races than Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, who exploded onto the scene in 2018 with an upset victory over popular longtime Harris County Judge Ed Emmett. Hidalgo helped spearhead the most progressive Commissioner’s Court in Harris County history, advocating for a wishlist of progressive priorities while navigating a slew of crises that ranged from chemical spills to a global pandemic.

Despite her track record as a proven progressive policymaker, Harris County Republicans launched a fevered effort to defeat the Judge in 2022, raising and spending millions of dollars in an unprecedented last stand for countywide offices. 

Despite dumping nearly $10 million on Harris County voters with lies about Hidalgo’s record on criminal justice reform, among others, the Judge turned back the challenge to secure re-election to a second term. 

Hidalgo’s profile on the national stage is a compelling fit for a U.S. Senate candidate. During the height of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, Hidalgo helped lead an innovative series of election reforms that made it safe and easy for Harris County voters to cast their ballots. Her leadership throughout the pandemic drew praise from across the country, and as chief executive of the third largest county in America, she’s developed strong relationships with counterparts and other policymakers across the nation.

Her ascension to the Senate would also be historic, sending the first immigrant and Latina to the U.S. Senate from Texas should she run and win.

At Last, Castro Time?

For more than a decade one favored parlor game of Texas political operatives has been the bi-annual speculation about the Castro brothers, Julian and Joaquin. While the stars have never fully aligned to draw one of the brothers into a statewide race, the opportunity to face a weak incumbent in Cruz might be enough to entice one of the exceptionally talented brothers into the ring in 2024.

Joaquin continues to build an incredible reputation in the House as one of the leading Democrats on intelligence and national security issues, and he’s long been viewed as a future leader in the chamber. That may complicate the decision-making process for any potential Senate race for now, but should Joaquin ever mount a statewide campaign he would immediately be viewed as a front-runner.

The same could be said for his brother, Julian, the former San Antonio mayor and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development for President Obama who ran a spirited campaign for the presidency in the 2020 primary. While that effort wasn’t successful and he missed out on the veepstakes, Julian remains one of the most well-known Latino leaders within the Democratic Party.

While some sources suggest that tension remains between the White House and Castro for some of the pointed barbs he launched at President Joe Biden during the primary, others point to a potentially different complication: Castro has spent the years since his presidential campaign closed its doors as a television commentator for MSNBC, not exactly the preferred channel of persuadable Texans.

Even still, few Texans possess Julian’s intelligence and charisma. Could he deploy those talents in a 2024 Senate race? Only time will tell.

The Middle Lane

While Texas Democrats have a far deeper bench than a lot of observers would suggest, there remains persistent chatter that the best candidate to topple Ted Cruz in 2024 might not be a Democrat at all.

Who could forget the putative deliberations that almost led Matthew McConaughey into the 2022 race for Governor of Texas? One sizable sticking point for many Texas Democrats was McConaughey’s uncertainty around running under any party’s banner, and what the presence of a popular celebrity in a three-candidate race could do to the party’s chances of victory.

While McConaughey launching an independent bid for Senate would be as interesting as it is unlikely, some Texas Democrats and democracy reform advocates have opined that there may be a better choice with a deeper track record in elected life.

This leads us to San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg. Nirenberg, an independent who has never been formally affiliated with the Democratic Party, is something of a political oddity in the modern era, managing to be progressive, pragmatic, and popular – all at the same time. 

His candidacy would raise some intriguing and challenging questions. For years, progressive policies have polled well in Texas, while a group of increasingly extreme right-wing politicians has pushed the state in a different direction.

If those policies are popular, but the Democratic label isn’t, could a compelling candidate like Nirenberg break through at the state level by embracing their political independence? Would Democratic voters be willing to coalesce around an independent candidate? 

There is historical precedent for it: Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has routinely won elections for his U.S. Senate seat as an independent. While Sanders caucuses with Democrats in the Senate, he’s only ever joined the party during his bids for the presidency.

Vermont Democrats seem not to mind – they’ve voted multiple times to endorse Sanders and have even avoided recruiting candidates against him.

One More for Sylvester

In the same Morning News piece about Allred’s ambitions, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner’s name enters the conversation. Turner, who is in his final year in office leading the state’s largest city, was briefly rumored as a potential candidate for Senate in 2020 and Governor in 2022 before opting to stay in a job he’s long coveted.

But with the lights going out on his mayoralty, the veteran Texas Democrat is faced with a difficult decision: step away from public life and ride off into the sunset of retirement, or mount up and take one last chance at a bigger stage.

Turner is an undeniably talented legislator, serving for years as the brains and heartbeat of the Democrats’ House delegation before ascending to City Hall, and he has a long track record of accomplishments while reaching across the aisle to work with elected officials he seldom found himself in agreement with. Turner, like Allred, would be just the fourth Black member of the United States Senate (not counting Vice President Kamala Harris, who breaks ties in the chamber).

Jumping from Lege to Lege

There hasn’t been much rumbling from the Texas Legislature about the 2024 U.S. Senate race, but many Texas Democrats have expressed excitement at the idea of State Senator Roland Gutierrez, who represents Uvalde in the Texas Senate, mounting a bid against Cruz. Gutierrez has drawn repeated praise for his leadership after the Uvalde shootings and has looked positively Senatorial in comparison to Cruz, who has seldom lifted a finger.

While Gutierrez has thrown cold water on the idea of a statewide race as he focuses on passing common sense gun reforms, other lege observers have said State Senator Nathan Johnson could become a factor in a future statewide race. The moderate from greater Dallas has won some tough races while serving as a reliable vote for Texas Democrats.

The Freshmen

In 2022, Texas Democrats sent two rising stars in progressive politics to the U.S. House when Greg Casar and Jasmine Crockett were elected to represent districts in central Texas and greater Dallas, respectively. Crockett made the most of her short stay in the Texas Legislature, becoming a vocal and visible leader in the fights for voting rights and abortion access.

Crockett’s tenure was so impactful and impressive in such short order that iconic Texas Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson endorsed Crockett to ascend to her seat when she announced her retirement. Crockett definitely has the fighting spirit and communication skills to make a splash in a statewide race, but it’s an open question if she would even consider moving on from a safe house seat to do so.

Similarly to Crockett, Greg Casar built a long track record as a progressive champion in his years on the Austin City Council before jumping into a race for a brand new congressional seat stretching from Austin to San Antonio. It was the only minority-opportunity district that Republicans allowed to pass in the last round of redistricting, and Casar has hit the ground running in Washington, advocating for pressing policy solutions while working to keep his constituents back home informed during the recent winter storm that crippled the state capitol.

Make no mistake, Crockett and Casar will play a big role in the future of the Texas Democratic Party. Whether either of them is willing to risk the biggest opportunity they’ve had to accomplish big things for Texas voters to take a chance on a 2024 race remains to be seen, but either candidacy would excite the progressive grassroots in the Democratic primary.

Digging Deeper

There’s always something to be said for an unexpected choice. In Georgia, Reverend Raphael Warnock had to scrap and fight to be taken seriously by the Democratic establishment, but Rev has done it to great effect: he won two tough races in a traditionally Republican state in back-to-back cycles.

If Texas Democrats were looking to replicate the Rev Effect, they could turn to Michael Sorrell, the longtime president of Paul Quinn College. Sorrell has turned Paul Quinn into a powerhouse in the HBCU community, and has been such an impressive voice for progress that he’s been viewed as a potential statewide candidate for the better part of a decade. 

While a number of statewide Democratic operatives would love to see Sorrell make the leap into a Senate race, he may have other options to weigh. We’ve heard there’s a growing chorus calling on Sorrell to sit tight until Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson leaves office in four years to launch a bid to lead one of America’s largest cities.

Similarly, Texas Democrats could look within their own activist base for a hard-charging standard bearer that understands how to build an effective coalition and a campaign that can win. That could lead Texas Democrats to people like Tory Gavito, executive director of Way to Win, or Michelle Tremillo, the co-executive director of the Texas Organizing Project. Gavito has spent years working to build a political culture in Texas and beyond that looks like Texas, and Tremillo has years of experience guiding the largest grassroots outreach programs that Texas has ever seen.

Either of those women would be able to run as outsiders in a state that loves them and a cycle that might just reward them.

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.

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