On Saturday, state representative Carl Sherman announced the long-awaited start of his U.S. Senate campaign against Ted Cruz, the conservative firebrand whom liberals love to hate. Sherman, a 57-year-old Church of Christ pastor from the Dallas County city of DeSoto, is the third prominent Democrat to throw his hat in the ring, following Dallas-area congressman Colin Allred and state senator Roland Gutierrez, of San Antonio. All of the Democrats in the race are hoping that one of them can finish what former U.S. congressman Beto O’Rourke started in 2018, when he electrified the Democratic grass roots and came within 3 percentage points of ousting Cruz. But that’s no easy feat: at its core, Texas is still a Republican-leaning state that will require a strong Democratic candidate to win. Of course, since entering the Legislature, Sherman has won all of his elections pretty handily, but it’s still not clear whether he’s the person Democrats need to unseat Cruz.
Without uttering Cruz’s name, Sherman, in his campaign announcement, said he was running to defend all Texans whose rights are “under assault,” including women, members of underrepresented ethnic groups, and the LGBTQ community. “We have a nation of leaders who have forgotten the least of these,” the pastor said, referencing Jesus’s exhortation in Matthew 25 to serve those in need. “What good are you if you will not concern yourself with those who God is concerned about?”
Sherman served two terms as mayor of DeSoto in the 2010s, the first Black mayor of the town. And, in 2018, he ran for the state House. Sherman, a well-known figure in South Dallas, rode the endorsements of then–Dallas mayor Mike Rawlings; state senator Royce West, who represents the city; and a handful of DeSoto’s then–city council members. Still, he didn’t win outright, finishing second in a four-way Democratic primary and ultimately prevailing in the subsequent runoff election. Now Sherman represents one of safest Democratic seats in the Texas Legislature. Helen Giddings, Sherman’s predecessor, won decisively in every election for which she ran since 1992.
Since he entered the Legislature, Sherman’s record has been fairly unremarkable—but he has gotten some notable pieces of legislation passed. In 2021, after 26-year-old Botham Jean’s murder by off-duty police officer Amber Guyger, Sherman shepherded a bill through the Capitol that made it illegal for peace officers to disarm body cameras during the course of an investigation. This year, amid a record-breaking heat wave, Sherman has been perhaps one of the loudest voices in the Legislature fighting for air-conditioning in Texas’s prisons (Texas is one of at least thirteen states without universal air-conditioning in state prisons). As Governor Greg Abbott pushes for yet another special session—presumably slated for the fall—on his proposal to use taxpayer money to fund school vouchers, Sherman has asked for air-conditioning in prisons to be made a priority issue, too. (That likely won’t happen.)
Overall, Sherman is ideologically more left of center than most of his House Democratic colleagues. But according to his colleagues, he’s not abrasive or showy, as one of his primary opponents, also in the Lege, has been described. Indeed, one member of the Democratic caucus—who has already pledged to support another U.S. Senate candidate—referred to Sherman, somewhat affectionately, as a “spiritual sherpa.” (Sherman’s office did not respond to interview requests by the time of publication.)
Most colleagues heaped praise on Sherman, describing him as “uplifting,” “very positive,” and “a pure spirit.” Some doubted, however, that he had the tenacity needed to perform well nationally. “When you have your back up against the wall, things don’t magically solve themselves. Negotiator, broker . . . those are not things I’d say are in his skill set,” one state House Democrat told me of Sherman. In addition, colleagues said, Sherman was absent for noticeable chunks of this year’s legislative session due to unknown health reasons, leaving some to question whether he’s fit for the national stage.
Much of the criticism of Sherman as a leader stems from the House Democratic walkout in the 2021 session, when, in protest of a bill that would make it harder to vote, the caucus fled Austin to deny Republicans the quorum necessary to call a vote. Sherman told Texas Monthly that he was inspired by past civil rights activists.
After the stint in Washington, D.C., some of the caucus’s members accused him of using the nationally watched spectacle to boost his profile. They told me that Sherman became somewhat lost in his efforts to become an “activist legislator,” attempting to follow in the footsteps of prominent politicians such as Congressman Greg Casar, of Texas, and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, of New York. One lawmaker recalled that Sherman was one of the few Democrats who opted to stay behind without much of a plan well after most of the caucus members had their tails between their legs and had accepted defeat—and returned to Austin (taking a few COVID-19 cases back to Texas with them).
Since that trip, some colleagues have privately grumbled that Sherman has let his religious beliefs get in the way of issues important to their party’s voters. Despite intense opposition to HB 900, the state’s new, controversial book-rating law, which requires book vendors to review books and rate them under a vaguely articulated standard, Sherman—who was at one point endorsed by Stonewall Democrats of Dallas, which advocates for issues important to the LGBTQ community—joined Republicans and eleven other Democrats to support the measure, which passed by a vote of 95–52.
Democrats, however, are broadly receptive to his entrance into the race. The more Democrats enter the U.S. Senate race, the more attractive it becomes to out-of-state donors, pointing to the fact that Cruz is potentially the most vulnerable of a not-very-vulnerable batch of Republican incumbents. And as I’ve written before, there are a number of reasons why the national environment makes this seat ripe for a Democratic pickup next year.
In order to take on Cruz, though, Sherman will first have to get through a grueling Democratic primary. And that won’t be easy: as of early July, Allred had already raised an eye-popping $6.2 million. But whoever prevails will be in somewhat good standing. As of August 2023, UT-Austin’s Texas Politics Project found Cruz’s approval rating in the state at a mediocre 42 percent, compared with a 45 percent disapproval rating. As a Republican in Texas, he’ll at least initially be favored to win a third term, especially because, during a presidential year, partisan polarization is high and expected to make ticket splitting less likely (the same ticket splitting, I might add, that helped O’Rourke get so close to beating Cruz during a midterm-election year).
So Sherman—and Democrats overall—will need some skill and luck to seriously challenge Cruz in 2024. It’s a tall ask, but going up against someone as nationally loathed as Cruz could at least offer some extra motivation. Sherman’s entrance into the race—coupled with Allred’s—could also increase the number of Black voters who turn out in the state’s Democratic primary, and Texas Democratic leaders so far seem eager at his announcement. Only time will tell whether he can excite voters in the same way.