In May, Meebs Aslam gave a $10 donation to a political campaign promising to oust one of the nation’s most loathed senators. Colin Allred, then a Democratic congressman from Dallas, had just announced a bid against incumbent Ted Cruz. Aslam, a precinct chair for the Travis County Democratic Party, was initially so enamored by the relatively green House member—“Allred was in the NFL; he’s this really exciting, physically fit, well-spoken, kind person”—that he volunteered to help with invitations for one of Allred’s November fundraisers. There, Aslam said he watched a who’s who of deep-pocketed Democrats and big party figures, including U.S. transportation secretary Pete Buttigieg’s husband, Chasten, schmooze and ultimately donate around $12,000 in total to Allred’s campaign. Allred quickly caught fire and emerged as the front-runner for the party’s nomination. 

But over the next month, Aslam attended a handful of events, including the University of Texas at Austin’s University Democrats’ endorsement forum on November 29, and was shocked that Allred wasn’t there. (A surrogate, former state senator Wendy Davis, who endorsed Allred, came in his place.) At the behest of a close friend and fellow political wonk, Aslam went to an event for one of Allred’s opponents, state senator Roland Gutierrez, of San Antonio. This wasn’t the first time Aslam, who also is the finance director for Texas Young Democrats, had heard Gutierrez speak, but the politician’s speech helped convince him to change his mind about whom to support. “The excitement that came in when Colin entered the race started to wane off. It was a pattern of behavior from Colin’s campaign of being quite absent in the field,” he said. “I decided then to support Gutierrez instead.”

There is no well-defined way to win a race as a Texas Democrat: no member of the party has won a statewide election since 1994. But Allred and Gutierrez are approaching the problem in contrasting ways. Aslam’s perceptions about the Allred campaign’s presence in Texas are correct: the congressman hasn’t logged as many stops in the state as Gutierrez during the primary. Texas Monthly asked both the Allred and Gutierrez campaigns for a list of public events in Texas each candidate has attended—either in person or over Zoom. The state senator has some advantages—namely, being in the state full-time while the congressman works in D.C.—but the differences are stark. Gutierrez has attended more than one hundred events (excluding fundraisers and donor meetings) in Texas between June 28, 2023, and January 20, 2024. Allred’s campaign, meanwhile, would not provide a list of events the congressman has held in Texas, but it sent a list of eleven Texas cities and metro areas he’s visited, including Brownsville, Corpus Christi, El Paso, Harlingen, McAllen, San Antonio, Waco, and more. Allred said he plans to go on air with a TV ad in Dallas and Houston, with a complementary statewide digital buy, starting this week.

Allred has skipped out on a few other events other Senate candidates attended. He missed a virtual state board meeting held by the Texas Young Democrats late last year amid votes for the Speaker of the House, instead submitting a prerecorded video message. “Allred couldn’t bother to log in for about fifteen minutes,” said Jen Ramos, a state Democratic party executive committeewoman who has yet to endorse any candidate in the Senate race. “That’s a consistent concern I hear everywhere: that he gets invited and no responses are being received.” (Gutierrez and another Senate candidate, Mark Gonzalez, attended via Zoom.) In addition, Allred will only attend one of the five primary debates scheduled, while Gutierrez will participate in all. When asked why the candidate wouldn’t appear at four debates, an Allred staffer declined to answer.  

The difference in campaigns is also apparent from their fundraising efforts: according to quarterly campaign filings with the Federal Ethics Commission, about 65 percent of donations from individuals to Allred’s campaign between April and September came from Texans. Though Gutierrez entered the race slightly later, in July, he raised a lot less since announcing his bid, but received much more of his haul—86 percent—from Texas-based contributors. Allred ended this period with roughly $8 million cash on hand compared with Gutierrez’s $380,000, according to the FEC. And the congressman continues to rake in donations. In a recent email to supporters, he announced that he brought in a whopping $4.8 million in the last quarter of 2023; Gutierrez has until the end of the month to report his fourth-quarter fundraising numbers to the FEC, but his campaign implied in a statement to Texas Monthly that his haul would be smaller. “Voters will decide who is the candidate that can go up against Ted Cruz in this election, not big money or DC elites, and it is going to be the candidate that outworks the rest to earn the trust of the voters,” their statement read. 

Allred isn’t running a new playbook for statewide Democratic campaigns in Texas, and this is not the first statewide race that has become thoroughly nationalized. In 2020, the Democratic Senate primary also featured a state senator, Royce West, of Dallas, running against a much better funded candidate, MJ Hegar, who drew much of her support and her enormous war chest from out of state. Candidates like Allred and Hegar, who can raise lots of money quickly, are preferred by the national party—particularly in seats that aren’t seen as a top priority. Democratic donors and strategists don’t see the Texas Senate race as a prime pickup opportunity, so the Democratic nominee will need to be able to raise money on their own—especially since Texas is one of the most expensive media markets, far outpacing most states with contested races. 

Matt Angle, founder and director of the Lone Star Project, a Texas-based research PAC, who has endorsed Allred, explained the strategy. “When you can’t raise money then you go and fill up your schedule. That doesn’t mean that it’s not important to get out and talk to people, but it’s not a substitute for actually raising enough money to talk to voters beyond the meetings that you have,” he said. “Texas is too big to meet every voter. A lot of times when you start to see campaigns go and say that they’re meeting with every Democratic club, it means that they’re not spending time to actually raise any money.”

By all metrics, Allred’s campaign approach is working. He has earned the backing of a number of D.C.-affiliated PACs and sitting members of Congress. And Democratic primary voters still largely prefer him over anyone else in the field. The most recent polling in the race, from Emerson College, showed Allred netting 29 percent support among Texas’s Democratic primary voters, compared with 7 percent support for Gutierrez, while a plurality (37 percent) were undecided. (Both men were in statistical head-to-head ties with Cruz.) While Allred may not have the lightning-in-a-bottle magic that propelled fellow Senate Democratic prospects, such as Beto O’Rourke, to a close race, his fans still see him as a rising star in the party: a handsome, young Democrat with a precocious political rise and a demonstrated ability to beat Republican incumbents. “I saw up close how Colin took on an entrenched Republican incumbent, Pete Sessions, in 2018, in a race that no one thought a Democrat could win,” said state representative Chris Turner, of Grand Prairie, who endorsed Allred. “And in Congress now, Colin continues to represent the values of the Democratic Party very well, plus he’s also pragmatic and effective. He knows how to get things done.”

Still, Allred has faced criticism for running a D.C.-based campaign that some who work for the party say is premised on a certain kind of blandness—and leaves them feeling cold. “Texas Democrats, given the disadvantage we have of going this long without electing a statewide leader, are looking for somebody that inspires hope,” Ramos said. “I will vote for the Democratic nominee regardless of who wins. But there’s a difference between me checking a name on a box versus me picking up a packet to knock on doors and inspire others to go vote as well.”

Allred’s detractors also criticize the candidate for taking enigmatic positions, perhaps in an attempt to court Republican voters in a general election, that have him on the outs with some of Texas’s leftmost voters. Since entering the statewide race, Allred has condemned President Biden’s handling of the southern border and opposed calls for a ceasefire in the war between Israel and Hamas. “Seeing Gutierrez’s true commitment to genuinely progressive values and to the exact policy measures that he would take in order to achieve those values made a big difference for me and led me to publicly say that my support has changed,” said Jenna Hanes, of Austin, another Texas Democrat who works for a city council member and also switched her allegiance from Allred to Gutierrez. 

Gutierrez is taking a somewhat risky bet on the fact that persistence through an in-person campaign, fed by broad small-donor support, can ignite apathetic voters. But Texas Democrats need to look serious before voters will take them seriously, and while Gutierrez may be able to host a house party and raise $5,000, Allred could easily do the same during a short taxi ride from his House office to a fundraiser a few blocks away.