On Monday morning, state senator Roland Gutierrez announced the start of a campaign against Ted Cruz, a prominent podcaster who also serves in Congress as Texas’s junior senator. Gutierrez, from San Antonio, is the second Democrat to join the race, after Dallas-area congressman Colin Allred. Each hopes to replicate and build on the success of Beto O’Rourke, who came within 2.6 points of beating Cruz in 2018.

Who is Roland Gutierrez?

Until recently, he was a fairly unremarkable lawmaker. Gutierrez served twelve and a half long years in the Texas House. Through most of that time, he was roughly middle-of-the-road among members of the House Democratic Caucus—not one of the most progressive members but also not one of the most conservative. He earned a bit of a reputation for being not the shrewdest member of his caucus—he was regarded by his Democratic colleagues, usually affectionately, as a grandstander. (The 2009 edition of this magazine’s Best and Worst Legislators list dinged him for repeated trips to the microphone to “debat[e his] elders in a grating, fingernails-on-a-blackboard manner.”) In 2020 he was elected to the Senate, in part by running on a platform to legalize marijuana, reclaiming what had been a Democratic district for more than a century from a Republican incumbent who had taken office in a special election.

But in the past year, Gutierrez went from unremarkable to extraordinary. His Senate district is one of the state’s strangest. Drawn to siphon Democratic voters from neighboring Republican districts, it starts east of San Antonio, torques around Bexar County in an unnatural shape, dips south, west, and north past Eagle Pass and Del Rio, and ends in Big Bend National Park. But it also includes the town of Uvalde, where a mass shooter killed 22 and wounded 17 victims last spring, many of them between the ages of nine and eleven.

Other politicians arrived in Uvalde after the shooting, seeing a situation that needed to be “managed”—Governor Greg Abbott famously went to a fundraiser hours after the shooting, before heading to the town, where he told the media the mass-casualty event “could have been worse.” Gutierrez was simply furious. He interrupted an early press conference with statewide officials, daring them to do something about what had just happened. They didn’t in the immediate aftermath, of course—the Legislature was out of session and Abbott did not call lawmakers back to Austin—and public memory of Uvalde receded. 

But Gutierrez stayed furious. He showed up to the Legislature this year and proceeded to torch what standing he had in the Senate by reminding his colleagues, at every available opportunity, that state government—and a state agency, the Department of Public Safety, whose dozens of officers stood around for more than an hour while kids bled out—had done little to prevent the mass killing of children. 

He held press conferences with Uvalde parents. When the Senate convened to hold debates about the dangers of school-library books, he tried to redirect the conversation to gun violence and was rebuked for it. In retaliation, Senate leadership killed every bill he filed; Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who runs the Senate, even scolded him for speaking out of turn, like he was a naughty schoolboy. 

For an extraordinary speech he delivered near the end of session, Gutierrez brought a hard drive to the Senate floor that he said contained the sum of evidence DPS recovered—footage, pictures, audio—from Uvalde. He had looked at it, he said, and he would never sleep soundly again. “So much blood,” he said. He dared his colleagues to watch the same evidence. “We’ve abrogated our responsibilities. I’ve been angry for a long time,” he said, his voice breaking. “A long time.” It was one of the most remarkable things that had happened in recent memory on the floor of the Texas Senate, where nearly everything is decided behind closed doors, Democrats are expected to shut up, and most floor debates feel airless and scripted.

The Uvalde massacre caused a change in Gutierrez that was so total and immediate that some of his colleagues assumed it must be insincere or driven by ambition. It may have been: no one can know what’s in his heart. But the accusation is telling. There are good people in the Texas Legislature, but as a whole the institution is wicked. Lawmakers value being a member of the club too much to risk isolation or unpopularity. Gutierrez, this session, simply didn’t care.

But can a Democrat win? It’s exceedingly rare in the modern era for two important Democratic officeholders to fight each other in a primary for a statewide office: it’s more common that the party has to beg someone to run. The fact that Gutierrez and Allred are willing to step up speaks to how weak they think Cruz is.

On paper Cruz certainly is weak. His last election was the first time in a quarter century that Texas Democrats had pulled within three points of winning a statewide race. While Cruz still has a passionate fan base—albeit a much smaller one than in the glory days of 2013 and 2014—a lot of Republican-leaning voters made clear their contempt for him in 2018. As a longtime Cruz watcher, I’m struck by how much it feels like Cruz has lost his mojo since his failed presidential bid, in 2016. He spends most of his time in the Senate scrolling Twitter and recording podcast commentary: he’s an honorary millennial.

But Cruz’s unpopularity is not enough. Whoever wins the primary will also, like O’Rourke, have to prove an unexpectedly formidable candidate. They will need to raise a hellacious amount of money and win over many Republican-leaning voters; O’Rourke got close in 2018 because he persuaded hundreds of thousands of Texans who voted for Abbott for governor to vote for him too. The challenger also would benefit from a collapse of the GOP at the national level—think Donald Trump running his presidential campaign from jail and winning just a handful of states. Declaring against Cruz, for now, is like buying a raffle ticket. If the fates align, you’ll look like a genius.

Since 2018 Democrats have been eager to fight Cruz again. They talked about running candidates such as Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, or O’Rourke again. But in the aftermath of O’Rourke’s failed presidential and gubernatorial bids and Hidalgo getting mired in Houston’s day-to-day problems, that talk receded. Allred and Gutierrez are who showed up. At the moment they don’t seem particularly likely to recapture the lightning-in-a-bottle aspect of the 2018 race. By this time in 2017, the Beto bubble was growing at speed. 

Allred has already raised $6.2 million, but his campaign is otherwise undistinguished so far. And Gutierrez’s Uvalde advocacy, while laudable, may not be a strong issue on which to run a statewide campaign. The massacre happened in May of 2022. That November the Republican statewide slate cruised to reelection with formidable margins of victory. Gutierrez may be haunted by the Uvalde dead—and some of us are with him—but many Texans are happy to move on.