There’s a set of well-worn facts commonly deployed when a Democrat announces a statewide run in Texas: voters here haven’t backed the Democratic candidate for president since 1976. They haven’t backed a Democrat for a Senate seat since 1988. They haven’t backed a Democrat for any statewide seat since 1994. It makes sense, then, that when representative Colin Allred, of Dallas, and state senator Roland Gutierrez, of San Antonio, announced their respective bids against Ted Cruz, the incumbent was already celebrating what he predicted would be his opponents’ demise. “Bottom line, Allred is too extreme for Texas,” a Cruz spokesperson said in a statement following Allred’s May announcement. “Texans will now get to watch Colin Allred and Roland Gutierrez slug it out for who can be the most radical leftist in the state,” the spokesperson added after Gutierrez joined the race.

Given the state’s voting history—coupled with the fact that Senate incumbents rarely lose—Cruz’s public confidence makes sense. But, considering that his 2018 run was a near-death experience, he’s nationally loathed, and Texas has arguably gotten bluer in the last decade, Democrats are once again hopeful about their chances. They believe that someone can finish what then-representative Beto O’Rourke started when he came within three points of ousting Cruz. And next year’s Democratic nominee will indeed have a few baked-in advantages that O’Rourke didn’t.  

“Obviously the candidate matters, but a candidate rises or falls on conditions that are not always of their own making,” James Henson, the executive director of UT-Austin’s Texas Politics Project, said. Perhaps the most obvious condition is that 2024 will be a presidential year. If former president Donald Trump is the Republican nominee, that could have an outsized influence on downballot races, as voters might protest his candidacy. “If Trump is the top of the ticket, we’ll see what we saw in 2020: Democrats turned out in droves, not to vote for Biden, but to vote against Trump,” said Rick Tyler, a political strategist and former spokesperson for Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaign. “Trump will be a big problem at the top of the ticket because he’s only demonstrated three things: losing, losing, and losing.”

Second, the 2024 Senate landscape looks perilous for national Democrats. The party is defending nearly two dozen seats—compared with Republicans’ eleven—three of which are in states (West Virginia, Montana, and Ohio) that twice voted for Trump. So Texas might be one of Democrats’ more favorable (or, at any rate, less hopeless) pickup opportunities and could draw more blue donors than usual. Gutierrez is a relatively new entrant to the race, but money is already flowing to Allred, who announced earlier this month that he had raised a staggering $6.2 million in the first two months of the race. O’Rourke, a fund-raising juggernaut in his own right, took about nine months to raise the same amount in the 2018 race.  

To win, of course, either Democrat will need to both replicate—and build on—the foundation O’Rourke created in 2018 and prove to be the sort of exceptional candidate and campaigner the party needs in order to win. “O’Rourke really captured the imagination of Democrats who believed that he could beat Cruz. His weaknesses were really more policy-driven,” Jason Villalba, the chairman and CEO of the Texas Hispanic Policy Foundation, a nonpartisan nonprofit, told me. “He was comfortable taking that Kennedy-style role while campaigning, but frankly, in Texas, that’s not what voters are looking for. The classic East Coast liberal might be able to drop an f-bomb in an interview or ride a skateboard, but that’s not exactly what rural Texans are wanting in their United States senator. Allred has got a lot of characteristics of the classic Democrat that voters here have supported before.”

Allred ticked off some of those characteristics on a phone call with me: he’s a “consensus builder” and a fourth-generation Texan with an uncommon story: raised by a single mother in Dallas, the former college and NFL football player worked as a voting-rights lawyer prior to his first election. And, unlike O’Rourke, who at one point decried negative campaign spots, Allred’s not afraid to make stark contrasts between himself and Cruz.

“I want to give folks something to hope and vote for, but we also have to talk about how ineffective and—in some ways—damaging Ted Cruz has been in the decade-plus he’s represented us in the U.S. Senate,” Allred said. O’Rourke’s race in 2018, he told me, “showed that there are millions of Texans ready to move on from Ted Cruz, so we’re going to build on that. But I also have a record of running—and beating—Republicans in tight races, and that gives us the discipline and understanding to make sure that we’re able to appeal broadly to voters. That’s why we’re going to win.”

Gutierrez, meanwhile, had a relatively unremarkable record until this year’s legislative session, during which he made a name for himself nationally through his persistent focus on gun safety following the 2022 massacre at Uvalde’s Robb Elementary School. Though his advocacy has gotten him in trouble more than once in Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick’s Senate, Gutierrez insists he’s a candidate who can win Republican votes. 

“We will win because Texans are done with Ted Cruz. We won’t be neglected or brushed aside any longer,” Gutierrez said in a statement sent to Texas Monthly. “I am no stranger to tough fights, I’ve flipped a Republican State Senate seat in rural Texas. I will work hard and continue to do what I’ve always done—talk to voters from all across Texas, in communities that look like mine, and tell the truth.” (Gutierrez won his Senate seat in 2020 over a Republican incumbent, though the district has historically been a blue one; it voted for Joe Biden by a 53–45 margin that same year.)

Indeed, with Allred and Gutierrez, Democrats have managed to overcome an issue they’ve long struggled with in statewide races: fielding credible candidates. Gutierrez has served in the Legislature since 2008—first as a longtime Texas House member and now a member of the state Senate. Allred, meanwhile, first won his Dallas-area congressional seat in 2018, when he defeated an eleven-term incumbent in a historically Republican district. He then won reelection by six points in 2020 before Republicans in the Legislature decided to stop trying to compete with him and redrew the state’s district lines to place him in solidly blue territory for 2022. 

Still, the lightning of the 2018 race won’t be easy to re-create. In this campaign, a Democrat will have to exceed O’Rourke’s performance with the added disadvantage of having decidedly less name recognition than their party mate. Not to mention that Allred, who has run a marquee race already, does not have a track record of outperforming O’Rourke. When he flipped Texas’s Thirty-second Congressional District in 2018, Allred carried the district by less than seven points. O’Rourke carried it by nearly eleven. In 2022, when O’Rourke was back on the ballot and running for governor, he and Allred essentially ran neck and neck in the district. (Moreover, in 2020, Biden outperformed Allred in the Thirty-second by more than two points.) 

Democrats’ next challenge is simply arithmetic. For either Allred or Gutierrez to win statewide in Texas, he must convince some Republicans to vote for him: part of what kept O’Rourke so close to Cruz in 2018 is that hundreds of thousands of Texans who voted for Governor Greg Abbott split their ballots and voted O’Rourke for the Senate. Garnering GOP support might be tougher for Gutierrez, whose newly minted profile as a progressive rabble-rouser in the Texas Senate—especially on the issue of gun violence—will make it easy for Republicans to paint him as being as liberal as O’Rourke was on the issue. Allred, too, might fail to draw contrasts from O’Rourke. In broad strokes, while in Congress, both men largely occupied the same left-of-center lane ideologically. But even if he is more solidly on O’Rourke’s right flank now, Allred will have to balance the perception, particularly among white voters, that Black candidates tend to be more liberal than white ones, even if they adopt similar policy positions.

Other obstacles carry over from the 2018 run, too. There’s the issue of energizing rural voters, a challenge that even a buzzy candidate like O’Rourke failed at: in 2018, he won the support of only 24 percent of the voters living in Texas’s 186 rural counties. And it might be hard to build out a sizable campaign infrastructure in rural areas of the state without a serious investment from the larger state Democratic Party. As of last fall, more than 50 of Texas’s 254 counties had no local chair to help run door-knocking campaigns. 

Neither Allred nor Gutierrez has been battle-tested at the statewide level, so it remains to be seen whether they can clear these hurdles. But having two serious—maybe even impressive!—Democratic candidates running during a year when the national environment is also working in their favor is enough to take this race seriously. There’s a reason why early, hypothetical head-to-head polls show a single-digit race. Team Cruz may be celebrating too early.