U.S. representative Colin Allred, of Dallas, announced on Wednesday that he’ll be seeking the Democratic nomination to take on Ted Cruz for the Senate seat next November, a move first reported Monday by Politico. Allred, who’s represented Texas’s Thirty-second Congressional District since 2019, almost immediately started attracting national headlines. That’s got little to do with the former NFL player himself and more to do with the opponent he’ll be taking on. Cruz is, of course, one of the highest-profile members of the Senate, at least as disliked by Democrats as he is tolerated by Republicans. In 2018, during Cruz’s first reelection bid, that broad antipathy from Democrats boosted his then-little-known challenger Beto O’Rourke during the early campaign months, before the viral moments and media attention helped Beto become a political star in his own right. O’Rourke failed to win the seat, but he succeeded in setting a new high-water mark for a statewide run for Democrats in Texas this century, coming within 2.6 points of upsetting the incumbent. The question those anticipating another shot to claim Cruz’s seat are asking, then, is: Can Colin Allred do better?
While Cruz is the constant between the two races, the rest of the circumstances are fairly distinct. O’Rourke’s 2018 run was part of a midterm election in which Democrats enjoyed broad success across the country, O’Rourke turned out to be an uncommon political talent, and the race ended up the marquee contest in the state, which won’t happen during a presidential-election year such as 2024. So let’s start by looking at how those differences might affect the race.
What is Colin Allred’s background?
Colin Allred graduated from Baylor University in 2005, where he played for then–head coach Guy Morriss. It was an inauspicious era for Bears football, but Allred, a scholarship linebacker, was a standout; he entered the NFL in 2006 as an undrafted free agent, signed by the Tennessee Titans. He was waived that season, but he came back to spend most of 2007 on the Titans’ practice squad before being elevated for the final three games to the active roster, where he remained for most of the next three seasons. Allred retired from the NFL in 2010 to attend law school at UC Berkeley.
After spending the first years of his legal career working under fellow Texan Julián Castro in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development under the Obama administration, Allred returned to private law practice—then, in 2018, opted to run for office. Allred’s first election dovetailed with O’Rourke’s run, and he benefited downballot from O’Rourke’s strength in purple districts; he was one of two Democrats that year in Texas to flip a Republican seat in the campaign, taking the Dallas-area district from Republican Pete Sessions, who had held the seat since 1997. Allred’s defeat of Sessions by six and a half points marked a turning point in the district, which had begun trending blue in 2016, when Hillary Clinton narrowly outgained Donald Trump. In 2021, Republicans gave up on the district as they redrew the congressional maps, “packing” it with even more Democrats to try to protect other seats for the GOP, and Allred went from winning elections by six or seven points to winning by more than thirty. That means that TX-32 is likely to remain a Democratic district even without Allred.
How beatable is Ted Cruz?
Allred spent his NFL career as what statisticians call a replacement-level player—that is, a player whose production is commensurate with the expectations you’d have for a player making the league minimum. As a politician, he’s been successful in winning his Dallas district three times, but making a statewide run is a different beast. He may turn out to be a generational talent on the campaign trail—in two out of his three elections thus far, he’s performed slightly better than you’d expect a Democrat to do in his district—but since we’ve never seen him under the sort of spotlight the Senate race will bring, the safest bet is to consider him a replacement-level candidate. (For the sake of early analysis, it’s better to underrate a candidate than to overrate one.) He’s a young mainstream Democrat with an interesting story and enough relevant experience in Washington to be taken seriously, but he’s yet to be in a position where he has to prove himself extraordinary.
Accordingly, the question to consider at the moment is whether Cruz is more or less beatable in 2024 than he was in 2018. Allred won’t have the wind at his back in the same way O’Rourke did in 2018—midterm elections tend to favor the party that’s out of power, and Democrats did well nationwide. Rather, he’ll be running in a presidential year, in which the most likely matchup appears to be a rematch of 2020’s campaign.
In 2020, Joe Biden put up the strongest numbers a Democratic presidential candidate had seen in Texas since Jimmy Carter won the state in 1976, earning 46.5 percent of the vote. That followed a trajectory we’d seen in most Texas presidential elections this century—Democrats did better in 2020 than in 2016, better in 2016 than in 2012, and so forth, in almost every presidential election since 2000. (Obama’s first campaign, in 2008, performed slightly better than his 2012 reelection effort.) If that trajectory continues, then Democrats will come slightly closer in 2024 than they did in 2020—maybe Biden only loses Texas by four points, instead of the five and a half he lost by in 2020. The question, then, is whether Cruz is likely to perform worse than the candidate at the top of the ticket.
In 2020, U.S. senator John Cornyn outperformed Trump, with Cornyn enjoying a margin of nearly ten points to retain his seat. But Cruz’s 2018 campaign underperformed both Trump’s 2016 and 2020 campaigns by more than a point. Plus, Cornyn’s not nearly as polarizing as Cruz. Allred is likely to raise big money from donors around the country just for taking on the incumbent.
That suggests that a competitive race is possible—but even in an optimistic scenario for Democrats in which the presidential race is two points closer than in 2020 and Cruz performs even two full points worse than the GOP presidential candidate, that would still lead to a third Cruz term. Which underscores the real challenge Allred will face: while there’s a case to be made that, in presidential years and in certain midterms, Texas has generally trended toward being more competitive over time, the margin is still too wide for a replacement-level candidate to have a shot.
So is Ted Cruz beatable? Potentially, sure—we’re going to go ahead and hold the election, at any rate—but it’s not an easy race, and Allred will have to prove himself to be an exceptional candidate to pull it off. His political career thus far hasn’t offered a test that would allow him to do so—but running for Senate is the sort of opportunity that will reveal whether or not Colin Allred has, as Molly Ivins put it, a little bit of Elvis in him. Texas will find out over the course of the next eighteen months.
Editors’ note: This article was updated on May 3, 2023, to reflect Allred’s announcement.