Thirteen months before the 2022 election, former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke (D) is still mulling a challenge to Gov. Greg Abbott (R) that would draw national attention and tens of millions of Democratic fundraising dollars to the Lone Star State next year.
But another big contest is brewing a tick down the ballot, where Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a conservative reactionary, and Mike Collier, a wonky Democrat and accountant from Houston, are gearing up for the sequel to a close race three years ago. Collier, who lost to Patrick in 2018, will officially launch his campaign on Monday, six months after forming an exploratory committee that has already raised $1 million.
Patrick’s position is uniquely important. As in many other states, the Texas lieutenant governor serves as the president of the state senate. But in Texas the position is not merely ceremonial or useful for breaking ties: The lieutenant governor has the authority to appoint committee chairs and direct legislation through the body. This power essentially allows him to dictate Texas’ legislative agenda, and arguably makes the state’s second-in-command even more powerful than the governor.
Since taking office in 2015, Patrick has used that power to bolster Texas’ role as a laboratory of ultra-conservative policy even as it has become more politically competitive. This year alone, Texas’ GOP-controlled legislature has targeted the rights of transgender Texans, effectively banned abortion, sought to bar teachers from discussing racism and other “controversial” issues in public school classrooms, and placed new restrictions on voting rights.
“Their agenda’s all wrong, and the agenda’s all wrong because the lieutenant governor is the wrong man for the job,” Collier told HuffPost. “That makes the lieutenant governor’s race in Texas, in my judgment, one of the most important races in the country.”
That may be a slight stretch during a crowded election cycle in which Senate and House majorities are up for grabs and a dozen major gubernatorial contests will take place. But for a Texas Democratic Party desperate to finally break the GOP’s stranglehold on the state, the battle between Collier and Patrick may be an even bigger deal than the governor’s race.
“We talk about the governor signing things or vetoing things. Well, it doesn’t even hit the governor’s desk unless the lieutenant governor likes it or wants it to,” said Kendall Scudder, the co-chair of Represent Texas, a grassroots group that recruits candidates across the state. “The lieutenant governor is without a doubt the dream seat to flip if you could only flip one.”
Collier will first have to win a Democratic primary. Matthew Dowd, a former George W. Bush strategist who broke with his former boss in 2007, declared his candidacy on Wednesday. (Before joining the GOP in 1999, Dowd worked as a Democratic strategist in Texas.)
But it’s hard to cast a campaign of opposites more perfectly than Patrick and Collier. Patrick, a former conservative radio shock jock who served in the state senate before ascending to the lieutenant governor’s office, is a right-wing firebrand who has placed Texas at the forefront of every battle in the conservative culture war. “A true master in the art of hyperbole,” as the Houston Press described him this year, Patrick has accused Democrats of “selling out this country,” said that immigrants are “invading” Texas, and blamed everything from video games to abortions (but never guns) for school shootings.
Collier, on the other hand, is not much for red meat; instead, he’d rather post a Twitter thread on the regulatory issues that contributed to the collapse of the Texas power grid last winter, and devote nearly 10 minutes of his recent interview with HuffPost to explaining those problems in even more intricate detail.
“He’s a dork. But he can talk about [policies] in a way that tells a story.”
“Fix the damn grid” has become a common rallying cry for Collier already, but in interviews, he’s unlikely to produce snappy one-liners or tweet-worthy headlines. When he does utter something especially witty, he’ll often pause to tell the reporter how much he liked it ― or to note that he heard it first from someone else to ensure it’s properly credited.
He likes to talk about rising property taxes, which he says are strangling ordinary Texans, and even devotes entire town halls to the subject. One of his favorite policy proposals is a plan to create a nonpartisan redistricting commission, an idea he says would make Texas’ elections fairer and more competitive, but that he acknowledges doesn’t exactly pop on the stump.
“He’s a dork,” Scudder said, endearingly. “Mike’s an accountant, and so he starts everything he does with, ‘Look, I’m going to talk to you about the numbers, because that’s what I do.’ But he can talk about [policies] in a way that tells a story.”
The story Collier is trying to tell is that Texas has too many problems to have a lieutenant governor focused solely on riling up a rabidly conservative base ― and that while that approach has boosted Patrick’s reputation among hardcore conservatives nationally, it’s left too many Texans who need reliable and affordable electricity, health care, education and jobs out in the cold, both figuratively and literally.
His supposed dorkiness ― Collier might prefer “wonkiness” ― is central to the argument. Collier’s pitch to Texans is essentially that it’s time for a lieutenant governor who’d rather govern than show up on Fox News every night and Newsmax every morning. And his bet is that maybe there are enough Texans ready for a more boring version of politics in which the government just makes the basic stuff work, even if it comes at the cost of the rest of the nation not knowing the name of the state’s lieutenant governor.
“The legislative agenda in Texas should be about solving the many problems that we have in the state, not the least of which is the power grid,” Collier said. “We have plenty of problems: exploding property taxes, underfunded schools, we should have expanded Medicaid, a grid that doesn’t work.”
“But Dan Patrick insists on fighting culture wars instead of solving problems,” he continued. “All he does is go around and look for fires to pour gasoline on. He’ll even light some if he has to.”
Collier nearly beat Patrick in 2018, when he had raised just $1.3 million, a paltry sum compared to the $80 million O’Rourke’s U.S. Senate campaign got that year. Collier lost to Patrick by 4.8 points ― or roughly 400,000 votes ― and while his overall margins trailed O’Rourke’s statewide, he outperformed his higher-profile and better-financed ticketmate in 171 of the state’s 254 counties.
That’s largely, Collier and his allies note, because he made inroads in rural parts of Texas where other statewide Democrats have struggled. Collier, who first ran for office in 2014, has spent nearly a decade trying to help build Democratic infrastructure in parts of the state that haven’t voted blue since 1994, the last time a Democrat won a statewide race.
The aim wasn’t to win rural Texas but to keep it close enough for big margins in Dallas, Houston, Austin and other deep blue areas to carry the day. It didn’t quite work in 2018, but Collier’s hope now is that the events of the last three years have finally tipped the balance in Democrats’ favor.
The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated Texas, causing nearly 65,000 deaths, with Abbott and Patrick taking a cavalier approach to the virus. “There are more important things than living,” Patrick said in April 2020, a month after suggesting on Fox News that he’d rather die than shut down parts of the economy to slow the spread.
Last winter, meanwhile, a trio of storms sent temperatures plummeting and caused Texas’ electricity grid to almost totally fail. More than 4 million people lost electricity in one of the largest power outages in American history, while food and water shortages swept the state. An estimated 210 deaths were linked to the storms and the ensuing crisis, while thousands of other Texas families faced massive electric bills that resulted from the state’s heavily deregulated power system.
Patrick and Abbott have taken credit for two new laws Republicans passed to strengthen the grid system this summer. But the changes didn’t help Texans facing higher energy bills, and some experts are still skeptical that the grid has undergone the reforms necessary to prevent major blackouts in the future.
To Collier, the dueling energy and public health crises are an indictment of Abbott and Patrick’s style of governing. So too is the fact that even amid the calamity, Patrick focused the GOP’s legislative agenda on new voting restrictions, efforts to bar trans students from playing sports that match their gender identity, banning “critical race theory,” and the new law, recently upheld by the Supreme Court, that implemented the nation’s strictest anti-abortion policy.
The GOP, Collier argued, may have finally moved too far right on those issues for many Texas voters. The abortion law in particular is not just “an attack on women’s rights, but an assault on the Constitution” that Collier believes will drive “huge backlash against Republicans.”
That’s a bet Democrats across the country are making, and early returns suggest it may be the right one in Texas too: A slight majority of Texans ― 53% ― disapprove of Abbott’s handling of abortion issues, according to a recent Quinnipiac University poll, which also found that 77% of Texas voters favor legal abortion at least in cases of rape or incest, exceptions the new law does not include. Overall, 51% believe Abbott shouldn’t be reelected, suggesting the top of the GOP ticket may be vulnerable in 2022.
Whether that will boost Texas Democrats at the polls is another question, but Collier’s overall pitch is similar to the one President Joe Biden made last year, when he argued for a return to a more stable approach to governance and focused heavily on so-called kitchen table issues like infrastructure and health care. Collier was an early Biden supporter and adviser to his Texas campaign and now believes Biden’s agenda ― and his less turbulent approach to the presidency ― will provide a boost in Texas, where Biden lost by less than six points.
Biden’s approval rating has plummeted in Texas, dropping a total of 24 points since June and hitting just 31% in the Quinnipiac poll. His biggest legislative priorities are bogged down in Congress, where demands from a handful of lawmakers may derail major infrastructure and social spending bills central to the president’s agenda.
But Collier plans to “double down on Joe Biden and his policies,” he said, including Biden’s efforts to end the pandemic and Democrats’ attempts to address climate change, create new green energy jobs, and expand health care access and other social welfare programs through the reconciliation and infrastructure packages currently under consideration in Congress.
“Republicans are going to find something to hit him on, and they’ll spend a bunch of time and effort trying to convince Texans to turn on him,” Collier said. “My job is to make sure the Texans see what a good job he’s doing. My campaign will be inextricably linked to his success as president, and I have a feeling it’s going to be a very good thing for me.”
Collier isn’t reluctant to talk about the progressive issues the GOP has tried to weaponize against Biden and Democrats. He supports the Black Lives Matter movement and racial justice protests, and although he didn’t go in depth on his views on police reform, he wants to improve standards for training, use of force and accountability. He favors marijuana legalization as part of a broader approach to reducing the state’s prison population. He’s committed to protecting and expanding voting rights, he said, after the passage of yet another GOP election law that will disproportionately affect Black and Latino voters.
On immigration, he argues, Patrick and Abbott have thrown state money at border security without accountability for how it’s being spent, and pursued empty policies meant to rile up conservative voters: Patrick this month accused Democrats of letting immigrants enter the country as part of a “silent revolution,” and in June called Abbott’s executive order to continue building a border wall “one of the most important documents in the history of Texas.”
Collier favors an approach to immigration and the border that “treats people with humanity.”
One question is whether Collier can boost his support among voters in Texas’ largest and most Democratic counties, where he trailed O’Rourke’s margins in 2018. He’s also intent, he said, on campaigning hard in the Rio Grande Valley and other areas where Democrats lost ground among key Hispanic communities in 2020. That may prove to be one of Democrats’ biggest challenges next year: Just 36% of Hispanic Texas voters currently approve of Biden, the Quinnipiac poll found, and only a quarter approve of his handling of border-related issues. But Collier believes his wonky, problem-solver approach can unite Black, white and Hispanic voters in cities, suburbs and rural areas alike.
For all the talk about a shifting Texas, the landscape is still tough for Democrats, who lost more heavily in 2020 than they had two years prior. Members of the president’s party often struggle in midterms, so next year likely won’t be any easier, and there are already signs that it may not be the election to finally deliver the win Democrats have been waiting for: Just 33% of voters believe O’Rourke would be a good governor, the Quinnipiac poll found.
But Collier is desperate to prove that Democrats can finally win in Texas, and that he’s the Democrat who can do it. If he’s right, a race that likely won’t command as much attention as the big-ticket gubernatorial contest may indeed wind up as one of the most important elections in the country next year.
“What happens in Texas politically often happens to the rest of the country,” Collier said. “The rest of the country is seeing Texas Republicans lurch far to the right, to a place that’s so bad not only for Texas, but so bad for the country. To see the progenitor of that bad policy taken down by a Democrat would be a very, very good thing for the country.”