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In Deep-Red Texas, National Democrats See Ted Cruz as a Potential 2024 Target

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Five years ago, a punk rock, skateboarding Democratic phenom named Beto O’Rourke seemed like he might unseat Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas. As liberals around the country went starry-eyed over his viral speeches, O’Rourke raised more than $80 million and lost by less than 3%. The former congressman went on to a failed presidential bid, and then lost a gubernatorial race last year by more than ten points.

Now, Cruz is back up for reelection and national Democrats must decide if they can continue to justify pouring their resources into a state that’s repeatedly let them down. No Democrat has won statewide in Texas since 1994, when Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock was reelected. And Texas Republicans won resoundingly in last year’s midterms. With Democrats nervous about holding on to their slim Senate majority in 2024, national Democratic groups may be slow to invest in the Lone Star State. But a number of factors, including Cruz’s polarizing reputation, means the race could once again draw big money.

“You’re calling at a good time, because I think a lot of us are changing our attitude right now,” says Alex Morgan, the president of Progressive Turnout Project, which poured more than half a million dollars into a get-out-the-vote mail program for O’Rourke in 2018. “With Colin Allred jumping in the race, I think Texas becomes our best pick-up opportunity in the U.S. Senate this year.”

Allred, a former NFL linebacker who made it to Congress after defeating a longtime Republican incumbent in a swing district in 2018, launched his campaign against Cruz on Wednesday. His introductory video, which highlighted his biography and bipartisan wins, recounted his experience inside the Capitol on January 6, 2021, and trashed Cruz as “all hat, no cattle,” quickly garnered millions of views on social media. Allred announced Thursday evening that his Senate campaign had raised more than $2 million in its first 36 hours.

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Although other Democrats are expected to vie for the chance to be the nominee, Cruz was quick to sic his supporters on Allred as an immediate threat.

“We can’t let a radical leftist like Colin Allred flip our state blue in 2024,” Cruz tweeted on Wednesday, with a link to a fundraising page.

Democrats face a tough Senate map this cycle, with at least seven Democratic-held seats at risk in battleground states. Losing just one could give Republicans control of the chamber. That means resources will already be spread thin. Yet party leaders are on the lookout for possible pickups, and the two clearest opportunities are Florida, which has only seemed to get redder over the past few years, and Texas.

In an interview with CQ Roll Call published Thursday morning, Senator Tina Smith of Minnesota, the vice chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, named Texas when asked about a place on the 2024 Senate map where Democrats could go on the offensive, saying the state was “like Georgia was a few years ago.”

“Democrats will look for every opportunity to put Republicans on defense, including in states like Texas,” a DSCC aide tells TIME.

Despite well over a decade of unfulfilled hopes among Democrats that Texas might finally turn blue, no one who spoke to TIME for this story was ready to write the state off as a lost cause. Harvey Kronberg, the publisher of Quorum Report, an insider newsletter on Texas politics, thinks that Democrats’ long history of losses could end with a star candidate who knows how to land jabs at an opponent and use radio and TV to their advantage—areas where he thinks O’Rourke fell short.

“I actually think we will see us become authentically purple in the next decade,” Kronberg tells TIME, adding, “One statewide win will turn us purple.”

But polling suggests the challenges for Texas Democrats remain as steep as ever. A survey of Texas voters from the University of Texas at Austin released Wednesday found that 45% approve of Cruz and 41% disapprove. Among Republicans, approval jumped to 78%.

“He just has locked down Republicans in the state,” said Daron Shaw, a professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin, in a podcast published this week with the poll. “And it is awfully tough as a Democrat to beat somebody who generates so much enthusiasm and loyalty among the Republican base.”

For now, many national Democrats and outside groups are hanging back to see how the race shakes out before they decide how much they want to put into Texas. That could be another point in Allred’s favor, given his reputation as a strong fundraiser.

“On paper, he looks like a man that can raise tens of millions of dollars,” Kronberg says.

Allred hasn’t cleared the primary field yet; State Senator Roland Gutierrez, who represents Uvalde, is widely expected to enter the race after the Texas legislative session ends this month. Texas Democrats say good things about both men and foresee their differing strengths in reaching Black and Latino Texans, respectively.

With their party’s nominee still undecided, Democrats are for now uniting in their antipathy toward Cruz, who is among their biggest bogeymen; in 2021 he earned dozens of bruising headlines for traveling to Cancún while his constituents suffered the effects of a deadly winter storm. Allred’s launch video slammed Cruz for that trip, and accused Cruz of hiding in a closet during the January 6 attack on the Capitol.

They’re also united around the idea that the Lone Star State remains a battleground. One Texas Democratic consultant says that the consensus among clients from a variety of sectors is that Texas will continue to see more and more political investment. Rahna Epting, the executive director of MoveOn, whose members backed O’Rourke decisively ahead of 2018, says fighting in Texas again this cycle remains a real possibility.

“Knowing that the Senate map is going to be challenging in 2024, if the Texas Senate race opens up a possibility for us to gain another Democratic seat, that is something definitely worth looking at,” she says.

Another national Democratic strategist who spoke to TIME is optimistic about Texas, and particularly the prospect of Allred posing “a real challenge” in 2024.

“Is Colin Allred the one to flip it? I think that’s still an open question,” the strategist tells TIME. “But it’s one that I think is worth asking.”

Abhi Rahman, who served as senior communications adviser and spokesperson on O’Rourke’s 2022 gubernatorial campaign, argues that a general lack of investment in the state hurt efforts to turn Texas blue last year. But he, too, thinks an Allred-Cruz match-up could change the game.

“Republicans were effective in the way that they branded Beto right at the beginning of the race,” Rahman says. “Republicans win when they’re able to villainize the Democrat, which is something that Ted Cruz is not going to be able to do, because first of all, he’s Ted Cruz, he’s despised by everybody. And secondly, Colin Allred is a moderate Democrat who’s really spent his time in Congress working on VA hospitals, doing bipartisan stuff.”

Adds Rahman: “It’s a completely different dynamic in this race.”

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Write to Mini Racker at mini.racker@time.com