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Grieder: Democrat Mike Collier betting voters will be ready to retire Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick in 2022

Houston Chronicle logo Houston Chronicle 4/14/2021 By Erica Grieder, Staff writer

Do you remember when politics, one of our great national pastimes, was fun?

You may not — it’s been a while. These days, to wade into the political arena is often to emerge covered in bile. Those who’ve done so recently might be tempted to make a beeline back to shore, safe from the hand-wringing, hyperbole and mutual recriminations that have come to pass for considered debate.

“We were much more lighthearted before things became so partisan,” Democrat Mike Collier said over six-inch Subway sandwiches at Total Plaza on Monday, days after he’d launched his second campaign for lieutenant governor. “Much more lighthearted.”

It was a poignant comment coming from Collier, a longtime accounting executive who’s been involved in Texas politics since the 2014 midterm cycle, when he served as the Democratic nominee for state comptroller.

He lost to Republican Glenn Hegar that year, and then went on to lose his first challenge to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick in 2018. But in both cases he campaigned with a sense of humor, as well as a wonkish passion for issues such as public education, property taxes and infrastructure.

“It’s fun being a Democrat!” Collier told me years ago, an attitude that might be perplexing in a red state such as Texas but is energizing nonetheless.

And this was an attitude that resonated with many voters. In the 2018 election cycle, Collier was nearly unknown, with a small campaign team and modest fundraising reports. He managed to build a base of grassroots support, and ultimately came within 5 percentage points of unseating Patrick, the fiery conservative who holds what is arguably the state’s most powerful office. Many Democrats cheered the news that Collier would seek a rematch against Patrick, a Republican who in January announced that he has a $20 million war chest and intends to seek re-election next year.

“Last time I didn’t assemble a team. I just started throwing punches,” Collier said. “We were grassroots; we were digital; we wore out a couple of trucks.” This time around, he reckons, his campaign will have more infrastructure, given the strong showing in 2018 and the message those results sent to donors and operatives who may have written off Collier’s bid as quixotic.

Mark Jones, a political scientist at Rice University’s Baker Institute, said Collier should be considered a long shot, given his low profile compared to Patrick’s and the difficulty that Democrats routinely face in raising enough money to mount a competitive statewide race in Texas. But Republicans, he noted, might boost the appeal of a Democrat by pushing far-right legislation such as Senate Bill 29 — a measure that would prevent transgender youths from competing on sports teams aligned with their gender identity.

“Barring exceptionally favorable national and local conditions, I don’t think Collier has much of a chance of defeating Patrick in 2022,” Jones said. “But that being said, if a perfect Democratic storm takes place, Collier is the type of middle-of-the road reasonable candidate that with sufficient funds could defeat Patrick.”

Patrick, for his part, hasn’t engaged with Collier this cycle. And conservative consultant Luke Macias doesn’t think GOP voters should be worried. “The only shot Democrats have of being relevant is finding someone like Matthew McConaughey to be on the ballot,” he told me.

Worth noting is that the conventional wisdom, at the beginning of the 2018 midterm cycle, was that Republicans would sail to victory in the statewide races. Several incumbents, including Gov. Greg Abbott, managed to do so.

But Patrick had a closer-than-expected finish. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton won by less than 4 points against Democrat Justin Nelson. And U.S Sen. Ted Cruz narrowly escaped a spirited challenge from Democrat Beto O’Rourke that drew nationwide support, winning re-election by less than 3 percentage points.

Cruz won’t be on the ballot until 2024, a presidential election year. And Patrick may not be as vulnerable as Paxton. The embattled attorney general remains under indictment for allegedly violating state securities laws and is also reportedly the focus of an FBI investigation into whether he abused his office to benefit a wealthy donor (he denies the charges).

But, in any case, Collier views Patrick as vulnerable enough given the big issues facing the state — school funding, infrastructure, property taxes and criminal justice reform — and the sense among many voters that our politics have devolved in a dangerous way. Patrick, a former talk radio host, has arguably had a hand in that trajectory. Take some of the outlandish statements he made just during the past year. In April 2020 he argued that grandparents like him would take their chances with COVID-19 to see the economy reopened; in November, he offered a reward of up to $1 million for evidence of voter fraud—a stunt announced amid Donald Trump’s failed effort to overturn the results of the 2020 election.

Theater, perhaps. But it’s theater that many Texans aren’t cheering, given what’s at stake. Unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud were at the heart of the violent Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol that left a police officer and four others dead — and now are being cited by Republican state legislators pushing new voting restrictions.

“My guess is that there’s an awful lot of folks that don’t really consider themselves partisans, but they consider themselves patriots,” Collier said Monday, reflecting on the current push by state leaders, including Patrick, to restrict voting rights in Texas. “They might have a preference for one policy or another policy, but overarching all of that is they understand history, they understand freedom, they understand democracy, and they did not like what they saw on January 6th and all that led up to it.”

He reckons that in light of the ticket-splitting in the 2018 cycle — the election that saw several Republicans narrowly avert defeat — there are still many Texas voters who are judging the individual candidates, rather than the parties they represent.

erica.grieder@chron.com

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