Mike Collier, who unsuccessfully ran for state comptroller in 2014, launched a long-shot bid for lieutenant governor on Saturday under a beating midday sun at Prete Main Street Plaza.
“I’m Dan Patrick’s worst nightmare. I’m a Democrat with a CPA license,” Collier, a graduate of Georgetown High School and the University of Texas, declared before a crowd of about 75 Williamson County Democrats excited by a string of seven recent local victories and animated by a deep-seated animus to Patrick as the embodiment of everything they don’t like about the Texas Republican Party.
“There is nobody better to run against Dan Patrick than me,” Collier said in an interview at a nearby Barnes & Noble where he was signing copies of his book, “Out of Comptrol: A Converted Democrat’s Improbable Quest to Save Texas Politics,” ahead of his announcement event.
In fact, said Collier, a finance and accounting executive from Kingwood, “There’s only one person on the planet who can effectively run a campaign and compete against Dan Patrick, because where he’s weak and where people don’t like him is where I’m strong.”
With his announcement, Collier joins U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, the El Paso Democrat who in March announced his candidacy for the U.S. Senate seat held by Ted Cruz, as the second declared Democratic prospect for statewide office in 2018.
It is a largely vacant field that speaks volumes about the weakened state of the Texas Democratic Party, at least at the state level, even half a year into a Republican administration in Washington that has been heading toward record-low approval ratings almost since President Donald Trump took office.
Kim Olson of Mineral Wells, whose card describes her as a “farmer, beekeeper, master gardener and veteran” — she is a retired U.S. Air Force colonel — is planning to run for agriculture commissioner, a job now held by Sid Miller.
But Olson is no better known than Jim Hogan, the Cleburne farmer and insurance salesman who, on the strength of a good name and without campaigning a whit, in 2014 defeated Kinky Friedman and Hugh Fitzsimons for the Democratic nomination for agriculture commissioner, before going on to lose to Miller.
Beyond that, there isn’t yet even the whisper of a potential Democratic candidate for governor, comptroller, attorney general or land commissioner, a dismal sign for a Democratic state party that has gone longer than any in the nation without electing a Democrat to statewide office. The last time Texas Democrats elected a candidate to state office was 1994, the year that Ann Richards lost the governorship to George W. Bush.
The filing deadline for the March 2018 primary isn’t until December, but it is very late in the day for the party to still be making up its mind about whether it plans to field an A-Team next year, let alone who would be on that team.
This ought to be a year of opportunity for Texas Democrats.
Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton by only 9 points in Texas, down from Mitt Romney’s 16-point margin over Barack Obama in 2012.
In 2014, the sixth year of the Obama presidency, Democrats were swamped in what turned into a national wave election.
The 2018 election will come toward the end of the first two years of a Trump presidency that has been an endless roiling boil of bad news and odd turns.
A University of Texas/Texas Tribune internet poll conducted June 2 to 11 found Trump with a 43 percent positive to 51 percent negative job approval rating among registered Texas voters. But the poll didn’t find the kind of Republican defections, at least so far, that would imperil the party’s statewide ticket next year.
But Matt Angle, a Washington-based Democratic political consultant and founder of the Lone Star Project, a political action committee that labors to turn Texas blue, remains optimistic.
“Things aren’t going to get better for Trump, they are going to get worse,” Angle said. “Things aren’t going to get better for (Gov. Greg) Abbott and Patrick in special session, they are going to get worse.”
The stark reality, said Rice University political scientist Mark Jones, is that the Republican advantage in Texas is just too steep for Democrats to surmount, and Collier, still a nonentity to most Texans, doesn’t rank as “top-tier” political talent who could make history.
“Don’t let them tell you we can’t win,” Collier declared at Saturday’s rally. “We can win, and I can tell you why. Dan Patrick is the worst lieutenant governor in Texas history.”
“We’ve got real issues, and what did he spend his whole session on?” Collier asked the crowd.
“Bathrooms,” the crowd shouted in response.
“More politicians have been caught doing bad things in bathrooms than all the transgenders,” Collier said.
Collier, a retired PricewaterhouseCoopers partner and a CPA with 25 years of experience who is now a senior adviser with Duff & Phelps, said that “Dan Patrick is very bad for business, and I can tell you, the business community is very concerned.”
“Tolerance is essential to corporate success and tolerance does not come naturally to humans,” Collier said. He said Patrick’s pursuit of legislation to set rules for the use of public bathrooms by transgender individuals in the name of “women’s privacy” is pandering to his party’s far-right base that sends a message of intolerance.
On school finance reform and property tax relief, Collier’s views track those expressed by House Speaker Joe Straus at a Wednesday meeting of the Texas Association of School Boards in San Antonio: that the state needs to increase aid to education to lower schools’ dependence on property taxes.
“I’m not sure I disagree with Joe Straus on these issues,” Collier said.
Collier, who after the 2014 election traveled the state for the party to do an autopsy on what went wrong, has learned from past mistakes.
First, he is running for the second time. Most candidates run once, lose and go away. Successful candidates are often making their second or third run for office.
He is also starting earlier than last time.
“Democrats usually announce later,” Collier said. “And lose.”
Collier impressed Democratic Party operatives with his 2014 run.
“I hope Mike Collier would run for governor in 2018,” Will Hailer, a former executive director of the state party, told the American-Statesman in a February 2015 interview.
“I know he’s not crazy enough to be talked into the idea because he’s a very rational, smart person, but Mike had a message that if we could box up and give it to candidates all across the South, we would be winning back statehouses and governors’ mansions,” Hailer said. “I think Mike has a very strong, pro-business, pro-worker economic message.”
Collier said Hailer was right that he should set his sights higher.
“Running for comptroller, it is difficult to attract people’s attention and to get your message out. It’s too obscure,” Collier said.
A race for lieutenant governor has a far higher profile.
“So it’s the same issues. It’s the same Mike, but running higher on the ballot so that I have a fighting chance of raising the money and getting my point of view out there,” Collier said.
Right now Patrick has $13.6 million in the bank while Collier has $1,715 in his account and $450,000 in outstanding loans. Abbott is sitting on $34 million.
Of top statewide figures, Abbott fared best in the UT/Texas Tribune poll, with a rating that is 45 percent positive and 38 percent negative. Patrick’s rating is 34 percent positive and 36 percent negative.
Right now the toughest spot for Democrats to fill might be the top spot.
No one seems to have much of an appetite for a race against Abbott, yet it would expose the party’s weakness if it didn’t have a presentable candidate to lead the ticket (though the U.S. Senate and congressional races actually appear first on the ballot).
Abbott’s campaign, which will effectively launch with the special session of the Legislature he has called beginning July 18, would also be disappointed if it had a rival in name only. It would prefer to crush by 15 or 20 points a candidate in whom Democrats invest their money and hopes, than to decimate a token candidate by 40 points. It’s harder to raise money and motivate volunteers in the face of only token opposition.
O’Rourke and Collier would like some serious running mates.
But they believe that they will benefit from bottom-up, grass-roots activism and a plethora of local candidates stirred by Trump, who, even when they are running losing campaigns in deeply red districts, can reduce the partisan margin in a way that can cumulatively be of great benefit to statewide candidates.
Manny Garcia, deputy executive director of the Texas Democratic Party, said the party expects to field candidates in all 25 congressional districts with Republican incumbents, and Democrats are considered to have a fighting chance in the Houston-based district held by U.S. Rep. John Culberson, the Dallas-based district held by U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions and the geographically huge, majority Hispanic district held by U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes.
In 2014, Collier lost to Glenn Hegar by just over 20 points, about the same margin Davis lost to Abbott, and only marginally better than Hogan, who lost to Miller by 22 points without lifting a finger.
Collier recalled a conversation he had during the campaign with former Houston Mayor Bill White, who, as the Democratic nominee for governor in 2010, lost to Gov. Rick Perry by 13 points.
White told Collier that he had watched and admired the seriousness of Collier’s campaign and commitment to the issues, but offered him this caution: “I just hope you understand none of that matters.”
With an early start and a provocative opponent, Collier hopes to prove White wrong.
CORRECTION: This story has been corrected to indicate that Collier has $1,715 in his campaign account, as well as $450,000 in outstanding loans.
Jonathan Tilove is the Statesman’s chief political writer. He has been chronicling the Texas Legislature in the First Reading blog on MyStatesman.com. Previously, he spent 25 years as a Washington correspondent for the New Orleans Times-Picayune and a Washington bureau reporter for Newhouse News Service.