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No football team ever lost a game, says Mike Collier. The players just ran out of time.
In 2018, Collier tried to unseat the Republican incumbent, Dan Patrick, as Texas’s lieutenant governor, arguably the most powerful role in state government. He watched poll numbers trend closer and closer – until Patrick bested him by just under five points.
But Collier – a Democrat – isn’t jaded enough to turn his back on what he thinks is a winnable fight. And to him, the game’s just getting started.
“We came out of the first half down by a field goal,” he told the Guardian. “Now, we’re gonna go win the second half.”
When Collier was a teenager, his family moved to a small town just north of Austin. Although he decried how racism pervaded (and still pervades) much of America, he’s nostalgic for the days when Texans were at least bound by civility and preparing for the future.
“The Texas that I remember then was progressive,” Collier says. “But it was a Texas-progressive, in the sense that, you know, people could do their own thing.
“They could be free.”
An accountant, auditor and energy expert by trade, Collier is more sports analogist and goofball than political insider. His endearing drawl sounds like a habit rather than an act, and he seems happiest poking fun at his 27-year-old son or telling dad jokes.
But, as he sets his sights on next year’s lieutenant governor race, Collier isn’t kidding around.
“A Democrat beats Dan Patrick, and suddenly everybody behaves differently, particularly if that Democrat brings to it our Texas values – which I do – as a Democrat, and we roll up our sleeves and start solving problems honestly,” he says.
“I think it’ll change everything.”
He’s not wrong.
As the second most populous state, Texas accounts for 38 electoral college votes and just added two more congressional seats after last year’s census. It’s home to one of the most powerful constituencies in the union, a bloc that’s handed Republicans control over every lever of state government – at least for now.
But Texas’s demography is trending younger and more diverse, generating buzz over a potential uptick in more liberal voters. A Collier victory could represent the first ripple in a blue wave that Democrats have been promising for years now.
That, in turn, would transform federal politics.
Next year’s election could also lead to the ousting of a conservative firebrand whose political reign has further aligned Texas with xenophobia, conspiracy theories and Trumpism. Patrick, once an outsider himself, has spent years deeply entrenched in the highest rungs of state government, pushing its politics past even his own Tea Party inclinations.
After chairing Donald Trump’s Texas campaigns, Patrick has already been endorsed by the former president ahead of 2022. Trump’s support earlier this month was a much-needed boost for the beleaguered state executive, whose approval ratings plummeted to a measly 35% in April, according to the Texas Politics Project.
But while Patrick was focused on Trump, Collier worked hard to elect Joe Biden last year. He endorsed Biden early in the primary season, then took on a series of duties – including a senior adviser role – to help his campaign.
Collier remembers watching Biden’s launch video in 2019, during a terrible day at an energy conference. The minutes-long clip described a battle for the soul of the nation, with footage of neo-Nazis marching through Charlottesville.
“Tears came to my eyes,” Collier says. “I said, ‘this is exactly what’s happening in my America.’”
Much like Biden, Collier readily admits that he’s old, has white hair and wears Ray-Bans – pure coincidence, he says. And much like Trump, Patrick is the consummate showman, with an eclectic life story that’s seen biblical highs and lows.
Patrick, né Goeb, went from popular sportscaster to bankrupt businessman, then eventually garnered a following as a middle-aged talkshow host. But by the mid-2000s, he settled on a career in public service, eventually ascending to the lieutenant governorship after several terms in the state senate.
Now, he relies on his flair for the dramatic – used in another life to get through an on-air vasectomy – to push his conservative agenda.
Patrick proudly frequents Fox News segments, where he makes sensationalized claims about the US-Mexico border and spews vitriol about immigrants, one in six of all Texans. In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, he raised eyebrows after making clear that he valued a healthy economy over human life – even his own.
“No one reached out to me and said, ‘As a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren?’” he told the Fox News host Tucker Carlson. “And if that’s the exchange, I’m all in.”
At times, the bellicose Patrick appears to be waging war against himself. After eight students and two teachers were massacred in a mass shooting at Santa Fe high school outside of Houston in 2018, he personally offered to donate up to 10 metal detectors for the district.
“Our politics reflects the point of view of a very, very small minority of Texans,” Collier says, and Patrick “panders over there to a small crowd that don’t represent our values”.
Collier’s vision of Texas is much different. He imagines a state that leads the charge against a global climate crisis, where kids line up to get into the public schools instead of trying to find any way out of them.
He knows that too many young, Black men are languishing behind bars. And he doesn’t think hospital closures in Texas’s rural communities should force pregnant people to drive an hour and a half just to find an OB-GYN.
“We’re a wealthy nation. We’re a wealthy state. Everybody oughta have healthcare,” he says.
When he talks policy, he doesn’t fearmonger, mince words or put on a show. In many ways, he’s the anti-Patrick – or is Patrick the anti-Collier?
“I mean,” Collier says earnestly, “He’s just not one of us.”