Will Texas Democrats be saved by Bell?

In a crowded field to challenge incumbent John Cornyn, Bell touts progressive outlook, political experience


Alex Dowd

TEXAS BLUES: Now more than ever, Congressman Chris Bell believes that the influx of new residents in Texas will help to make the longstanding Republican state a swing state. He also believes that the current direction of the country will inspire Democrats to show up to vote in much higher numbers. “I can’t stand the direction of this country,” he said, “but Donald Trump has been incredibly influential for the Democratic Party.” Photo by Alex Dowd.

Alex Dowd and Mia Terminella

During an election, politicians find wisdom and inspiration in many places. Congressman Chris Bell shared that he found his political guidance in an usual place: a cartoon.

My progressive politics are steeped in common sense.

— Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Chris Bell

In his conversation with Texas Tribune co-founder and CEO Evan Smith last Thursday, Bell referenced Hilary B. Price‘s cartoon of a dog in the doctor’s office. The dog is looking at an eye chart with diagrams of other dogs’ rear ends. The dog being tested goes down the line and has to name the different breeds and the doctor dog says his hindsight is 2020.

Bell said he took this message to heart. “In every election,” Bell said, “hindsight is 2020.”

Last fall, former congressman Chris Bell officially announced his campaign for the Democratic nominee position in the 2020 Texas senate race. If Bell wins the nomination, he will be facing Republican incumbent John Cornyn, who has been in office since 2002. In the current election, he is up against 10 other Texas Democrats vying for a chance to make it past the primary. His session with Smith offered Bell the chance for an uninterrupted, interview without having to be heard over the competing voices of the other candidates. 

RECOVERING WRITER: Bell, who was a former radio and television reporter prior to his career in law and politics, jokes with The Texas Tribune’s Evan Smith about his “recovery” period after his time working as a journalist. In 1982, Bell graduated from the University of Texas in Austin with a degree in journalism. He was named “best radio reporter in the state” in 1990 by the Texas Associated Press, but left to study law, receiving his degree in 1992. Photo by Alex Dowd.

In Texas, the Republican party has won every statewide election since 1990. Texas been a red state in every presidential election since 1980. Polls taken by CNN, NBC and other news organizations in 2016 have predicted that by 2020, the year of this U.S. Senate election, Texas would join states like California and New York as predictably blue states.

This predicted switch is known as the “Texodus” from the Republican party. Bell sees the Texodus as a possibility and says that the key is winning the more rural areas of Texas. 

“In these rural areas, there are still small pockets of Democrats,” he said, “To really win back the rural areas, we have to win a statewide election and show those areas that we [Democratic politicians] care about them.”

Our current health care system is Monopoly money, but I think that Obamacare was a huge step in the right direction.

— Chris Bell

In the 2018 U.S. Senate election in Texas, where Democrat Beto O’Rourke took on Republican incumbent Ted Cruz, the large cities and the counties bordering Mexico voted overwhelmingly blue, while the rest of the state remained reliably red. O’Rourke, who lost with 48.3 percent of the vote, was unable to secure the rural vote despite his laborious campaign tactic of visiting all 254 counties in Texas. 

Though both candidates faced many similar circumstances, Bell said that Beto had the advantage of securing the Democratic nomination without much of a fight.

“I think Beto ran a different kind of campaign and had the advantage of being the only major candidate on the Democratic side,” Bell said on the topic of their similarities “This race will be a little bit different, but interestingly, I think John Cornyn is causing the same degree of angst that Ted Cruz did.”  

The difference begins with their support network. Beto O’Rourke raised $80 million dollars for his campaign, which is the largest amount of money ever raised by a United States Senate candidate; he was active constantly on social media, live-streaming on Facebook during long drives and his day-to-day activities. Most of all, O’Rourke appealed to younger voters. He would skateboard in the Whataburger parking lot and was friends with Texas’s beloved country singer Willie Nelson

At 60 years old, Chris Bell, may have a harder time relating to the new voting generation, but he claims that his age and experience will help his campaign not hurt it.

“Sure, people want a fresh face,” Bell said, “but people like people with experience and [knowledge of] the way of Congress. I’m the only Democratic candidate who has had experience with the United States Congress. I don’t think that the Texas senate is the same as the U.S. senate.” 

I’m the only Democratic candidate who has had experience with the United States Congress.

— Chris Bell

Bell considers himself to be one of the more progressive candidates in the race, comparing himself to politicians like O’Rourke and Bernie Sanders, but he rejects any suggestion that he endorses socialism. 

“[Republicans] are going to call everyone a socialist,” he said. “It’s what they do, but I am not one. My progressive politics are steeped in common sense.” 

Bell’s political agenda does follow a progressive philosophy, with some exceptions. On the topic of guns, which Bell claims to be “one of the defining issues in this election and the other elections this year,” he wants an assault weapon ban with a gun buyback program. He supports a wealth tax but was unable Thursday to decide upon his definition of wealth or the percentage the wealth tax would be. When it comes to health care, Bell supports what he calls “accessible Medicare for all who want it.” 

“I think that there has to be a public option to fix Medicare,” Bell said. “Our current health care system is Monopoly money, but I think that Obamacare was a huge step in the right direction.”

His most complicated issues are energy and climate policies. Chris Bell refers to Texas as “the energy capital” of the United States and is a large supporter of clean, sustainable energy sources. But Bell is not on board with the Green New Deal and has openly spoken out against it. He vows to hold oil and gas companies responsible for their actions. That being said, though the majority of Bell’s campaign is funded by individual donors, he is also getting funding from Texan oil and gas companies. When he was questioned on these contributions, Bell acknowledged them, saying “well yes and that has been kind of a positive. One guy is very progressive and said he wanted to support [my] candidacy.”

With the primary election about a month away, now is the time to get to know your candidates. For more information about the candidates vying to become the next U.S. senator from Texas, check back here. We will post a new article each week on a different candidate in the U.S. Senate race.