When it was his turn to speak at the Cinco de Mayo political rally in San Antonio’s Rosedale Park, Mike Collier hopped off the stage to get closer to the audience. The event, hosted by the Bexar County Democratic Party, had drawn a thousand or so attendees, most of whom had come to see gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke. Preceding O’Rourke, however, was a parade of down-ballot candidates. Each had exactly three minutes to give a short campaign pitch. The 61-year-old Collier, who is running for the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor in the May 24 runoff election, paced back and forth before the crowd like a talk-show host. With his neatly parted white hair, wire-rimmed glasses, and pleasantly bland demeanor, he was a dead ringer for daytime-television personality Phil Donahue.
“I’ll tell you a fun story about being on the campaign trail,” said a revved-up Collier. He recounted a visit to San Angelo, during which he gave a speech to a group of Republicans at a cattle auction. “I had to get their attention, so I look around and see this great big pile of dirt—or so I thought—and I jumped up on that. I started to speak, and I realized what I had done. It smelled terrible!” After delivering his speech atop a pile of manure, he said, an audience member approached him. “ ‘You know, Mike, I never thought I would listen to a Democrat make a stump speech.’ And I said, ‘I never thought I’d give one from a Republican platform.’ ”
Collier has been telling versions of this anecdote since 2014, when, as a political novice, he won the Democratic nomination for state comptroller before losing to Republican Glenn Hegar by more than twenty points in the general election. He told the story during his 2018 campaign for lieutenant governor, when he came within five points of unseating incumbent Republican Dan Patrick. And he’s kept telling it this year as he seeks a rematch with Patrick.
As Collier acknowledges in his 2017 campaign memoir, Out of Comptrol—“the tale of my excellent political adventure,” as he describes it—he pinched the anecdote from Ronald Reagan and simply reversed the political parties in the punch line. That’s no accident: Collier, who grew up north of Austin in Georgetown, spent the first fifty years of his life as a Republican. Reagan was an early political hero. Since switching parties around 2010, Collier has positioned himself as a candidate who can uniquely appeal across party lines. He talks frequently about removing partisanship from government, and he campaigns extensively in rural parts of the state where Democrats seldom venture. In 2018, when they were last on the ballot, O’Rourke, running against Senator Ted Cruz, outperformed Collier in big cities, but Collier outperformed O’Rourke in rural areas.
Of course, outperforming O’Rourke in the state’s deep red rural counties is “a pretty low bar,” as James Henson, director of UT’s Texas Politics Project, put it. “I’m sure Mike can point to some places where he did well,” Henson told me, “but he’s running into the reality of what partisan politics looks like right now in the state.”
Collier has already run into that reality twice. So why try a third time?
Collier had a long history with Reagan. He participated in the fortieth president’s first inaugural parade in 1981, as a member of the University of Texas marching band, and he credits the Gipper with sparking his interest in politics. In Out of Comptrol, Collier recalls walking across the UT campus, “thinking about something I had just read in the newspaper related to some international crisis and how President Reagan was handling it.” Then, an epiphany: “Political leaders have to come from somewhere! If we want good political leaders, then good people have to make the decision to go into politics. . . . It was a rush, probably the kind of feeling some people might describe as a calling.”
If politics was a calling, Collier decided to put it on hold. Just before he graduated from UT, in 1984, the marching band played at a reception for longtime Republican congressman Bill Archer. Collier introduced himself during an intermission, saying he wanted to go into politics. The Houston congressman recommended that the young man first establish a career and start a family, then consider his options. So Collier went to work as a landman for Exxon, negotiating the acquisition of private mineral rights, before enrolling in UT’s MBA program, where he fell in love with accounting. “For me, the process of digging through data and understanding what it all meant was joyful and important,” he recalls in his memoir.
Collier took a job at the accounting giant Price Waterhouse (now known as PwC), which paid for him to earn his CPA. Over the next few decades, he worked his way up to partner, focusing on mergers and acquisitions. He bought a house in the affluent Houston suburb of Kingwood, where he and his wife raised their two sons.
Collier still longed to jump into politics—he just didn’t know whether he wanted to do it as a Republican or a Democrat. He had mostly voted for GOP candidates throughout his life, and nearly all of his friends, family, and colleagues were Republicans. But in the late 2000s, he grew troubled by the direction of the state GOP, particularly its underfunding of public schools under the leadership of Governor Rick Perry. In 2010, Collier voted for Democrat Bill White, a businessman and political centrist whose moderate record in the nonpartisan position of Houston mayor he’d admired, for governor. The same year, he began attending meetings of the Kingwood Democrats—an embattled minority in the deep red suburb. Compared to the vitriolic tea party gatherings he had recently attended, in which President Barack Obama was treated as Lucifer in the flesh, the local Democratic club seemed friendly and issues-focused.
At first, Collier wanted to run for Houston city controller, an office that oversees the city’s finances and a natural fit for a CPA with political inclinations. Then he met Bill Frazer, a fellow CPA who had already announced his candidacy. Frazer suggested that Collier instead run for Texas comptroller—the state’s tax collector, purchasing manager, and treasurer, with oversight over a $248 billion budget. The idea of a first-time candidate running for one of the state’s top offices seemed absurd, but he received encouragement from state Democratic party chair Gilberto Hinojosa. After his first meeting with Hinojosa and a few other high-ranking Democrats, Collier asked the political consultant he’d hired, Jason Stanford, why everyone was urging him to run. “You’re dressed like a grown-up,” Stanford replied. “Nobody wants a clown running down-ballot.”
That first race went about as expected for a political novice. “He was so innocent when he started,” Stanford recently told me. “The first thing he did was read the state budget. As if that has anything to do with winning a statewide race.” If Collier believed he could win over voters with his mastery of tax policy, he received a reality check when he was crushed in the general election by Glenn Hegar. It was the worst election for Texas Democrats in recent history. Every statewide candidate, from gubernatorial hopeful Wendy Davis on down, lost by double digits.
Collier assumed his political career was over after his 2014 loss, he told me after his speech at the Cinco de Mayo rally. But the state party was impressed by his financial resources—Collier had put $250,000 of his own money into the race—and his work ethic. In the aftermath of the debacle, Hinojosa asked him to become the state Democrats’ vice chair of finance and to conduct an election autopsy.
Collier spent two months traveling across Texas, speaking to local Democratic leaders. Based on his conversations, he reported back to Hinojosa that the party had a messaging problem. Democrats needed to double down their identity as “the unique, historic, and indispensable champion of the working and middle class,” he wrote in his report. Yet in the next paragraph, Collier argued that Democrats should also stake their claim as the “true pro-business party.” The idea that working people and businesses might have conflicting interests seems never to have crossed Collier’s mind—a surprising oversight from a pro-union candidate who had been endorsed by the Texas AFL-CIO.
Then again, maybe 2014 was just a rough election cycle. Four years later, with Beto O’Rourke running against Senator Ted Cruz and President Donald Trump dominating headlines, Democrats made up significant ground. At first, Collier had wanted to run for governor in that election. “As I traveled the state, I became convinced that my ideas were powerful enough to sway voters,” he writes in Out of Comptrol. “But I figured I would have to run for governor; only the governor could control the narrative and get the message out, right?” But Hinojosa had other ideas, Collier says, contending that the party “needed a firebrand at the top of the ticket.” Why not run for lieutenant governor instead? After all, Dan Patrick was one of the most unpopular politicians in Texas, down there with Cruz. (Hinojosa told me that he doesn’t recall discouraging Collier from running for governor. The party ended up nominating Dallas County sheriff Lupe Valdez, who ran a lackluster campaign and lost to Governor Greg Abbott by thirteen points.)
Collier was disappointed, but he ultimately filed to run for lieutenant governor. Building on his experience and donor base from 2014, he mounted a vigorous challenge to Patrick, putting more than 100,000 miles on his Ford F-150 as he barnstormed across the state. He framed the election not as Democrat versus Republican but as Mike Collier—reasonable, safe—versus Dan Patrick—extreme, dangerous. Despite being outspent $25 million to $1.5 million, Collier came within shouting distance of ousting the incumbent lieutenant governor. With just a bit more funding, he believes he could have won. “Donors weren’t interested, because they didn’t believe it could happen,” said Stanford, who didn’t work on the 2018 campaign but stayed in touch with Collier. “Even though there were all these analyses saying it was going to be close.”
The legislative session immediately following Collier’s run had been relatively moderate by Texas standards, with Republicans seemingly chastened by their brush with electoral defeat. But in 2021, after soundly defeating Democrats across Texas, Patrick presided over one of the most right-wing legislative sessions in Texas history. Collier desperately wanted another shot at Patrick, but he also didn’t want to get in the way of a stronger candidate. “One of the things I was very alert to was whether the Democrats would get behind somebody who ran already,” he told me. Nonetheless, he says that Democratic officials, who have struggled to recruit candidates with histories of winning elections, assured him that he was still their best option, and Collier announced his candidacy.
Democratic voters might not be quite as sold. In 2018, Collier won his primary outright, with 52 percent of the vote, over businessman Michael Cooper. This year, in a three-candidate field, he managed only 42 percent, which means he’ll face off against state representative Michelle Beckley of Denton County in a runoff election on May 24. (Former George W. Bush political strategist Matthew Dowd briefly joined the race before withdrawing in December.) Despite winning just 30 percent of the vote, Beckley has called on Collier to drop out, saying he “doesn’t inspire the base” and comparing him to West Virginia senator Joe Manchin, who has broken with his party repeatedly during the Biden administration. In a March interview with Spectrum News, Beckley, whose team did not respond to multiple interview requests, said that Collier “had way more resources than the two women that were running. And still, fifty-nine percent of people didn’t vote for him.”
Apart from granting the occasional interview, though, Beckley doesn’t appear to be actively campaigning in the runoff. Her campaign website lists no public events. According to the Collier campaign, Beckley withdrew from the only debate on schedule.
Even if he wins the runoff, Collier faces another uphill battle against Patrick in the November general election. The lieutenant governor, who cruised to victory in the Republican primary, has amassed a war chest of nearly $23 million. Collier has raised $1.8 million—more than he collected in 2018—but has been forced to spend most of that money in the primary and runoff. At the moment, he has less than $120,000 on hand. And while 2018 was a Democratic wave election, most pundits are forecasting a red tsunami this November. With President Joe Biden’s approval ratings currently at a dismal 41 percent and Republicans up nearly three points on a generic congressional ballot, it’s a bad time to be a Texas Democrat.
Or maybe it’s a bad century to be a Texas Democrat. Collier knows all too well that no member of his party has won a statewide race here since 1994. But he believes things are changing. “If you look at presidential elections, Biden did better than Hillary Clinton, and Hillary Clinton did better than Obama,” he told me. “The state isn’t going to change by itself—you still have to have candidates who go out there, and you have to get people to the polls, and you have to have the right message.”
So what is the Democrats’ message? Collier himself seems uncertain. When I asked what his top priority would be as lieutenant governor, Collier rattled off six agenda items: lowering property taxes, improving public education, fixing the electric grid, preserving abortion access, protecting marriage equality, and defending transgender children. When I relayed this to Stanford, Collier’s former campaign advisor, he sighed. “If you spend all your time in politics, it’s hard to keep talking like a regular person. You start just listing issues and thinking that’s a message.”
In person, Collier comes across as knowledgeable, competent, and public-spirited. And in his memoir, he recalls his early success speaking to Republican audiences. “I began to believe that if I could only have one-on-one conversations with every Republican in the state, I could win.” Collier acknowledges that’s impossible in a state with 17 million registered voters. But his unshakable faith in his powers of persuasion bespeaks a larger problem with today’s Democratic party.
Politics is largely a matter of the heart, not the head. Fear, anger, frustration, hope, joy—the most successful politicians know how to tap into these primal emotions. For all his hard-won campaign experience, Collier still seems most comfortable in the realm of budgets and financial ledgers. At one point during our interview, he took off his glasses—and borrowed the glasses of his aide—to use as props to explain the “equal and uniform” law that governs commercial property tax appraisals. Successful politicians also know that the best intentions in the world are useless if you don’t win. “LBJ understood the difference between power and policy,” Stanford said. “And he also understood that you can’t enact policy without power.”
As our interview was wrapping up, I asked Collier what he would do if he lost his third straight statewide race this fall. Would he run again? “I suspect that if I don’t win, the better answer is to help someone else,” he replied. “I’m not going to make any commitments sitting here today. But I’m very passionate about these issues. I have a lot of energy. I’ll use the network and the infrastructure I’ve developed. But I don’t have to be the candidate.”
Collier stood up, thanked me, and walked back toward the thinning crowd. The Cinco de Mayo rally had ended, but Collier still wanted to shake some more hands. That night, he and a campaign aide would drive two hours to Junction, where they would stay in a Holiday Inn Express before continuing on to El Paso to hold yet another rally. The excellent political adventure goes on.