AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The highest-profile Democrat challenging U.S. Sen. John Cornyn is a deep-pocketed Dallas dentist best known for an expensive but unsuccessful run for Congress in 2012 and years of generous donations to top conservatives in Texas and beyond.
But David Alameel has won endorsements from his party's top muscle — gubernatorial hopeful Wendy Davis and lieutenant governor candidate Leticia Van de Putte. That has angered another U.S. Senate candidate, Maxey Scherr, an El Paso personal-injury attorney who says she's the only true Democrat in the race.
Scherr's campaign responded with email bursts highlighting Alameel's past donations to Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and even Cornyn himself. Alameel has countered that he's not afraid to pour his personal fortune into the race. They are two of five Democrats vying in the March 4 primary, but their back-and-forth has attracted enough attention that it may decide the election.
"It is sad that Democrats are trying to fight each other instead of focusing on what America needs," Alameel said in a phone interview. "Everybody, including me, used to think that we could work with Republicans. It has become very clear that today's Republican Party is far too extreme."
Scherr said she "wasn't bickering just to bicker" but feels a duty to make primary voters aware that Alameel "has given $1.6 million to different candidates and causes that have blockaded progress for our state."
"And these aren't regular Republicans, these are super-extreme Republicans," Scherr said by phone.
If no one wins a majority, a runoff election between the top two finishers will be held in May. No Democrat has won statewide office in Texas for 20 years.
Cornyn, seeking his third term, has a war chest of nearly $6.5 million, is the Senate's powerful minority whip and escaped a serious tea party challenger in the GOP primary. His most-publicized threat from the right is U.S. Rep. Steve Stockman, who has raised little money and made few major campaign appearances in Texas.
"Other than having a larger bank account than Maxey Scherr I don't know if (Alameel) necessarily brings anything more in terms of electability in November," said Colin Strother, an Austin-based political consultant.
Strother said many think Alameel "could add more value to the ticket because he would be able to spend money and help with turnout" but that notion has frustrated some Democrats who have seen "him write check after check after check to the other party."
Scherr was visiting her sister in Boston when she decided on a whim to turn up for open admissions interviews at the University of Massachusetts at Boston and was accepted immediately. She got pregnant at 21 and remains a single mother.
"My son became the little college student because he had to come with me to classes quite often," Scherr said.
Alameel talked of being born in Lebanon to a large Christian family and immigrating to the U.S. at age 20 with just $120 to his name. A former California farm laborer, gas station attendant and U.S. Army veteran, Alameel eventually studied dentistry at the University of Texas and founded a chain of successful clinics. He sold the business five years ago and now works as an investment manager of his fortune.
Exactly how much Alameel is worth is unclear. In 2012, he filed federal disclosure forms listing an annual income of $5 million-plus, but also has assets worth between $40 million and $125 million.
"I do not talk about my personal wealth," Alameel said. When asked about reports he'd be willing to spend $20 million against Cornyn if he secures the Democratic nomination he responded only: "We're going to have the resources we need to get our message all across Texas."
In 2012, Alameel spent $4.5 million running for the U.S. House from a new district in Fort Worth but finished fourth in a crowded Democratic primary field.
He donated $8,000 to Cornyn in 2004, and has made past sizable donations to Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott — now the presumptive Republican gubernatorial nominee — as well as Dewhurst, Perry before he was governor and U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
Alameel also, however, donated more than $1.5 million to Democrats nationally and in Texas since 2008.
Texas business moguls often donate lavishly to both parties, but Alameel wouldn't comment on his past contributions except to say that the GOP and its candidates are now "too extreme" for him.
Squabbling over Alameel's past donations aside, the candidates' platforms are similar. They both want to raise the minimum wage, improve schools and health care for Texans and support overhauling federal immigration laws.
Scherr wants to get Texas off "Cruz control," accusing Cornyn of bowing to junior U.S. senator and tea party firebrand Ted Cruz. Alameel's top issue is ending the war in Afghanistan — even though the U.S. combat role there is set to end late this year.
"I think we're spending so much money over there," Alameel said. "I'd rather spend that money here to rebuild our economy."