Will National Democrats Pay a Price?


Two women are facing off in the Houston suburbs Tuesday to take on Republican Rep. John Culberson, in what has become an early test of intervention by national Democrats in competitive primaries. 

Lawyer Lizzie Pannill Fletcher and Laura Moser, a former journalist and activist, made the runoff for the Democratic nomination in Texas’ 7th District. The contest was propelled into the national spotlight less than two weeks before the March 6 primary when the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee took the unusual step of releasing opposition research on Moser, whom they considered unelectable in November.

Tuesday’s result could signal whether that intervention — which prompted some backlash among liberal activists — made a lasting impact on the race. And the runoff could be an early sign of which general election strategy Democratic voters find most viable: firing up the base or reaching across the aisle.

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National interference 

Shortly before the March primary, the DCCC released research on Moser highlighting a 2014 article she wrote in which she said she would rather have her “teeth pulled without anesthesia” than move to Paris, Texas (her grandparents’ hometown, which is not in the district).

From the committee’s perspective, Moser would not be electable in November.

But the question for the DCCC, which is facing other crowded and competitive primaries in key pickup opportunities, is whether that intervention had an enduring effect or fueled sustained backlash.

Moser did see a fundraising boost in the days following the DCCC’s action, but that did not materialize in a windfall. She raised $132,000 in the pre-runoff fundraising period, while Fletcher took in $175,000. Fletcher also had an advantage in cash on hand, $363,000 to $80,000. 

And while Moser has continued to fundraise off the DCCC intervention, she and Fletcher both said they want to remain focused on the issues and defeating Culberson.

“When it comes to what it takes to beat Culberson in November, what sets me apart is my belief that Democrats need to stand firm for our progressive values,” Moser said in a statement. “To win this district, we must bring new voters into the process. I believe we do that by talking to people about the issues that affect their lives — like income inequality, the spiraling costs of higher education, and the urgent threat of climate change.”

Fletcher said her campaign had been “talking to all Houstonians about John Culberson’s failure to advocate for and partner with us, and how we can send a true representative to Washington.”

“Since the beginning of this campaign, I have been focused on the issues that matter in this community — from rising healthcare costs to flood protection to gun safety,” she said. 

And, some operatives said, intraparty fights are not top of mind for average voters.

“At this point, it’s sort of a two-month-old process story,” said Sonia Van Meter, a Texas Democratic consultant based in Austin. “I think voters are not especially concerned with who the D-trip is interested in.”

But the move did rankle local activists, who were concerned about dampened enthusiasm and the perception that the primary was not a fair fight.

“It poses a challenge to us, as the activist community, to unite the entire base under whoever it is that prevails,” said Jon Rosenthal, a founder of a local Indivisible group that has not endorsed either candidate. “From our perspective as activist leaders … we wish that they would butt the hell out so that we could have a clean win.”

“I was really, really upset with what they did,” said Rufi Natarajan, who lives in a neighboring congressional district but is active in Harris County Democratic politics and the Bayou Blue Democrats. Natarajan originally backed Moser but is now supporting Fletcher.

“In a way, it was done very badly, but I guess they were saying what I’m saying, which is, ‘Hey, she’s not electable,’” Natarajan said.

Rosenthal, who is running for the Texas House, said activist leaders are still irked by the move. But they’re telling their members not to let anger toward the DCCC affect their vote, and to support the candidate they believe could defeat Culberson.

“I am more optimistic now rather than right after it happened,” Rosenthal said of chances for unity despite the intraparty fight. “People have come to terms with the fact that either [candidate] is a huge step up and we all need to be pulling together to actually flip that seat.”

But how exactly to flip the seat is still up for debate — and it’s a major question in the primary.

How to win

Both Moser and Fletcher are in line on most policy issues (aside from health care — Moser backs a single-payer system). So their style and general election strategies have become stark dividing lines in the runoff.

“I’m going to win because I’m a fighter,” Moser said at a debate earlier this month. “And people in this district, including Republicans, want someone who is going to pop it to John Culberson and who will take it to the mat from Day One.”

Moser said the focus should be on energizing existing supporters and new voters. Fletcher, on the other hand, stressed reaching across the aisle.

“What we need to do is talk to every single voter in the district: new voters, old voters, people who have voted perhaps differently before, who haven’t voted for a Democrat, people who voted across party lines, people who voted for Hillary Clinton,” Fletcher said at the debate.

Clinton carried the 7th District by 1 point in 2016 and Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Tilts Republican. But Fletcher pointed out that 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney carried the district by 21 points, so the eventual nominee will have to appeal to Republicans.

That debate over which strategy is best is something Democrats are talking about every day in the 7th District, Rosenthal said. And it’s a debate happening among Democrats across the country.

For some, the answer is clear.

“I like the idea of appealing to as many people on the political spectrum as possible, but right now, Democrats are pissed,” Van Meter said. “They’re angry, they’re galvanized, they’re motivated. And we just need to give them a reason to turn out.”

In Texas, voters do not register by party, so it’s unclear if there are enough Democrats in the 7th District to sway the November election. That’s why Fletcher and others argue that crossover appeal is key.

Fletcher noted in the debate that Democrats in Harris County have had success in recent local elections because they’ve nominated the right candidates who appeal to broad coalitions of voters.

So which strategy do rank-and-file Democratic voters believe is the most effective? Tuesday’s result in the 7th District will be one clue.

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