Messing with TexasA Democratic war in Texas’s seventh district
Despite the efforts of party strategists, Laura Moser, a progressive, advanced to a run-off in a key district
FEW people beyond Texas’s seventh district had heard of Laura Moser before her own party tried to discredit her. Late last month, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) took the rare step of publishing embarrassing opposition research on the journalist and activist who wants to take on John Culberson, a Republican, in the mid-terms in November. Its effort may have backfired spectacularly: in the primary on March 6th Ms Moser came a close second to Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, a lawyer. They will now compete in a run-off in May.
The DCCC tried to take down Ms Moser because it thought she was too much of a leftie to beat a nine-term Republican in a seat that has been red for more than four decades. After Donald Trump’s election Ms Moser founded Daily Action, an anti-Trump group. She is a proponent of single-payer health care, among other progressive stances. To undermine Ms Moser, who grew up in Houston, but left in 1999 and only returned late last year to campaign, the DCCC sought to portray her as that perfect devil, “a Washington insider”. On February 22nd it distributed an article she had written in 2014 for the Washingtonian, a magazine, in which she said she would “sooner have my teeth pulled out without anaesthesia" than live in Paris, Texas. That was not the article’s only unfortunate line; in it, Ms Moser also referred to a neighbour as a “ deaf-mute drug addict", for which she has apologised.
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The DCCC’s clumsy intervention was criticised by the Democratic National Committee as well as progressive outfits such as Our Revolution, which runs Bernie Sanders’s e-mail list and has endorsed Ms Moser. It appears to have provoked some of them up to attack Ms Fletcher, a centrist. And it has allowed Ms Moser’s campaign to turn the claim that she is a Washington insider on its head. In a TV advert she urges voters to reject “Washington party bosses [telling] us who to choose.” She adds: “we tried that before, and look where it got us.”
The saga highlights an uncomfortable truth for the Democratic Party. The flip-side of the anti-Trump zeal of its activists, one of the party’s biggest grounds for optimism, is a lot of crowded, unmanageable and potentially damaging Democratic primaries.
That is not to decry the anti-Trump zeal. In Texas, for the first time in a quarter of a century Democrats have put forward a candidate in every one of the state’s 36 congressional seats. Many of them are women who performed strongly on March 6th. All the candidates in the state endorsed by Emily’s List, a Democratic organisation that backs pro-choice female candidates, either won or made it through to a run-off. In the seventh district Ms Moser and Ms Fletcher between them won more than half the vote against five men, one of whom had raised more money than either of them. The surge in Democrats’ enthusiasm was also reflected in turnout on March 6th: 1m Democrats cast votes in the primary races, almost twice as many as in 2014, the last mid-term primaries.
The seventh district matters to the Democratic Party because it is the sort of place that could determine its chances of regaining control of the House of Representatives in November. A prosperous suburban area populated by immigrants and college educated whites, it has been held by Republicans for more than four decades. But in 2016 the district voted narrowly for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. That suggests it is winnable, but probably by a moderate, not an outsider-style progressive.
Ms Fletcher, who is backed by Emily’s list, will probably win the run-off in the seventh district. But the DCCC’s intervention is likely to have two consequences in the run-up to the mid-terms. Ms Moser’s campaign is now more likely than ever to highlight and inflame divisions between the progressive and establishment wings of her party. And further afield other candidates in crowded fields may be emboldened to continue their campaigns, even if their party tries to dissuade them.
This will not stop party strategists from trying to weed crowded fields, though.
Take California, where the stakes are particularly high. In the primary on June 5th the two candidates who garner the most votes in each district will go forward to contest the general election, no matter which party they represent. That means that in a crowded contest Democrats could split their votes, so that only Republicans go forward. In a district in San Diego four Democrats are running to replace Darrell Issa, a Republican who is retiring (a fourth dropped out last week citing concerns that a crowded field would play into the hands of Republicans). East of Los Angeles eight Democrats want to replace Edward Royce, another retiring Republican.
Daraka Larimore-Hall, the state party’s vice chairman, made a speech aimed at congressional candidates who are polling below 10% at its convention last month. “If you step aside today to make sure we don’t send two Republicans to the general, you will be my hero,” he is reported to have said. “If you put your career before your party...I will not support you for fucking dogcatcher.”
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