HOUSTON — Democratic congressional candidate Lizzie Pannill Fletcher stumped through 102 fever at a River Oaks house party Wednesday night.
One of her rivals in Texas’ 7th Congressional District, Alex Triantaphyllis, spent time this week calling voters while en route to knock on doors in search of, yes, more voters.
Jason Westin, an oncologist also vying for the nomination to take on Republican incumbent U.S. Rep. John Culberson, campaigned to Houstonians at a polling station during the final hours of early voting on Friday evening.
“We know this is go time,” said yet another Democratic candidate, journalist and activist Laura Moser, at a house party of her own in the Bellaire neighborhood on Thursday evening.
Here in west Houston, this race has a small-town feel — everyone seems to know at least one of the candidates or have heard about the campaign via word of mouth. But there is nothing normal about the stakes involved in who wins and loses this primary.
This is shaping up to be a must-win seat if Democrats take control of the U.S. House next fall, and the national party is taking extraordinary steps to influence the primary.
Last week, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, fearing Moser would be too liberal to beat Culberson in the district were she to nab the nomination, dumped a pile of opposition research about her onto the internet, sparking a firestorm in the political world.
It is near-impossible to find anyone in Houston who thinks the move was fair — or even smart.
Even those in the heat of Houston Democratic politics who agree with the DCCC in spirit are appalled with the tactic and fear it has backfired and strengthened Moser. Republicans, meanwhile, watched the pyrotechnics with delight.
The candidates — all of them, not just Moser — seem stunned at the storm that has taken over their race.
“Obviously, it was unsettling, and you don’t want to see outside groups try to tell voters what to do,” said Triantaphyllis, a nonprofit executive. “My response has been simply that outside people should let Texas 7 voters decide who the nominee should be, and it’s as simple as that.”
At the Thursday night house party, Moser mentioned the DCCC in the context of a staffer’s past employment. Her supporters booed at the mention of the committee.
“A week later, I’m very tired,” Moser told the Tribune in an interview. “I’m very excited for Tuesday to come because it’s been kind of angsty. But things look better than they did when I was at a nearly identical event a week ago tonight when I was, like, sucker punched.”
At the same time, she argues, it has all been “weirdly advantageous.” As Democrats across the country struggle with what they call the “the Pelosi issue” — how to deal with inevitable Republican ads tying them to U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi — Moser sees a silver lining.
“No one will call me Nancy Pelosi’s patsy now,” she said.
Seven total candidates are running for the seat, but University of Houston fundraiser Joshua Butler, attorney James Cargas and former Congressional staffer Ivan Sanchez lag behind Fletcher, Triantaphyllis, Westin and Moser in fundraising and prominence.
The impetus for most of these candidates running this time around was that Hillary Clinton got more votes than Donald Trump in the district in 2016, while Culberson faced marginal Democratic opposition spending. But within the top tier, it is hard to find anyone who will say that the DCCC’s action is on the minds of voters.
“It depends who we’re talking to — there’s the social media bubble and the indivisible crowd that’s engaged in the race — they all heard about it, and in general the reaction is ‘Why the heck did they do that?’ But if you’re knocking in doors in Jersey Village or Katy and talking to voters, it’s rare that they’ve heard about it,” Westin said.
“It’s the second universe that is probably more relevant” he added. “Social media can feel like real life, but it’s not, and voters are a bit more important than Twitter and Facebook.”
CD-7 encompasses moneyed River Oaks, parts of the liberal stronghold of Montrose and reaches west into the Memorial neighborhood and on out into Katy.
This is where some of the richest people in America live. It once hosted disgraced Enron executives and continues to be where oil billionaires, former President George H.W. Bush and even U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz call home.
What happens here matters to many of the people who run Houston, and the events over the past week is all anyone involved in politics here can gossip about.
“Houston is a small town and a big city,” said Fletcher, an attorney.
Because television advertising is so expensive here, much of the politicking takes place in old fashioned ways: direct mail, house parties, door knocking and phone calls.
All four of the biggest fundraisers are playing in the digital realm, with a particular emphasis by Moser and Westin. Moser has accumulated a massive following on Twitter. Westin had an online video go viral and earned the endorsement of Star Wars actor Mark Hamill.
And while Moser’s backers decry the outside intervention from the DCCC, she has undoubtedly benefited from the support of donors and celebrities like Alyssa Milano and Kal Penn who do not live anywhere near Houston.
Triantaphyllis and Fletcher, who’ve raised the most money as of the latest campaign finance filings, have larger presences on television. Fletcher is also the beneficiary of direct mail and digital buys by EMILY’s List, the influential national group that helps elect Democratic women who support abortion rights. At the same time, a group called the Workers Families Party is hitting her with a small amount of digital advertising.
Few will guess who makes the runoff, but insiders predict it will boil down to some pairing of Fletcher, Moser and Triantaphyllis.
The uncertainty is rooted in several factors. For one, it’s been years since the district has had a competitive Democratic primary, so there’s no set playbook for winning here.
Secondly, Harris County Democratic early vote turnout has exploded, and no one is sure exactly who is voting — will moderates frustrated with Trump decide this primary? Or are newer, first-time Democratic voters coming to the polls?
And the final major unknown is how many moderates will opt to vote in the Republican primary instead of the Democratic one in a bid to protect state Rep. Sarah Davis, a moderate Republican who is under intra-party political fire from Gov. Greg Abbott.
While the consultants and staff struggle with the unknown, Fletcher shrugged it off.
“The truth is for me, as a first-time candidate, it’s all uncharted territory,” said Fletcher.
If no candidate has a majority of the vote after Tuesday, the ensuing runoff could get even nastier. If Moser makes the top two and the DCCC opts to continue trying to tank her campaign, the fallout could be widespread. An even bigger question is what the committee or its allied groups would do — especially in an expensive market like Houston — if she won the nomination.
Moser told the Tribune she would put away any ill will toward the committee if they were to end up helping her out in the fall.
“I think it’d be great … I’m a Democrat. I’m not the one who disavowed the Democratic Party. They disavowed me,” she said. “The more the merrier. We need a lot of money to flip this district.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misquoted Lizzie Pannill Fletcher. What she actually said was “Houston is a small town and a big city.”
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2018/03/02/houston-democrats-vie-take-john-culberson-7th-congressional-district/.
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