The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has gone public in attacking just one Democratic candidate this election. On Tuesday, they’ll find out if that person will be their nominee in a key congressional race.
The DCCC went hard after former writer and liberal activist Laura Moser earlier this year, publicly blasting her for past writings they argued would disqualify her in the race, including one where she said she’d “rather have my teeth pulled out without anesthesia” than live in her grandparents’ hometown of Paris, a few hundred miles away from the Houston-area district where she’s running.
Those attacks backfired, delivering a fundraising surge for Moser and elevating her in a crowded primary field, which may have helped her make the primary runoff against more centrist attorney Democrat Lizzie Pannill Fletcher.
“If the DCCC hadn’t given Moser that bump, I do not think she would have been in the runoff,” former Harris County Democratic Chairman Lane Lewis, who backed another candidate in the first round and now supports Fletcher, told TPM.
Now the day of reckoning is almost here, with Moser and Fletcher squaring up on Tuesday in their rubber match.
The race is one of a handful of key Tuesday contests for House Democrats. In Kentucky, Lexington Mayor Jim Gray (D) and Navy veteran Amy McGrath (D) are in a barn-burner of a primary for the right to face Rep. Andy Barr (R-KY). In Arkansas, a moderate backed by the Blue Dogs is hoping to top 50 percent and avoid a runoff to face Rep. French Hill (R-AR) in a GOP-leaning district. And Democrats will pick their nominee to face Rep. Karen Handel (R-GA) in another chance to win Georgia’s 6th race after losing a high-profile special election there last year.
“I pay my dues to the DCCC, and I was not happy when I saw a front-page article [in the local paper about their attacks on Moser] — it’s kind of like fighting within the family,” Rep. Gene Green (D-TX) told TPM, saying he confronted House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) about the move. “Ms. Moser actually got a lot of exposure [from the attacks], and I think that helped her get into the runoff.”
Green said that either candidate would have a tough fight against Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) in the district, which narrowly went for Hillary Clinton but has historically been a lock for the GOP ever since George H.W. Bush represented it in Congress.
“Don’t get your hopes up too much. If you look below John Culberson, every local elected official is a Republican,” he said. “It’s still an uphill battle.”
But he said Moser’s past statements could badly damage the party’s chances in the district.
Moser is clearly to the left of Fletcher. She supports single-payer healthcare and has called for impeaching President Trump, which local Democrats say could be a tough sell in the district. Some unions also take major issue with Fletcher, whose law firm was behind a major anti-union lawsuit — the state AFL-CIO lost $5.3 million in the case, and did an anti-endorsement of her in the primary (her campaign contends she wasn’t involved in the lawsuit).
Both Moser and national Democrats dispute that she made the runoff because of the attacks, saying she was already positioned to do so. But the attacks clearly turned her into a cause célèbre of left-wing groups and activists who were spoiling for a fight with the establishment.
That ugly spat is gone but has not been forgotten by either side. While the DCCC has avoided any more public involvement in the race since accidentally listing Fletcher on its “red-to-blue” endorsement list in a press release before quickly walking it back, party officials stand by their contention that Moser would doom their chances to defeat Culberson in the GOP-leaning district. DCCC Chairman Ben Ray Luján (D-NM) called her past statements “disqualifying” in a recent TV interview. And Moser told TPM that they’re “still interfering in the race and don’t let anyone tell you they’re not,” while declining to provide evidence.
Most national and local Democrats say Fletcher has the edge heading into Tuesday’s race. Moser’s fundraising boon after the DCCC attacks proved fleeting, and Fletcher has outspent her by a wide margin in the runoff. Fletcher is the only one running broadcast TV ads in the expensive Houston media market. Fletcher out-raised Moser by $175,000 to $131,000 in the homestretch of the campaign, and Moser had just $80,000 left in cash on hand to Fletcher’s $360,000 as of early May.
Remarkably, there hasn’t been a single independent expenditure during the runoff. The DCCC has been notably silent, and the pro-choice EMILY’s List, which sent mail pieces for Fletcher in the primary, has been AWOL in the runoff even as they stand by her, a sign they may think she has the race in hand.
“Lizzie has been running a strong campaign and communicating her message to voters extremely effectively. EMILY’s List endorsed Lizzie because she is a progressive leader with deep ties to her community—and we think those are the same reasons that voters will choose her to advance to the general election to take on John Culberson,” EMILY’s List spokeswoman Julie McClain Downey told TPM.
But in a runoff where strategists expect turnout to be abysmal, it’s hard to game out who will win.
“At this point, you’re looking at campaign fatigue not just by the candidates but the voters,” Lewis said.
Another late-breaking factor is Friday’s school shooting in nearby Santa Fe. While the tragedy happened on the other side of Houston and both candidates strongly support more gun control, it further complicates both candidates’ attempts to break through in a media market where it’s already almost impossible to get voters enthused about a runoff election.
“We have a lot of people phone banking and I just a had a volunteer tell me a voter said, ‘I can’t believe you’re calling right now.’ And I’m like, this is why we’re calling,” Fletcher campaign manager Erin Mincberg told TPM Friday afternoon. “Both candidates have been talking about gun safety this entire race.”
Moser’s reaction to the shooting showed the difference in styles as well as anything else.
“I am fucking angry that this stuff keeps happening,” she said, before ripping Culberson for opposing gun control.