I have three things to say about this.
Now, having flipped a seat controlled for the last 52 years by Republicans, [Rep.-elect Lizzie] Fletcher heads to Washington with a target on her back, but also a desire to legislate with the same moderate approach she used to build her campaign.
“Whether people voted for me or not in this election, I hope they will watch what I do as their member of Congress,” Fletcher said. “I hope to earn their vote in 2020, because my job is to represent everyone. My office doors will be open to everyone.”
If Republicans are searching for a roadmap to unseat Fletcher, they might turn to Rep. Will Hurd, a Republican from Helotes who represents a perennial swing district running from San Antonio to El Paso.
In 2016 and again this year, Hurd — who appeared likely to win a third term with several hundred ballots outstanding Friday — rebuked Trump on high-profile issues and presented himself as a moderate, a strategy that also played well for Fletcher in the mostly suburban 7th Congressional District.
Culberson at times referenced his work across the aisle, but did not run as a moderate or publicly oppose Trump to the same degree as Hurd.
A key moment in Culberson’s loss came months before Election Day, when Fletcher won her primary runoff against activist Laura Moser. Running as the more progressive candidate, Moser indicated she would not moderate her message to attract Republicans turned off by Trump.
The primary in effect became a referendum on whether Democrats should oppose Culberson by whipping up the dormant part of their base or, by nominating Fletcher, pull in centrists and ex-Republicans.
Tuesday’s election results proved they could do both: In beating Culberson with more than 52 percent of the vote, Fletcher’s winning coalition included right-leaning moderates, but also hardline progressives who turned out in droves to support Democrat Beto O’Rourke’s turnout-driven Senate campaign.
“A moderate Democrat can win a swing district in the right circumstances, but two factors have to be at play,” Rottinghaus said. “No. 1, it has to be clear that the candidate is truly a moderate and … willing to work in a bipartisan fashion. But none of that works if Democrats don’t turn out. If you don’t have a Beto O’Rourke at the top of the ticket with clear progressive ideas to activate the more liberal-leaning voters, you won’t even have a chance.”
Fletcher’s moderate approach appeared most effective in harnessing anti-Trump energy among white, educated suburban women, a group that swung toward Democrats nationwide. Culberson, who declined to comment for this story, lost the most ground from 2016 in the same areas where he outperformed Trump by the widest margins that year, suggesting that Fletcher picked up voters who split their ticket between Hillary Clinton and Culberson.
The handful of precincts where Culberson performed worst relative to 2016 were clustered within about a mile of the affluent and highly educated Bellaire and West University Place suburbs, according to unofficial results. Culberson won 55 percent of the vote in those precincts two years ago, but only 42 percent this year, in line with Trump’s 43 vote share there.
“That was definitely a part of our strategy, because I knew I had to win those people – people who voted for Culberson and Clinton in 2016,” Fletcher said. “My goal was to really talk about my background here and my view of our Houston values, what I think we do here so well … and I think that really resonated with a lot of people.”
Fletcher’s campaign also targeted densely populated, deep-blue areas where Democrats are prone to staying home for midterms. She concentrated on suburbs north of Addicks Reservoir, including a pair of precincts near FM 529 that voted by more than 70 percent for Clinton. One of those precincts ultimately went 77 percent to Fletcher and produced by far her highest vote total of any precinct districtwide.
Meanwhile, Culberson’s most problematic precincts relative to 2016 also fell inside House District 134, where Republican state Rep. Sarah Davis staved off Harris County’s blue wave to win re-election by almost seven points.
The unique pocket of District 7 that overlaps with Davis’ district was all but built for candidates seeking crossover support in either direction. Fletcher and Davis both won more than 50 percent of the vote in 21 of the 36 precincts that cover their two districts. In 10 of those precincts, both candidates received more than 55 percent of the vote, indicating ticket-splitting was a common practice.
Though Fletcher found success in particular areas, the district-wide results suggest Culberson was in trouble from the start. He received a smaller share of the vote relative to 2016 in every precinct, indicative of the strong headwinds he faced from Trump and O’Rourke.
1. I feel like all things being equal, Fletcher will have a pretty decent shot at getting re-elected. In 2016, Hillary Clinton carried CD07, but it was still pretty red district downballot. Culberson won by 12, the judicial average was around that same level for the Dems, and even Kim Ogg, who came close to Clinton’s performance overall, didn’t crack 47% in the district. This year, there was a noticeable shift. Beto, Mike Collier, Justin Nelson, Kim Olson, Diane Trautman, and Richard Cantu all carried CD07. Republicans still had the advantage in judicial races, but it was by about three points on average for the district courts. Obviously all kinds of things can happen that would affect the national environment, and who the Republicans find to challenge her will matter, but given the trends in the county and now in this district, I’d say Fletcher starts out as the favorite.
2. Part of the reason for my optimism is that I think CD07 is the kind of district that will tend to look favorably on a middle-of-the-road workhorse who will get stuff done, stay in touch with the district, and not do anything stupid. Culberson actually kind of was that guy for awhile, and you do have to wonder how this race might have gone if Culberson was at least a rhetorical opponent of Trump’s, as Hurd is. (Never mind the voting records, talking a good game gets you a long way.) Does that mean I think Laura Moser couldn’t have won? No, I think she had a path to victory as well, and would have been helped by the Beto wave and relentless activism in the district as Fletcher was. But she might have presented a better target for the Republicans in 2020. You can play out the thought experiment however you like, this is just my view of it.
3. Fletcher was cast as the “moderate centrist” in the primary runoff and in the November race, but that’s largely for preferring fixes to Obamacare to Medicare for all. She also got a lot of TV advertising in her favor from the Gabby Giffords gun control PAC. Think back to 2008, the last time CD07 was competitive, when Michael Skelly picked a fight with MoveOn.org and Nick Lampson, trying to hold onto CD22, ran on a platform of balancing the budget and opposing the estate tax. The times, they do change.