Mother Jones, come on down.
In addition to [Laura] Moser, the top competitors for the March primary are first-time candidates with stories that fit the political moment in different ways. Lizzie Fletcher, a well-connected lawyer at a large downtown firm, got her start in politics as a teenager during the 1992 Republican National Convention, when she volunteered to stand outside abortion clinics blocking Operation Rescue types from chaining themselves to the entrance. Alex Triantaphyllis, who at 33 is the youngest of the bunch, co-founded a mentoring nonprofit for refugees in Houston after spending time at Goldman Sachs and Harvard Law School. Jason Westin, an oncologist and researcher at Houston’s MD Anderson Cancer Center, told me he first thought about running a week after the election, after watching his daughter’s soccer game. She had taken a hard fall and Westin told her to “get back up and get back in the game”—but sitting on the couch later that day, scrolling through Facebook, he decided he was a hypocrite. He decided to enter the race with encouragement from 314 Action, a new political outfit that encourages candidates with scientific backgrounds to run for office. The primary is not until March, but in a sign of the enthusiasm in the district, Culberson’s would-be Democratic challengers have already held two candidate forums.
The 7th District starts just west of downtown Houston, in the upscale enclave of West University Place near Rice University, and stretches west and north through parts of the city and into the suburbs, in the shape of a wrench that has snapped at the handle. It had not given any indication of turning blue before last year. But a large number of voters cast ballots for both Hillary Clinton and Culberson. Moser and Fletcher see that as a sign that Republican women, in particular, are ready to jump ship for the right candidate. In the Texas Legislature, West University Place is represented by Republican Sarah Davis, whose district Clinton carried by 15 points, making it the bluest red seat in the state. Davis is an outlier in another way: She’s the lone pro-choice Republican in the state Legislature and was endorsed by Planned Parenthood Texas Votes in 2016. “To the outside world it looks like a huge swing,” Fletcher says of the November results, “but I think that a more moderate kind of centrist hue is in keeping with the district, so I’m not surprised that people voted for Hillary.”
But whether they’re Sarah Davis Democrats or Hillary Clinton Republicans at heart, those crossover voters still make up just a small percentage of the overall population. Houston is the most diverse metro area in the United States, and a majority of the district is non-white—a fact that’s not reflected in the Democratic candidate field. To win, Democrats will need to lock in their 2016 gains while also broadening their electorate substantially from what it usually is in a midterm election. That means making real inroads with black, Hispanic, and Asian American voters in the district, many of whom may be new to the area since the last round of redistricting. “[The] big thing in the district is getting Hispanic voters out, and nobody knows how to do that,” Moser acknowledges, summing up the problems of Texas Democrats. “If we knew how, we wouldn’t have Ted Cruz.”
At a recent candidate forum sponsored by a local Indivisible chapter, Westin, the oncologist, warned voters against repeating the mistakes of Georgia. “One of the take-home messages was that a giant pot of money is not alone enough to win,” he said. Westin’s message for Democrats was to go big or go home. While he believes the seven candidates are broadly on the same page in their economic vision and in their opposition to Trump, he urged the party to rally around something bold that it could offer the public if it took back power—in his case, single-payer health care. “We’re behind Luxembourg, we’re behind Malta, we’re behind Cypress and Brunei and Slovenia in terms of our quality of health care,” Westin says. “That is astounding.” Who better to make the case for Medicare-for-all, he believes, than someone in the trenches at one of the world’s most prestigious clinics?
Moser, who likewise backs single-payer, may be even more outspoken about the need to change course. She argues that the Obama years should be a teachable moment for progressives. They let centrists and moderates like former Sens. Joe Lieberman and Max Baucus call the shots for a once-in-a-generation congressional majority, she says, and all they got was a lousy tea party landslide. “I don’t know if we would still have been swept in 2010—probably, because that’s the way it goes—but at least we could have accomplished some stuff in the meantime that we could claim now more forcefully and more proudly,” she says. A missed opportunity from those years she’d like to revisit is a second stimulus bill to rebuild infrastructure in places like Houston, where floods get worse and worse because of a climate Culberson denies is changing.
In Moser’s view, Democrats lose swing districts not because they’re too liberal but because they’re afraid to show it. When DCCC Chairman Ben Ray Luján, a congressman from New Mexico, told The Hill in August that the party would support pro-life Democratic candidates next November on a case-by-case basis (continuing a long-standing policy backed by Nancy Pelosi), Moser penned another article for Vogue condemning the position. “As a first-time Congressional candidate, I’ve been warned not to criticize Ben Ray Luján,” she wrote, but she couldn’t help it. Red states like Texas were not a justification for moderation; they were evidence of its failure. “I have one idea of how to get more Democratic women to polling stations: Stand up for them.”
Fletcher and Triantaphyllis have been more cautious in constructing their platforms. They’d like to keep Obamacare and fix what ails it, but they have, for now, stopped short of the single-player proposal endorsed by most of the House Democratic caucus. “I don’t think anyone has a silver bullet at this point,” Triantaphyllis says. Both emphasize “market-based” or “market-centered” economic policies and the need to win Republican voters with proposals on issues that cut across partisan lines, such as transportation. Houston commutes are notorious, and Culberson, Fletcher notes, has repeatedly blocked funding for new transit options.
Still, the field reflects a general leftward shift in the party over the last decade. All the major candidates oppose the Muslim ban, proposals to defund Planned Parenthood, and Trump’s immigration crackdown. Even in America’s fossil-fuel mecca, every candidate has argued in favor of a renewed commitment to fighting climate change. It is notable that Democratic candidates believe victory lies in loudly opposing the Republican president while defending Barack Obama in a historically Republican part of Texas. But Moser still worries her rivals will fall for the same old trap.
“I just think in this district people say, ‘Oh, but it’s kind of a conservative district,’ [and try] to really be safe and moderate, and I find that the opposite is true,” Moser says. “We just don’t have people showing up to vote. We don’t even know how many Democrats we have in this district because they don’t vote.”
Pretty good article overall. I often get frustrated by stories like this written by reporters with no clue about local or Texas politics, but this one was well done. This one only mentions the four top fundraisers – it came out before Debra Kerner suspended her campaign, so it states there are seven total contenders – with Moser getting the bulk of the attention. It’s one of the first articles I’ve read to give some insight into what these four are saying on the trail. They’re similar enough on the issues that I suspect a lot of the decisions the primary voters make will come down to personality and other intangibles. Don’t ask me who I think is most likely to make it to the runoff, I have no idea.
As for the claims about what will get people out to vote next November, this is an off-year and it’s all about turnout. CD07 is a high turnout district relative to Harris County and the state as a whole, but it fluctuates just like everywhere else. Here’s what the turnout levels look like over the past cycles:
Year CD07 Harris Texas
2002 37.37% 35.01% 36.24%
2004 66.87% 58.03% 56.57%
2006 40.65% 31.59% 33.64%
2008 70.61% 62.81% 59.50%
2010 49.42% 41.67% 37.53%
2012 67.72% 61.99% 58.58%
2014 39.05% 33.65% 33.70%
2016 67.04% 61.33% 59.39%
These figures are from the County Clerk website and not the redistricting one, so the pre-2012 figures are for the old version of CD07. High in relative terms for the off years, but still plenty of room to attract Presidential-year voters. Note by the way that there are about 40,000 more registered voters in CD07 in 2016 compared to 2012; there were 20,000 more votes cast in 2016, but the larger number of voters meant that turnout as a percentage of RVs was down a touch. Job #1 here and everywhere else is to find the Presidential year Democrats and convince them to come out in 2018; job #2 is to keep registering new voters. The candidate who can best do those things is the one I hope makes it on the ballot.