I have three things to say about this.
Democrats looking for a ray of hope in Houston’s Republican-leaning Seventh Congressional District have their sights locked on an apparent upset victory in a conservative Pennsylvania district that President Donald Trump won by 20 points in 2016.
But the lessons learned from Conor Lamb’s surprise 600-vote win – barring legal challenges – could mean very different things to the two Houston Democrats squaring off in the May 22 primary runoff to face nine-term Republican incumbent John Culberson.
In a race that Democrats see as one of their best pick-up opportunities in the nation, the two rivals, attorney Lizzie Pannill Fletcher and writer-activist Laura Moser, both have started fundraising off Lamb’s victory.
Rice University political scientists Mark Jones notes that although Trump lost the district to Hillary Clinton in 2016 by nearly 1.5 percent, it still remains decidedly GOP ground that routinely favors Republican candidates by wide margins.
To Jones, who once worked for former Missouri U.S. Rep. Dick Gephardt, what that means is that Culberson will likely downplay Trump in the election – if that’s possible. And for Democrats, given their recent upsets in Alabama and western Pennsylvania, it suggests a tack to the middle.
“Actually, there does seem to be a formula,” Jones said. “The formula is, give Republicans somebody they don’t feel uncomfortable voting for.”
Moser, in a Chronicle interview before the primary election, said she doesn’t see it that way. “We have tried something over and over in Texas politics, which is to run to the middle and to the right, and it’s not working,” she said. “So why not stand firm for the values that we share? I’m progressive, but I don’t think that the things I stand for are out of keeping with what the majority of this district believes.”
Other Texas Democrats see merit in trying to harness the party’s new-found energy since Trump’s election. Some argue that much of that energy comes from the left with groups such as Our Revolution, a spinoff from Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign that has endorsed Moser.
“Midterm elections are base elections,” said Ed Espinoza of Progress Texas, a group that represents the liberal wing of the state’s Democratic Party – but which remains neutral in the Moser-Fletcher runoff. “Your task is getting more of your people out than they can get of their people.”
The March 6 primary, however, offered up some sobering math for Houston Democrats. Some 38,032 voters cast ballots in the Seventh District’s GOP primary, a sleepy affair in which Culberson faced just one largely-unknown challenger. In contrast, only 33,176 people came out to vote in the Democratic primary, a seven-way contest with at least four well-financed contenders.
Though turnout on both sides can be expected to increase in the November general election, Jones argues that a base-election strategy for Democrats can only work in a truly swing district – which the Seventh is not. “Even if the base is super-enthused, you’re still going to lose by five or 10 points,” he said.
But to Espinoza, the likelihood of flipping anti-Trump Republican voters in the Seventh District seems remote. “Republican voters have either embraced the crazy, or they’ve jumped ship and they’re going to stay home,” he said. “Any voters who have left the Republican Party, they are not looking for Trump-lite. They’re looking for Trump-opposite.”
1. In the matter of the “turnout or persuasion” debate, the correct answer for this district, and likely some (though not all) others, is “both”. Mark Jones is correct that CD07 isn’t really a swing district, at least not based on 2016 results, in which the average Democratic judicial candidate received 43.5% of the vote. Trying to win here on increased turnout alone is a heavy lift, one that depends to some extent on a factor you can’t control, which is the other side’s turnout level. On the other hand, the fewer voters you need to persuade to cross over, the better. If you can boost turnout enough to make this, say, a six-point district instead of a 12-point district, you have a much better shot at getting a sufficient number of crossovers, if they are there to be had. What the proper mix is, and how to maximize them simultaneously, is the challenge.
2. I’ve already expressed my skepticism about the primary turnout/November turnout connection. For what it’s worth, of the roughly 39K total votes cast in the Republican primary in CD07, over 8,700 people voted for Scott Milder instead of Dan Patrick, and about 6,000 people voted for a Senate candidate other than Ted Cruz. Make of that what you will.
3. I hope all of the other Democratic runoffs that cover part or all of Harris County get as much press combined as CD07 is likely to get by itself.