I have three things to say about this:
On a Saturday morning in Houston, the high was 94 degrees with a chance of rain. It was hardly friendly weather for canvassing—the door-knocking, yard sign–delivering, get-out-the-vote efforts that define a politician’s grassroots network. Yet dozens of Seventh District residents, sporting lizzie fletcher for congress T-shirts, had happily crammed into a small office room on Richmond Avenue, awaiting their marching orders.
Fletcher stood on a step stool at the front of the room. The 43-year-old cuts an unconventional profile in the Seventh—female, liberal, inexperienced. Any one of those descriptors should be a nonstarter in this district, which a handsome blue blood named George H. W. Bush first turned Republican in 1966. That Bush has had only two successors in nearly five decades—both white, conservative men—appears testament to that fact.
But in a nod to the vast strangeness of 2018, Democrats see the Seventh as one of their best shots at taking the House. Indeed, Texas is changing. Across the state, Republican incumbents including Representative John Culberson here in the Seventh; Representatives Pete Sessions and Will Hurd; and even Senator Ted Cruz are struggling to fend off Democratic challengers. Suddenly, the idea of a progressive woman, a political outsider, unseating an 18-year incumbent like Culberson doesn’t feel so far-fetched.
On this Saturday in August, wearing a campaign T-shirt, a black miniskirt, and flip-flops, Fletcher prepped her volunteers by invoking the anniversary of Hurricane Harvey. It was exactly one year before that Harvey had dumped as much as 51 inches of rain on Houston, killing 75 people in Texas, and the trauma still ran deep. “For so many of us, Harvey was really a low point and a high point of our lives in Houston,” she said. The low point was obvious. But the high point, she said, was that in this community, “if you could help, you did.”
She didn’t have to adopt a hyper-partisan caricature—rallying for Donald Trump’s impeachment, say, or decrying his big tax cut for the wealthy—to energize the room. Rather, she compared volunteer efforts in the aftermath of Harvey to that day’s canvassing. “We are in a crisis in our country,” she said, her slight Southern lilt elongating her i’s. “And the best way—the best way—to do something about it is to do what y’all are doing today: Just show up.”
Today the district claims one of the most ethnically and economically diverse populations in Houston. It is 38 percent white, 31 percent Latino, 12 percent African American, and 10 percent Asian. To drive through the Seventh is to glimpse a vast number of takes on American life. The district touches some of the ritziest parts of Houston—the flashy mansions of River Oaks, the designer-stocked Galleria. Track a few miles southwest and you’ll find Gulfton, where Indian and Pakistani restaurants line the so-called Gandhi district and a single street might host Ethiopian and Guatemalan churches. Spin back up I-10 and there’s the Barker Reservoir, behind which many upper-middle-class homes were destroyed by Hurricane Harvey.
As the state undergoes a demographic transformation with the political shifts to match, the question for some political analysts has become not if Texas will turn blue, but when. So it has with the Seventh: The decades-long Republican stronghold swung for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, and Democrats have since zeroed in on it as a linchpin of their map to secure the House majority. “Any blue wave from Texas to Washington, including California, is going to start with this race,” the longtime Democratic lobbyist Scott Eckart told me. “If Culberson loses, I think all the others will follow.”
So far, polling suggests that, for Democrats, the Seventh is in fact within reach. Both Fletcher’s and Culberson’s internal polling clocks the race within the margin of error, according to three sources to whom the numbers have been relayed. Which means the pressure is on for Fletcher to run the perfect campaign not just for her own sake, but for House Democrats writ large.
“The political momentum here has shifted, and Lizzie is the ideal person to capitalize on that,” said Mustafa Tameez, a Democratic strategist based in the district. “She’s a progressive woman, she’s young, she’s smart. She checks off every box.”
This is in part why her campaign is less a collection of partisan talking points and more a commentary on local issues such as flood relief: She’s long been personally privy to the cyclical trauma of flooding in Harris County. Culberson “has been my rep since he was first elected in 2001,” Fletcher told me. “That year, we had Tropical Storm Allison. And I was working downtown at the time, and downtown flooded, my building flooded, people died. It was just this really incredible event that kind of snuck up on us.
“So he’s been on notice since he took office that this was something we needed to deal with,” she continued. “I didn’t ever agree with his positions in the first place … but what we are dealing with, in terms of flooding, is a years-long problem, and Culberson has been completely missing from the discussion.”
For Fletcher, it makes one of the key pro-Culberson arguments—that he’s a senior member of the powerful Appropriations Committee—unconvincing. “As a senior member of the Appropriations Committee … in the majority, why is it that two Democrats in our community are bringing the bill to fund all of our flood-mitigation projects, and he won’t sign on?” she said. “I think if you ask anybody, they’ll say we haven’t seen him use that to benefit our community, in all the years he’s been on it.”
1. The subhed on this article is “The Republican incumbent John Culberson has held the minority-majority Seventh Congressional District for almost two decades, but the Democrat Lizzie Fletcher hopes to finally turn out progressives and minorities.” So naturally I wanted to look at historic turnout numbers:
Year CD07 County Ratio =========================== 2016 67.04 61.33 1.09 2014 39.05 33.65 1.16 2012 67.72 61.99 1.09 2010 49.42 41.67 1.19 2008 70.61 62.81 1.12 2006 40.65 31.59 1.29 2004 66.87 58.03 1.15 2002 37.37 35.01 1.08
So turnout in CD07 is always higher than turnout in Harris County as a whole, ten to fifteen percent more in Presidential years and fifteen to thirty percent more in most non-Presidential years. That’s probably due to non-Presidential year turnout being generally lower in more Democratic areas. There’s still plenty of room for turnout to improve here. The goal of course will be to make sure that the reason for the bump in turnout is primarily due to voters who are friendlier to Fletcher than to Culberson.
2. As I’m sure you can guess, the prospect of poll data in CD07 is irresistible to me. We do have one publicly released poll that showed a two-point lead for Culberson. My guess is that the others mentioned in the story are all around that same margin, most likely all with Culberson in the lead. It’s all consistent with the larger picture. I do wonder, if the current slump in Trump’s approval ratings persists, if we’ll start to see more polls of Congressional districts being made public.
3. I do like the idea of turning Culberson’s tenure on the Appropriations Committee against him. If he couldn’t or didn’t deliver when his district and much of the rest of the region suffered such catastrophic floods as Allison and Harvey, then what good is he and his vaunted seniority and position of influence? It’s an argument that has a chance of catching on with people who aren’t congenital Democrats, and a good argument to make in an anti-incumbent year. Doesn’t mean it will work, or that it will be enough even if it does work, but it’s a good place to start.