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Reach out or resist? A Texas runoff tests Democrats' midterm strategy

Reach out or resist? A Texas runoff tests Democrats' midterm strategy
Democratic congressional candidate Laura Moser meets with Sigmund Jucker at one of his Houston bakeries. The writer and liberal activist was attacked by leaders of her own party, who question Moser's electability. (Washington Post)

Democrats say they’re ready to take charge in Washington. They just can’t agree how.

After nearly a decade of GOP rule, the party stands its best chance in years to seize control of the House, an opening that’s intensified the long-standing fight among progressives, pragmatists and party professionals.

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Some at the grass roots favor a path of most resistance, saying Democrats will turn out in November only if tooth-and-claw candidates press an assertively liberal agenda and wage all-out war on President Trump.

Others push for a more measured approach, reaching out to independents and crossover Republicans who share Democrats’ disdain for Trump, if not their broad philosophy or political bloodlust.

The competing approaches will be tested on Tuesday in a Texas runoff, deciding which of two finalists will advance to face Republican John Culberson, an imperiled nine-term Houston incumbent, in the fall.

Like a lot of women, Laura Moser was horrified when Trump won the White House. So the writer and liberal activist took a leap, moved home from Washington and began running for Congress.

Attorney Lizzie Fletcher shares Moser’s revulsion toward the president, as well as many of the same political views. Both support tougher gun laws, a higher minimum wage and more federal aid for residents still suffering the wrath of Hurricane Harvey.

Time and again the fortysomething rivals have been asked: Why should Democrats choose one over the other?

Their answers speak to the sharp division within the party.

“The only way we will win is if we build a bigger coalition of people who have felt left behind, who have not shown up before,” Moser says of Democrats who’ve grown disaffected or indifferent.

“The job of a representative is to represent every single person,” counters Fletcher, with an eye on tens of thousands of Republicans who voted for Hillary Clinton over Trump. “So we need to talk to everyone.”

Democrats need to gain 23 seats to take control of the House, and this district, extending from central Houston to its western suburbs, is a prime target. Not only did Clinton win here, the spaghetti-web of freeways, glassy high-rises and oak-studded neighborhoods is home to a significant minority population along with a large number of upscale, college-educated women — two of the groups most hostile to the president.

Culberson, a strong backer of Trump, is seen as highly vulnerable after the city was devastated by Harvey. Critics say he did too little to prepare for the August disaster, the third major flood in as many years, and not enough to help afterward.

“Too much time in D.C.,” said Mark Jones, who lives in the Texas district and teaches political science at Rice University. “Not enough in Houston.”

The skirmishing among Democrats is not new. The same factions waged the same fight in 2006, the last time the party won back control of the House, amid the same complaints of heavy-handed Washington meddling.

Then, as now, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) was the party leader in Congress, and she makes no apologies for choosing sides. It’s “a clear-eyed conversation” about electability, Pelosi said.

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Congressional candidate Lizzie Fletcher leaves a primary polling place on March 6. The lawyer says Democrats must broaden their appeal beyond the base to win Houston's GOP-held seat.
Congressional candidate Lizzie Fletcher leaves a primary polling place on March 6. The lawyer says Democrats must broaden their appeal beyond the base to win Houston's GOP-held seat. (Brett Coomer / Associated Press)

Democrats in Washington were so determined to win in Houston they took the unusual step of brazenly intervening in the March 6 primary, hoping to ensure the nomination of a candidate with the broadest perceived appeal — which is to say someone other than Moser.

In late February, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee released a memo attacking Moser as a Washington insider — her husband worked for President Obama — and dredged up a snarky observation on rural America.

“I could live large in Paris, Texas,” Moser wrote in 2014 in Washingtonian magazine. “Oh, but wait, my income would be a fraction of what it is here and I’d have very few opportunities to increase it. (Plus I’d sooner have my teeth pulled out without anesthesia, but that’s a story for another day.)”

The move didn’t stop Moser from finishing second in a seven-candidate field, just behind Fletcher, and sent her national profile soaring.

She makes no amends.

“I’m not running for office in Paris,” Moser said in an interview amid the mannequins and mirrors dotting her campaign headquarters, a former bridal shop. “It’s 300 miles away.”

The national party has since publicly backed away from the contest, though Fletcher remains its favored candidate.

I’m not running for office in Paris. It's 300 miles away.


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The party has signaled its choice — sometimes subtly, other times less so — in more than a dozen House races across the country, with mixed results. Although the establishment favorite prevailed in key primaries in Illinois, North Carolina and Ohio, an upstart Democrat thwarted the efforts of Pelosi and others last Tuesday and won the nomination for a Republican-held seat in Omaha.

That elevates the stakes in Texas, where the GOP has held the 7th Congressional District seat for more than 50 years — ever since a transplanted Connecticut Yankee named George H.W. Bush was elected to Congress and helped launch the state’s decades-long conversion from blue to deep red.

Moser, 40, and Fletcher, 43, both grew up in Houston, attending the same exclusive private high school a few years apart. Although their fathers are friends and former law partners, the two candidates knew each other only casually before the campaign began.

Fletcher followed her father’s career path, becoming the first female partner at a prominent business law firm. She plays up her longstanding residency and community activism — a TV spot recounts her demonstrating for abortion rights as a high school senior outside the Republican National Convention in Houston in 1992 — to the obvious annoyance of her opponent.

“There’s no scale of who’s more Houstonian,” Moser says, noting her family goes back five generations.

Although they agree on most issues, Moser leans decidedly more leftward.

She favors a government-run, universal healthcare program; Fletcher says Democrats should focus on shoring up Obama’s Affordable Care Act to expand coverage. Moser says marijuana should be legalized; Fletcher says more study is needed. Moser calls for the impeachment of Trump; Fletcher prefers waiting to hear any formal charges and weighing the evidence before deciding.

Side by side, the contrast is sharper still.

With her chunky jewelry and brightly patterned wardrobe, Moser comes across differently than your conventionally button-down candidate for Congress, which is part of her appeal. Her conversation is earnest, flowing, unscripted.

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Fletcher, soberly pant-suited, appears as the trained lawyer she is, speaking crisply and staking broad policy goals with a sprinkling of devil-in-the-detail caveats and qualifiers.

Superficiality aside, Jones suggested appearance matters, especially winning over Republican women who may be more comfortable voting for a Democrat “whose behavior and demeanor doesn’t seem much different from their own.”

Moser “strikes you as someone who seems more at home in Adams Morgan” — a late-night hot spot near downtown Washington — “than in the Houston suburbs,” said the Rice political scientist.

“I feel pretty comfortable in suburban Houston,” Moser emphatically stated. “It’s where I’m from.”

The scrapping between Democrats — over style, over strategy — could matter a great deal if the fight for Congress comes down to a cliff-hanging difference of a seat or two. Not so much, however, in a wave election, when change-hungry voters surge to the polls with little regard for who delivers it.

“Republicans were at each others’ throats for years. All it got them was the House, the Senate and the presidency,” said Nathan Gonzales, who analyzes congressional races for Inside Elections, a nonpartisan campaign guide. “Democrats can be divided and still win because they have a common enemy in Donald J. Trump.”

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