Democrats are salivating at the prospect of flipping a wealthy Houston enclave that has been solidly Republican since sending George H.W. Bush to Congress in 1967 — the kind of race they’ll have to win for any hope of retaking the House in the November midterms.
But first that means navigating a potentially bruising intraparty primary that underscores the lingering rift from the 2016 Democratic presidential contest, a showdown between Bernie Sanders’ progressive wing and the Hillary Clinton establishment. Corporate attorney Lizzie Pannill Fletcher is facing off against activist Laura Moser, who was endorsed by Sanders’ political group but opposed by the party’s national campaign arm, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
The same tensions clouding the Texas primary could shadow other House Democratic races nationwide. While party leaders are energized by a surge of Democratic candidates — a result, they say, of frustration with President Donald Trump — the influx may lead party power brokers to try and tip the scales, sometimes with clumsy results.
In Houston, for example, Moser advanced to the May 22 runoff despite opposition from the DCCC. The national campaign group published an opposition research memo calling her “a Washington insider who begrudgingly moved to Texas to run for Congress” and targeted her for once joking that she’d rather have “my teeth pulled out without anesthesia” than live in small-town Texas.
Sanders, whose Our Revolution group endorsed Moser, called the party’s attack “appalling.”
“I hope very much that type of behavior does not occur again,” he told The Associated Press on Wednesday.
Sanders said the attack goes beyond the 2016 presidential election fallout to the kind of negative campaigning that is why “so many people are disgusted with politics.”
“There are different political perspectives in the Democratic Party and I think what we are seeing, and I think most objective people would agree, is the party is becoming more progressive,” Sanders told AP.
“Part of the old establishment who are not enthusiastic about that kind of change and will resist it, and I understand that,” he said. “But I hope that resistance does not come in the form of ugly, negative advertising. It should come in the form of debating the issues.”
National Democrats say the problem in Houston isn’t that Moser is too liberal, but that she doesn’t match the congressional district where the party set its sights on picking up the seat Rep. John Culberson has held since 2001 as it tries to wrest majority control from Republicans. The district re-elected Culberson while backing Clinton over Trump in 2016.
Even though Moser is a Houston native, they worry her time in Washington and flip comment about Texas will become ready-made ads against her in a general election, and could make her unelectable.
Meredith Kelly, a spokeswoman for the DCCC, said the campaign committee “has long recognized and appreciated the unprecedented influence that the grassroots have in these races. As we’ve indicated all cycle, the DCCC is keeping all options on the table to work with our allies and ensure that there’s a competitive Democrat on the ballot for voters to elect in November.”
Progressive groups point to more primary showdowns to come, including in Illinois, where moderate Democratic Rep. Daniel Lipinski, who is backed by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, faces a challenge from Our Revolution-endorsed Marie Newman in a safely Democratic district. On Thursday, Newman announced that Sanders was endorsing her candidacy.
More daunting races will be in California, particularly for two open seats now held by Republicans in Southern California districts where Clinton won. So many Democrats are running that the party might have to choose front-runners to make sure one of them makes the general election. Under the state’s unusual primary system, the top vote-getters face off, even if they are from the same party.
“Welcome to the Democratic Party,” Pelosi quipped Thursday, saying the party’s diversity is its strength.
Former DCCC official Jesse Ferguson said that when he was at the committee, “we would have begged to have even one candidate in some of these districts.”
“Now we have multiple candidates and it’s evidence of enthusiasm to take control of Congress away from Trump,” said Ferguson, who went on to work for Clinton. “Ultimately, it may fuel some healthy internal debates and some awkward moments, but it’s a fundamentally good problem to have.”
Some activists see the 2018 primary contests as a continuation of the long-running progressives-versus-establishment feud from a decade ago between former DCCC chairman Rahm Emanuel and then-Democratic National Committee head Howard Dean. Even though Democrats won the House in 2006, the debate continued.
“The DCCC just has to stay out of these races,” said Neil Sroka, spokesman for Democracy for America, the group founded by Dean. “Part of the reason why Democrats have been stuck in this cul-de-sac of loss over the past 10 years is we are not running the candidates who can inspire and turnout the new American majority that is essential to winning elections.”
Indeed, the party’s opposition to Moser may have backfired, since it focused national attention and helped spike her fundraising. She produced an ad before Tuesday’s Texas primary where she talked about “rejecting the system where Washington party bosses tell us who to choose.”
“Texans don’t like being told what to do and I think that was the biggest miscalculation,” Moser said by phone. “We’re our own state, we’re our own country. This is not like right outside D.C., and I think they misread the electorate.”
Indeed, Texas voter Michelle Umengan, a pediatrician who cast her ballot for Moser, said it was “offensive” that the party apparatus was spending time and money “smearing one of their own.”
“What does the DCCC know about what the voters in this district want or need?” Umengan said.
Follow Weissert on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apwillweissert and Mascaro at https://twitter.com/LisaMascaro
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