The Slatest

A Texas Misstep?

House Democrats back down in the battle to stop a progressive candidate in Texas.

Laura Moser hands out a card.
Laura Moser in Houston on May 22.
Michael Stravato/Getty Images for the Washington Post

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee on Thursday added nine congressional candidates to its Red to Blue program, highlighting those the party believes are particularly well-suited to flip high-priority House seats this fall. The selections send a clear signal to party allies and donors where to focus their time and money in the midterms, and the chosen candidates will also get an additional boost from the DCCC in the form of training and strategic guidance. It’s not an official endorsement, mind you, but it’s close.

Among the new additions: Lauren Underwood of Illinois and Colin Allred of Texas, who were the first black candidates to make the cut this cycle; Betsy Londrigan of Illinois and Nancy Soderberg of Florida, who along with Underwood were among five women in this new crop; and Randy Bryce of Wisconsin, the mustachioed steelworker who has become a progressive darling in his bid to unseat House Speaker Paul Ryan.

But there was one notable name missing: Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, the Houston attorney running to unseat GOP Rep. John Culberson in Texas.

Her absence was most striking not because Culberson appears vulnerable, although he does. And not because Fletcher already has the support of a handful of establishment-friendly Democratic groups like EMILY’s List, although she does. But instead because the DCCC already made a show of opposing the candidate Fletcher needs to beat in a May runoff to win the Democratic nomination: Laura Moser, an anti-Trump activist and progressive journalist (who has written for Slate, among other national outlets).

The DCCC made it clear in the lead-up to this month’s Texas primary that it is no fan of Moser. In hopes of knocking her out of the race early, the group dumped its opposition research file calling her a “Washington insider.” While the DCCC says the decision had nothing to do with ideology, its stated case against Moser was rather weak, based largely on a joke she once made in print while living in Washington about not wanting to move to a rural Texas town that isn’t even in the district she is running in.* Regardless, it was nonetheless a remarkably aggressive attack on a fellow Democrat made all the more so by the fact the group published the memo on its own instead of trying to launder it through a third-party group or the press. And yet, the DCCC has so far decided against offering Fletcher additional help.

That could be because its anti-Moser effort seemed to backfire, somewhat spectacularly. According to Moser’s campaign, she raised more than $100,000 in the week following the DCCC attack, a significant slice of which came from small donors outside of her district. Our Revolution, an outside group aligned closely with Bernie Sanders, jumped to her defense with a formal endorsement, and other progressives rallied behind her as well. Moser went on to clinch a spot in the runoff, finishing 5 points back of Fletcher but ahead of a pair of other serious challengers by that same margin or more.

Fletcher’s absence was made even more conspicuous because two of the new Red to Blue additions are also Texans who need to win runoffs next month: Allred, a former NFL football player turned civil rights attorney, and Gina Ortiz Jones, a retired Air Force intelligence officer who worked as an Obama trade official. Others on the list, like Bryce, will also have to defeat a Democrat before they can move on to a general election against a Republican incumbent.

The omission, then, appears to be a quiet but clear sign that the DCCC wants to back away quietly from Moser’s race, at least for the time being. It also suggests the Democratic establishment is still grappling with how to harness the anti-Trump energy of its grassroots without angering the base, and helping the candidates they’re trying to hurt.

Meanwhile, the candidates who were passed over by the DCCC are trying to catch the same anti-establishment lightning in a bottle that Moser did. Lillian Salerno, who is facing off against Allred in a Texas runoff, and Cathy Myers, who has largely been overlooked in Wisconsin in favor of Bryce, each sent out fundraising requests highlighting the DCCC’s endorsements. Meanwhile, Rick Treviño, who is up against Jones in a Texas runoff of his own, sounded downright thrilled that the move would bolster his outsider bona fides.

Salerno and Myers even went one step further and accused the DCCC of sexism. “Texas hasn’t elected a new woman to Congress in twenty-two years, and we’re not taking it anymore,” Salerno said in a statement. “The DCCC would do well to remember: Don’t mess with Texas women.” Myers struck a similar note: “[We] will not be deterred by the DCCC’s latest attempt to silence a Democratic woman.”

The criticism that House Democrats are favoring men over women is hard to square with the actual numbers. Five of the nine new additions to the program were female candidates, and the overall list now includes 18 women and 15 men. Likewise, Jones made the DCCC cut, and she is up against a male candidate in Treviño.

More likely, the DCCC is simply backing candidates who are already running downhill. Bryce has an endorsement from Sanders and has raised more than $1.2 million, while Allred beat Salerno by a 2-to-1 margin in the primary and has the support of Julián Castro and Wendy Davis. Gender may have played a role in why both Allred and Bryce have gained more traction than their female opponents, but there’s no denying the two men were already the favorites before the DCCC got involved. (Treviño, like Moser, has an endorsement from Our Revolution, though he finished 24 points behind Jones in the primary and has raised only a fraction of the cash.)

Where does this leave House Democrats back in Washington? Still trying to sort out how best to engineer victory for their preferred candidates. The DCCC promised it would make “more targeted and frequent additions to the Red to Blue program” than it has in years past, but it’s not clear whether the party will stick to backing front-runners, or if it will make some Moser-like gambles to clear the field. In California, where the crowded primaries are threatening to cost the party winnable seats, the right move could be the difference between winning and losing the House.

Correction, March 24, 2018: An earlier version of this post misstated that the DCCC “made it clear” it believes Moser is too far left to win in a general election. The group says the decision had nothing to do with ideology.