A progressive Democrat attacked by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee advanced in the primary vote for a Texas congressional seat on Tuesday.
Laura Moser, the activist and writer who withstood the broadside from the House Democrats’ campaign arm, emerged as one of the party’s two potential nominees for Texas’ 7th Congressional District. In a crowded Democratic field, none of the seven contenders in the Houston-area district received the 50-percent-plus-one needed to win outright.
Moser now heads to a May 22 runoff election against corporate lawyer Lizzie Fletcher, who led the primary field, to determine which Democrat faces Rep. John Culberson, a nine-term Republican, in November’s general election.
But even if Moser falls short in May, her strong performance on Tuesday demonstrates the strength of the Democratic Party’s energized progressive base and the limits of the DCCC’s power to steer the outcomes of contentious primaries.
“The bosses in the party tried to put their thumb on the scale and they misjudged it. It shows how far out of touch some in the leadership of the party are from their supporters,” said John Floyd, a criminal defense attorney and leader of the local Our Revolution chapter, which backed Moser’s bid.
Although Culberson has run unopposed on at least one occasion, this year Democrats came out of the woodwork to challenge the deeply conservative congressman. Texas’ 7th is one of just three GOP-held districts in the state where voters narrowly opted for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump in 2016, making it a prime Democratic pickup opportunity in the midterm elections. The district went for Clinton 49 to 47 percent, a sharp swing from 2012 when it went for Mitt Romney over Barack Obama by 21 percentage points.
The devastating effect of Hurricane Harvey last year has also made Culberson more vulnerable than normal. He promoted the expansion of an interstate highway that some of his constituents believe left their neighborhoods more vulnerable to flooding.
Moser ― who previously founded Daily Action, a text-message alert tool popular with the anti-Trump protest movement ― staked out the most left-wing stances in the Democratic field, including support for a single-payer health care system.
In addition to Fletcher, Moser’s competitors in the race included Jason Westin, a progressive physician and cancer researcher; and Alex Triantyphyllis, a nonprofit executive and former Goldman Sachs analyst. Triantyphillis did not make the runoff despite raising over $1 million, more than any other Democratic candidate.
Fletcher picked up the influential endorsement of EMILY’s List, a Democratic group that helps women candidates who support abortion rights. However, local labor unions deeply opposed her bid, since her law firm represented a janitorial services company that successfully blocked its largely immigrant workforce from unionizing and sued the local chapter of the Service Employees International Union that had been trying to organize the workers. The SEIU chapter subsequently declared bankruptcy.
The Working Families Party, a progressive group with some labor union funding, already spent $20,000 on targeted social media ads blasting Fletcher for her work with the law firm. The group plans to spend more informing the public about the issue during the runoff.
“Lizzie Fletcher’s law firm, and Lizzie herself as a partner, profited from the pain and loss of immigrant women janitors. That’s not right,” Working Families Party communications director Joe Dinkin said. “If Democrats are going to win in November, we need candidates who fight for working families, not fight against them.”
For her part, Moser’s bold positions and deep roots in the resistance drew the backing of local activists and national organizations like Democracy for America and Justice Democrats. Outspoken liberal actor Alyssa Milano also volunteered for her campaign.
But the DCCC grew concerned that nominating a progressive like Moser would dash Democrats’ general-election hopes in the affluent, Republican-leaning district. In an apparent bid to prevent her from advancing, the House Democrats group took the highly unusual step on Feb. 22 of posting an opposition research memo about Moser on its website.
The DCCC used misleading claims in the brief dossier to argue that Moser was a “Washington insider, who begrudgingly moved to Houston to run for Congress.” The memo cited a quote in which Moser expressed her strong reluctance to live in a rural outpost like Paris, Texas, but the DCCC selectively edited the quote to make it seem as if she hated the entire state. (Moser actually grew up in the 7th District and returned there with her family last year.)
The campaign committee also accused Moser of self-dealing by using campaign dollars to hire her husband’s political consulting firm. But the firm, Revolution Messaging, where Moser’s husband Arun Chaudhary is a partner, gained national renown for its role in the 2016 presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). As such, the firm would be a plausible choice for any ambitious candidate.
As The Intercept noted, the DCCC has its own sordid history of aggressively directing candidates and partner organizations to consultants with deep ties to its leaders.
“We have to fix our broken politics ― and that starts by rejecting the system where Washington party bosses tell us who to choose.”
By all appearances, the salvo against Moser had the opposite of its intended effect. The party organization drew stinging criticism not only from left-leaning activists, but also from Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez and the former Obama White House aides who host the podcast “Pod Save America.”
In her closing campaign ad, “Our Turn,” Moser relished the opportunity to paint herself as a grassroots crusader up against the Democratic establishment.
“We have to fix our broken politics ― and that starts by rejecting the system where Washington party bosses tell us who to choose,” she said, speaking directly into the camera. “We tried that before and look where it got us.”
On the strength of this David-vs.-Goliath framing, Moser saw a spike in fundraising that netted her over $90,000 as of the end of last week. Our Revolution, the legacy organization formed out of Sanders’ presidential campaign, cited the DCCC’s attack in its last-minute endorsement of her on Thursday.
Blasting Moser “sparked a grassroots upsurge that actually benefited Moser’s campaign,” said Floyd, the local Our Revolution leader.
It remains to be seen how the internecine feud will affect Democrats’ competitiveness in general and in Texas’ 7th District in particular. Following the party’s clash with Moser, a series of revelations about the DCCC’s controversial endorsements in other primaries and its conservative advice to candidates about how to address gun control and health care policy further rankled progressive activists.
The Republican Party is already trying to exploit the divisions. The National Republican Congressional Committee released a web ad highlighting the anti-Moser memo in a bid to underscore the “Democratic civil war.”
Floyd predicted that with Moser’s advancement, the DCCC has “learned its lesson” about intervening in primaries.
But ahead of Tuesday’s election, the campaign committee had shown no signs of backtracking. The party’s next aggressive intervention in a primary might be in California, where the top two primary vote-getters regardless of party advance to the general election. Crowded Democratic fields in several southern California districts risk splitting the vote and leaving the party with no candidate on the ballot in November.
DCCC communications director Meredith Kelly told HuffPost last week that the committee 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.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story indicated the runoff election for Democratic nominees in Texas’ 7th District is May 24. In fact, it is May 22.