Inside the Houston House runoff that Democrats everywhere are watching

In this March 6, 2018, photo, Lizzie Pannill Fletcher and her husband, Scott Fletcher, walk out of the polling place at St. Anne's Catholic Church after voting in the primary election in Houston. 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 need to win for any hope of retaking the House in the 2018 midterm. But now that means navigating a potentially bruising intraparty battle of Democrats??? own making. The party???s runoff underscores the lingering 2016 presidential primary rift between Bernie Sanders progressives and Hillary Clinton establishment. (Brett Coomer/Houston Chronicle via AP)

HOUSTON — Had she planned to run for Congress, Laura Moser says, she never would have written the articles the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee used to try to sink her candidacy in a Democratic primary here.

But she also says the bluntness with which she wrote that Washington residents need to get over high housing prices — and that she’d rather have a tooth pulled without anesthesia than live in rural Paris, Texas — might be her strongest asset.

“I’m a flawed person. I have not been on this path,” she said. “But I also think people like that.”

Moser and attorney Lizzie Pannill Fletcher are headed toward a May 22 runoff that Democrats everywhere will be watching as the party selects its candidate to oppose Rep. John Culberson for his western Harris County 7th District seat.

Long a Republican stronghold, the seat suddenly looks up for grabs: Hillary Clinton narrowly beat President Donald Trump here in 2016, and diverse, suburban regions have shown the strongest shifts in Democrats’ direction in statewide and special elections since then.

First, though, comes a test of what type of candidate Democrats will offer in November’s midterm elections.

Moser is an internet-era progressive brawler — a favorite of Berniecrats and endorsed by the Bernie Sanders-aligned Our Revolution. Shortly after Trump’s election, she launched Daily Action, which sends mobile phone alerts urging progressives to take a simple action each morning. She is married to former Obama White House videographer and Sanders 2016 campaign staffer Arun Chaudhary, and has lived in Washington.

Fletcher, meanwhile, is a Houston attorney who fits the more typical mold of Democratic congressional candidates. She’s a longtime Planned Parenthood advocate — a reality she highlighted in her first campaign ad — and is endorsed by EMILY’s List.

The two advanced out of a seven-way primary on March 6. Neither cleared 50%; Fletcher was the leading vote-getter at 29%, while Moser finished second with 24%, so they will face off again May 22.

In an interview in Moser’s campaign headquarters, a former bridal shop with mannequins and mirrors still scattered in between tables of campaign staffers and volunteers, she said she regretted the November 2014 article that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee cited in its unusually direct attack on her candidacy in February.

“I needed the money,” she said, laughing.

But she also cast herself as a dramatic break from what many progressives have complained are milquetoast recruits for key House races.”

“If you don’t agree with me on everything, I’m not going to lie to you, and I will listen, and we can talk, and I’m not going to give some weird mumbo jumbo non-answer to a question,” Moser said. “And I think that’s what people like about Trump, too.”

“He just says whatever. And I’m not comparing myself to him, but I just do think this is a time for authenticity in politics and that people care about that more than where you fall on their long, ideological checklist,” she said.

In a signal that its heavy-handed intervention in the March primary triggered intense blowback — and a recognition that the local AFL-CIO has backed Moser — the DCCC is so far keeping a much lower profile headed into the runoff. It recently offered de facto endorsements to candidates for two other Texas congressional seats, adding them to its “Red to Blue” program for top-tier challengers, even though those two candidates also face runoffs. But it left Fletcher out of the program.

Their differences on the issues are relatively small: Moser backs single-payer health care and warns that climate change poses an urgent threat, despite Houston’s oil-heavy economy. But Fletcher, too, is a strident critic of President Donald Trump.

They both attended St. John’s School, a private preparatory school in the district.

And in interviews Thursday, neither even used the other’s name.

Instead, Fletcher is accusing Culberson of being missing in action in the district, a criticism that also implicitly draws a contrast with Moser, who has lived in Washington and recently returned to Houston to run for Congress.

“I’m a lifelong Houstonian,” Fletcher said. “Not only was I born and raised here, but I chose to live here as an adult and to make my life and career here.”

“I have had the privilege of representing people in court from all walks of life, from across the district and across the city, and that experience is really what I think is the focus in the race,” she said. “It’s what’s going to help me beat Culberson, and it’s what’s going to help me serve effectively in Congress.”

Both Fletcher and Moser said they rarely hear about the DCCC and the national implications of the race from voters.

“Yes, of course it has been in the national media, but that’s really not what it’s like on the ground, and we’re really focused on not getting distracted by that conversation and focused on communicating with voters, getting our message out,” Fletcher said.

The two candidates identified infrastructure issues — both had roadwork blocking areas near the entries to their campaign headquarters — and complained that Culberson hadn’t done enough to secure funding for hurricane recovery efforts.

Fletcher is highlighting an endorsement from a local LGBT advocacy group and said she’s volunteered for Planned Parenthood for 25 years.

Moser, meanwhile, recently attracted scrutiny by hiring Leah McElrath, another aggressive Democratic writer who has promoted liberal conspiracy theories about Trump and brawled with former Democratic National Committee interim chairwoman Donna Brazile on Twitter.

McElrath described Trump’s election as “a coup by white supremacists backed by a foreign authoritarian power.”

Her hiring was the subject of a Houston Chronicle report. Shortly afterward, Moser said, McElrath resigned.

“We brought her on just to help us with a few things, and when the article came out she said she didn’t want to be a distraction, so she’s no longer with the campaign,” she said.

Moser added: “She was great.”

Moser said McElrath’s previous comments didn’t bother her.

“I think saying that Russians interfered in our election is not controversial,” she said. “Ask Bob Mueller if that’s controversial.”