Dem campaign arm sparks uproar by intervening in Texas primary fight

Dem campaign arm sparks uproar by intervening in Texas primary fight
© Greg Nash

A surprise attack by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) on a Democratic candidate ahead of Texas’s congressional primaries has drawn national attention to the primary fight in Texas’s 7th District. 

Texans head to the polls on Tuesday for the first primaries of the 2018 elections. But while there are more than a dozen contested primaries on the ballot, the Democratic primary in the 7th District — which is currently represented by Rep. John CulbersonJohn Abney CulbersonFive biggest surprises in midterm fight Trump's woman problem may cost the GOP the House The Hill's Morning Report — Battle lines drawn as Trump and Cohen dig in MORE (R) — is capturing the most attention. 

In the final stretch of the primary, the DCCC published opposition research on its website saying that candidate Laura Moser is a “Washington insider” who won’t change the nation’s capital.

The DCCC also said that Moser, a journalist and activist backed by major progressive groups, is disqualifying as a general election candidate based on concerns about her residency and allegations that her husband’s company is unfairly benefiting from her campaign. 

But progressives groups see the DCCC’s unusual intervention as an attempt by Washington Democrats to quash a progressive candidate.

“The DCCC injecting themselves in activated the progressive wing of the party, reenergizing that fight between the moderate and liberal wings of the Democratic Party,” said University of Houston political science professor Brandon Rottinghaus.

Moser and two other candidates are in the lead in the race, which will head to a May 22 runoff if none of the nine candidates on the ballot gets more than 50 percent of the vote on Tuesday.

Alex Triantaphyllis is the fundraising leader, having raised more than $1 million for his bid. Triantaphyllis, a former editor of the Harvard Law Review, founded a local nonprofit that works with the area’s immigrant community.

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Another candidate, Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, is a decorated lawyer in the district who spent years volunteering with Planned Parenthood. She has the backing of EMILY’s List and has raised about $900,000 for her bid.

Many Democrats view both as the strongest candidates for a general election, after they both outraised Culberson in the third quarter of 2017. By comparison, they’re worried nominating Moser could blow the party’s chances at taking a district Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonFive takeaways from Cruz, O'Rourke's fiery first debate Heller embraces Trump in risky attempt to survive in November Live coverage: Cruz, O'Rourke clash in Texas debate MORE won in 2016. 

The DCCC’s attacks focus on what it frames as opposition research that would hurt Moser in a general election against Culberson, who has represented the district since 2001. It doesn’t address her stances on issues. 

The DCCC attack highlighted a story Moser wrote for Washingtonian magazine in 2014 where she wrote that she’d rather "have my teeth pulled out without anesthesia” than live in Paris, Texas — a small city more than 300 miles away from the Houston district where Moser is running.

The research also pointed out that, as of January, Moser considered Washington to be her primary residence in order to qualify for the city’s homestead tax exemption. Moser moved back to Houston, her hometown, last year to run for Culberson’s seat.

And last year, Moser’s campaign paid $50,000 to Revolution Messaging, a D.C.-based consulting firm where her husband works.

"Unfortunately, Laura Moser’s outright disgust for life in Texas disqualifies her as a general election candidate, and would rob voters of their opportunity to flip Texas’ 7th in November,” DCCC communications director Meredith Kelly told the Texas Tribune.

Rottinghaus admitted that much of the information released by the DCCC “could hurt Moser’s campaign in a general.” 

Republicans have been giddy at the infighting, with the House Republicans' campaign arm and the Republican National Committee highlighting every twist and turn in the race. And the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with House Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanHow does the 25th Amendment work? Sinema, Fitzpatrick call for long-term extension of Violence Against Women Act GOP super PAC drops .5 million on Nevada ad campaign MORE (R-Wis.), released results of a recent poll it commissioned showing Moser in the second spot by a slim margin, eligible for the runoff.

Residency issues are always low-hanging fruit in congressional races. Republicans tarred Georgia Democrat Jon Ossoff for living just a few miles outside of his district in last year’s contested special election in that state’s 6th District, and Republicans could do the same in Texas with Moser’s residency.

But residency could also be an issue for Triantaphyllis, who lives just slightly outside the district lines. 

The DCCC attack triggered public outrage from progressive groups that accused it of targeting Moser because she’s further left than the other leading candidates. Moser has been endorsed by Democracy for America (DFA), with Our Revolution, a group allied with Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersFive takeaways from Cruz, O'Rourke's fiery first debate Ben & Jerry’s co-founders announce effort to help 7 Dem House challengers Dems look to Gillum, Abrams for pathway to victory in tough states MORE (I-Vt.), supporting her amid controversy. 

“Democrats in Washington are just still stuck in the same old groove from 20 to 30 years ago, thinking that somehow by being Republican-lite, corporate-lite ... somehow that’s going to lead the Democratic victory. It’s a proven losing strategy,” DFA executive director Charles Chamberlain told The Hill. The group endorsed Moser last summer and has been closely working with her campaign. 

Even though the DCCC’s messaging didn’t focus on Moser’s progressive politics, some Democrats think a more moderate candidate would give the party a better shot in November. 

Culberson has held his seat for almost two decades, while facing virtually no Democratic opposition. And when the Houston Chronicle endorsed Fletcher and another Democrat, physician Jason Westin, for the district, the paper included a note of concern about Moser’s candidacy.

“Moser has attracted a spirited base of supporters with her enthusiastic advocacy of progressive ideals, but even Democrats who like her question whether she's too liberal to win this historically Republican district,” the paper’s editorial board wrote. 

Rottinghaus agreed with that assessment.

”Given the nature of that seat and who is likely to come vote in November, nominating someone perceived to be very left of center would be almost sure defeat,” he said.

Moser has sought to capitalize on the DCCC’s attacks, blasting them in a statement as “disappointing” and alluding to them in a final ad released before the primary.

“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. 

Moser’s campaign has also pointed to a fundraising uptick in recent days that it attributes to backlash against the DCCC attack. And the candidate apologized for derogatorily referring in her Washingtonian to a “deaf-mute.” 

Moser’s rivals haven’t echoed the DCCC attacks. And Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom PerezThomas Edward PerezClinton’s top five vice presidential picks Government social programs: Triumph of hope over evidence Labor’s 'wasteful spending and mismanagement” at Workers’ Comp MORE told C-SPAN on Friday that he “wouldn’t have” attacked Moser as the DCCC did. 

Some Texans believe the move could backfire, crystallizing support around Moser as an alternative to either Fletcher or Triantaphyllis and helping her into the likely runoff.

Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa told The Hill that, while the state party doesn’t pick sides, he’s “not happy” about the DCCC’s intervention in the race. 

Hinojosa feared that the opposition dump “gives Republicans ammunition to use against our people” and questioned whether the move would have the intended outcome.

“I would think that based upon what I’ve been hearing in emails and text messages that what they are doing is if they were trying to put their finger on the scale, it’s working the other way,” Hinojosa said.