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Democrats’ strong-arm strategy faces big test in Texas

HOUSTON — The opening primaries of the 2018 midterm elections on Tuesday feature the first critical test of national Democrats’ strategy for handling the crowded primaries that could threaten the party’s chances of winning control of the House next year.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee doesn’t want Laura Moser as the party’s nominee for a House seat in Texas that the party sees as critical to its strategy to winning control of the chamber next year. So in a post on its website, the committee called Moser — a journalist and activist who grew up in Houston, then moved home from Washington in the last year — a carpet-bagging opportunist who “begrudgingly moved” back to run for office.

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The DCCC has warned for months that it would wade into crowded primary fields — here and elsewhere — either to pick favorites or harm candidates it sees as weaker in the general election. But there are few signs here that the DCCC’s punches have landed. Instead, Moser’s fundraising has ticked up — she’s collected more than $ 130,000 since the DCCC post on Feb. 22 — and she’s urging voters in a digital ad to “[reject] the system where Washington party bosses tell us who to choose.”

And now some Democrats are anxious the national party’s tactics may backfire, reopening wounds that exacerbate a divide between the insurgent and establishment wings of the party — and emboldening the very candidates the party seeks to stop.

Moser said in an interview that she “feels like the test case” for how the DCCC will intervene in primaries this year, and she’s demonstrating how candidates can respond when they’re attacked by their party in Washington.

“This is a warning shot,” she said.

It’s not clear whether Moser will emerge from the crowded Democratic field — there are four serious candidates competing for two spots in a May runoff — in the race to face longtime GOP Rep. John Culberson. Suburban seats like Texas’ 7th Congressional District are widely seen as crucial to the party’s chances to recapture the chamber.

The seat has been held by Republicans since 1970, starting with George H.W. Bush. But in 2016, the largely well-heeled Houston suburbs turned against President Donald Trump, backing Hillary Clinton by just over 1 point.

Some Democrats worried that Moser was too weak a candidate for the red-tinted seat. The DCCC dug up opposition research hits against her, including a column in Washingtonian magazine in which she joked she’d “sooner have my teeth pulled out without anesthesia” than move to her grandparents’ home in Paris, Texas.

“I knew I was not their favorite candidate from the beginning,” Moser said in an interview, noting that Paris, Texas, and Houston are “very different” places. “[But] putting your thumb on the scale, which they’ve been doing from the very beginning, is different from setting a Democrat on fire in the town square.”

For now, she’s using her own party’s attacks as fodder for fundraising and voter motivation. Addressing two dozen voters at a candidate meet-and-greet in a townhouse here last week, Moser urged them to bring a friend to the polls on Tuesday, joking, “I would usually ask for money, but the DCCC has set us up for a while,” drawing a mixture of laughter and boos from the group.

Josh Medina, a 33-year-old voter at Moser’s event, called the DCCC’s move “appalling.” He isn’t sure whom he’ll support on Tuesday.

“Do I vote for the person I think is going to win, or the person I really want in office?” Medina said. “I don’t want to feel like I’m throwing my vote away.”

But while the DCCC outlined its attacks on its website, none of Moser’s opponents have parroted those critiques yet. Nor have any paid communications, like TV or digital ads, popped up from an outside group to drive the message beyond the activist community.

“If no one uses that info against her in paid communications and all [Moser] does is raise money, then you can call that a backfire,” said a Democratic strategist, granted anonymity to offer a candid opinion of internal party strategy. “It will limit people’s fear of this happening to them.”

Veronica Escobar is pictured. | AP Photo

The DCCC is getting involved here because it sees Moser as a weak candidate against Culberson. But the stakes are even higher in California, where Democrats worry that their candidates could be locked out of districts entirely, since the top two vote-getters in the June 5 primary, regardless of party, advance to the general election.

“When I saw this attack [in] Texas, I thought, ‘This might be coming to California,’” said Sam Jammal, one of eight Democrats running to replace Republican Rep. Ed Royce in Southern California. “But I’m not concerned because this is elections about the people of the 39th District — not people in D.C. that they haven’t heard of.”

But it’s Jammal’s race — along with the open race to replace Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) — where Democrats in the state expect that the DCCC will intervene in some way to avoid being locked out by Republicans.

“We’ve been having conversations with various candidates in various races — myself, my team, members of Congress and the DCCC staff — trying to do what we could to see if we could motivate some candidates to perhaps run for assembly or for school board,” said Eric Bauman, the California state Democratic Party chairman. “Ultimately, some people are going to be offended no matter what happens; that’s the reality.”

Andy Thorburn, a self-funding businessman and former teacher, said he knows the DCCC would “rather see a smaller field” in his primary to replace Royce, but he’d be “very surprised” if the committee weighed in.

“If they dump opposition research on me, then I’m going to double down and run harder,” Thorburn said. “I’d like them to be neutral — but even if they weren’t, I don’t think it’d change that I’m running.”

The DCCC has come under fire in recent weeks — not just for its tactics in this Texas district, but also for leaked committee communications that cast doubt on the political prospects of single-payer health care and calling for stricter gun laws following last year’s mass shooting in Las Vegas.

Despite that, some Democrats see merit in the DCCC’s approach.

“Given what’s at stake this year and historic opportunity to take back the House, it behooves [the DCCC] to maximize those gains by fielding candidates who have a good opportunity to win,” said Ben Tulchin, a California-based Democratic pollster who worked on Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign. “But to make an omelet, you’ve got to break some eggs.”

Richard Ojeda is pictured. | Craig Hudson for POLITICO Magazine

The Democratic tumult mirrors Republicans internal divisions earlier this decade, when the party faced blowback from tea party-aligned groups for picking more moderate favorites. In Florida, conservatives balked when the NRSC backed then-Gov. Charlie Crist — an endorsement that backfired when Marco Rubio outflanked Crist from the right and surged past him in the polls.

But in other races, Republicans in Washington blame conservatives for nominating inferior candidates who lost in general elections and squandered seats in the House and Senate.

Here in Texas, all eyes will be on the vote count Tuesday night. Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, an attorney endorsed by the pro-abortion rights group EMILY’s List, appears to be the front-runner — but almost certain to finish well short of the majority of the vote needed to clinch the nomination, forcing a May runoff for the Democratic nomination.

Moser is competing for the No. 2 spot with two other well-funded candidates: oncologist Jason Westin and nonprofit executive Alex Triantaphyllis.

The leading Republican super PAC for House races, Congressional Leadership Fund, gleefully released a poll on Friday that found Moser in second place, though Westin and Triantaphyllis were very close behind.

But all the candidates acknowledged in interviews that while the DCCC intervention has enraged some activists and progressive organizations, it hasn’t trickled down to the average voter.

“We’re not hearing it at the doors. We’re not hearing it on the phones. So we’re just staying focused on communicating our positive message to voters,” Pannill Fletcher said. “We’re so close to Tuesday that I think we should just let the candidates continue to get out their message.”

Triantaphyllis spent his final Saturday going door-to-door off of Bellaire Boulevard, one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the district, greeting primary voters in Spanish.

As he block-walked, Triantaphyllis met Denise Padilla, an assistant manager of a Clark’s shoe store, on her way to work. She said she planned to vote for Triantaphyllis.

Padilla, a 33-year-old Democrat, said she “[hadn’t] heard anything about” the DCCC’s attack on another candidate in the race.

“As a Democrat, that really does bug me,” Padilla said. “Because then, what makes us different from anyone else?”

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