Progressive groups got a dramatic lesson in Texas this week: There are real limits to the power of anger to force a victory over the Democratic establishment.
Laura Moser, an early cause célèbre for progressives this election cycle, badly lost a Tuesday night Democratic congressional primary in the Houston suburbs. Her loss, in part, was a function of the unique circumstance of the race. But it also showcased the shortcomings of the “alternative infrastructure” that progressive groups are trying to build to help their candidates.
Moser got just over 33% of the vote to Lizzie Pannill Fletcher’s 67% in the runoff to face Republican Rep. John Culberson.
But the largest disparity was not between the two candidates’ vote totals, but between the hype around Moser’s campaign and her ultimate vote count.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee very publicly attacked Moser’s candidacy in Texas’s 7th Congressional District in early February, an intervention that prompted outrage on her behalf and drove campaign donations. Progressive groups rallied behind her. She became a symbol of the progressive battle against establishment Democratic groups like the DCCC.
That energy helped push her into a close second place in a crowded March primary, sending her to Tuesday’s runoff against Fletcher. But in the final tally, in a runoff with abysmally low turnout, Moser actually earned fewer votes than she did two and a half months earlier.
A Moser win would have been a message, Alexandra Rojas, political director of Justice Democrats, told BuzzFeed News Monday, about what voters want, but also about what progressives can do. A victory, she said, would show that “Even though we haven’t had decades-old establishment backing and infrastructure, we can compete with that establishment apparatus.”
Instead, some progressive groups and supporters at Moser’s election night party said, the result highlighted just how powerful the DCCC was.
“When the Democratic Party establishment gets involved aggressively in races like this, that is a real challenge for the candidate that provides some upside, but that upside is no counterweight alone to what they can potentially throw up against you,” said Neil Sroka of Democracy for America, asked Wednesday what lessons they were taking from this race.
“We did everything we possibly could in terms of mobilizing our membership,” Rojas of Justice Democrats said Wednesday. “I think this shows how much outside influence matters in this race in terms of spending money.”
It’s not clear that the race was ever all that competitive: Congressional Leadership Fund, a Republican group that saw Moser as a less competitive candidate in a general, had hoped to spend money to boost her. But the group polled several times in the month after the runoff, and never found the race to be competitive.
The timing of the runoff also blunted some of the things that had so animated national progressives on Moser’s behalf. Texas was the first state to hold its primaries this year, so in the run-up to the March primary, this was the only game in town. By the time the runoff rolled around, national progressives had other races all across the country to worry about. Moser wasn’t even the main event Tuesday night for many of those groups, with many of the same groups focusing in on Stacey Abrams in the Georgia governor’s race.
“Frankly, it’s been a challenge for us. We’re trying to support a number of candidates this year,” said Sroka on Monday before results came in, saying that put limits on their efforts. “You can only send so many [fundraising emails] because you’re trying to work with a lot of candidates,” he said.
What’s more, by the time the runoff rolled around, the DCCC’s actions were a distant memory for many voters.
“The DCCC involvement was great for Moser’s fundraising, but clearly she couldn’t translate that into votes in a runoff,” said Sonia Van Meter, a Democratic consultant in Texas.
In 2016, Tim Canova got a similar boost in his primary challenge against Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz in Florida. Wasserman Schultz had just stepped down as chair of the Democratic National Committee, following criticism over how she handled the Democratic presidential primary between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Canova, a Sanders supporter, fundraised off of the perception that she had put her thumb on the scale for Clinton. But it was insufficient — he lost, and lost badly.
Moser, in an interview with BuzzFeed News, was adamant that she had not leaned into her newfound fame as a symbol in Democrats' intraparty battles during her campaign, instead focusing on issues specific to her district.
But the DCCC was never far from mind.
Shortly before 11 p.m. Tuesday night, Moser took the makeshift stage on the back deck of a Houston restaurant to address her supporters. Things were not going well for her congressional bid — there was still a fair bit of vote to be counted, but it seemed unlikely she would be able to make up the deficit.
Acknowledging that a loss seemed likely, she noted “how many forces have been allied against us.” And many of her supporters named the DCCC as a key factor in her loss.
“The key objective here is to beat John Culberson,” she said, calling out the current Republican representative of the district. “And I have known Lizzie Fletcher for 25 years now, and I know that she’s a fighter. And if this night turns out the way it looks like it’s going to turn out, I encourage everyone to support her.”
It was an utterly conventional end to a very dramatic race.