The first primary results of 2018 are in—and the Democratic establishment is off to a rough start. The Texas Tribune is projecting that Laura Moser, a journalist and anti-Trump activist who national Democrats had desperately hoped to knock out of the race, will proceed to a runoff against Lizzie Pannill Fletcher for the nomination in Texas’ 7th Congressional District.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee made it clear last week that they think Moser is too liberal to win in a general election this November. That strategy appeared to backfire on Tuesday. Moser had already made something of a name for herself on the left even before the DCCC went after her, but the public attacks gave Bernie Sanders supporters flashbacks to the 2016 primary and spurred a new round of support for Moser.
With more than 75 percent of precincts reporting, Fletcher, a Houston-area attorney, still led the seven-candidate Democratic field with 29.8 percent of the vote, but Moser was in second with 24.2 percent. Cancer researcher (and honorary Jedi) Jason Westin was in third with 19.6 percent, and nonprofit executive Alex Triantaphyllis followed in fourth with 15.6. A candidate needed 50 percent of the primary vote to win the nomination outright and avoid squaring off with the runner-up in a runoff on May 22. The winner of that will challenge Republican Rep. John Culberson in November.
The DCCC fears that if Moser secures the nomination she will cost them a winnable race in a district that has been represented by Republicans for the past half-century, but went for Hillary Clinton in 2016. And so in the final days of the primary, the national group dumped its opposition research file on Moser, an unusually aggressive attack on a fellow Democrat made all the more remarkable by the fact the group published the memo on its own website instead of trying to launder it through a third-party group or the press. That memo, which branded Moser a “Washington insider” because she used to live in D.C., turned the local race into the latest front in the ongoing battle between progressives and the Democratic establishment. And unlike similar Democrat-on-Democrat skirmishes taking place in California, Chicago, and Boston, this one does not involve an incumbent.
Moser is the creator of Daily Action, the popular text-message service that provides users with one specific task they can do each day to “resist the Trump agenda.” She has also written for a number of national outlets, including Slate, and wrote critically of Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-New Mexico), the chairman of the DCCC, last summer in Vogue after he promised that the group wouldn’t use support for abortion rights as a litmus test. Democracy For America, the PAC founded by Howard Dean to encourage progressives to run for office, was among her early backers.
But it was the DCCC attack that turned her into a cause célèbre on the left. Sanders–aligned Our Revolution quickly came to her defense with an endorsement of its own, which opened a national small-donor spigot that fueled Moser’s campaign in the closing days of the race. She says she raised more than $100,000 in the six days following the attack, a significant slice of which the campaign proudly trumpeted came from small donors outside of her district.
While the DCCC did not publicly back one of Moser’s competitors—and the Democratic National Committee tried to stay out of things altogether—some establishment-leaning allies like EMILY’s List lined up behind Fletcher. But Fletcher also found herself the target of some not-so-friendly fire from liberals. The Working Families Party and the Texas AFL-CIO both took issue with Fletcher’s law firm once representing a commercial cleaning company in a lawsuit against a union, and they urged Texans to vote for anyone but her. Those groups were unmoved by Fletcher’s defense that she was not personally involved in that case. According to a local union official, her firm turned the courtroom into an “anti-union and anti-immigrant circus.”
Fletcher and Moser will now have an additional two months to make their respective cases, and the importance of the first-in-the-nation race will fade a little, as other states start to hold their own contests. But Tuesday night is likely to have an immediate lasting impact on how the DCCC approaches these contested races for the rest of 2018.