What We Can Learn From How Laura Moser Made the Democratic Establishment Sweat

After her campaign was torpedoed by the DCCC, Moser gave the establishment’s preferred candidate a run for her money.

Branko Marcetic May 23, 2018

Laura Moser, center, chatting with an aquaintance who recognized her and pulled her car over to say hello, in Houston, Monday May 22, 2017. (Photo by Michael Stravato/For the Washington Post)

Yesterday’s Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry runoff in Texas’ 7th dis­trict will come as a major dis­ap­point­ment to any­one who viewed the race as a por­tent of elec­tions to come. Writer and activist Lau­ra Moser, whom the DCCC infa­mous­ly tried to tor­pe­do dur­ing the pri­ma­ry cam­paign, was firm­ly trounced by oppo­nent Lizzie Pan­nill Fletch­er by a rough­ly two-to-one mar­gin in the runoff after ini­tial­ly com­ing sec­ond in a sev­en-per­son race.

For one, there’s the hard-to-quantify impact of the DCCC’s intervention.

Moser drew nation­al head­lines in late Feb­ru­ary after the DCCC post­ed oppo­si­tion research about her online, accus­ing her, among oth­er things, of being a car­pet­bag­ger and Wash­ing­ton insid­er — and of writ­ing a col­umn crude­ly dis­parag­ing the state of Texas. Crude as the col­umn was, Moser was refer­ring specif­i­cal­ly to the town of Paris, rather than the vast­ly dif­fer­ent city of Hous­ton in which she was run­ning, though the charge would stick thanks to its rep­e­ti­tion by fig­ures like DCCC Chair­man Ben Lujan.

Iron­i­cal­ly, this attempt to dam­age Moser was a gift to her cam­paign, com­ing as it did in the midst of a series of rev­e­la­tions about the DCCC’s role in push­ing out anti-estab­lish­ment can­di­dates and putting its thumb on the scale for its favored picks. Moser’s sto­ry and the nation­al atten­tion it sub­se­quent­ly received led to a flood of sup­port and dona­tions to her cam­paign, lead­ing her to come a close sec­ond to the estab­lish­ment-backed Fletch­er, trail­ing her by a mere five points and neces­si­tat­ing yesterday’s runoff.

The race was wide­ly inter­pret­ed as a bell­wether for future Demo­c­ra­t­ic con­tests. Moser, the anti-estab­lish­ment can­di­date, was an unabashed pro­gres­sive who reject­ed the timid lan­guage of Demo­c­ra­t­ic cen­trists and believed the path for­ward for the par­ty lay in excit­ing its base to turn up and vote instead of mak­ing entreaties to the­o­ret­i­cal dis­grun­tled Repub­li­cans. Moser knocked on doors with vol­un­teers in advance of the runoff, attempt­ing to con­vince the district’s increas­ing­ly diverse vot­ers to come out on the day. In the end, with runoff vot­er turnout typ­i­cal­ly ter­ri­ble, it was not to be.

Moser’s loss will no doubt be claimed as real-world vin­di­ca­tion of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty estab­lish­ment, which warned that Moser was une­lec­table in the high­er income, Repub­li­can-lean­ing dis­trict that Hillary Clin­ton car­ried by 1.4 points in 2016. Her drub­bing in the runoff by Fletch­er appears to dis­prove the Democ­rats’ insur­gent pro­gres­sive wing’s power.

But pro­gres­sives fed up with the Demo­c­ra­t­ic par­ty and its lead­er­ship will find sev­er­al ele­ments to com­pli­cate this sim­ple narrative.

For one, there’s the hard-to-quan­ti­fy impact of the DCCC’s inter­ven­tion. While Moser end­ed up rais­ing a sig­nif­i­cant amount of mon­ey — a large chunk of it from out of state, like­ly from frus­trat­ed pro­gres­sives around the coun­try — Fletch­er had cru­cial back­ing from par­ty machin­ery. She was backed by EMILY’s List to the tune of around a quar­ter mil­lion dol­lars, had a larg­er pres­ence on TV and won the lion’s share of dona­tions with­in the state — after start­ing off with four times the cash. Moser alleged that she was shut out” and that the DCCC def­i­nite­ly fun­neled all the big donors in Hous­ton to [Fletch­er] and I didn’t get them.” Exact­ly who those donors were remains to be seen when both cam­paigns file their lists of donors for the first time.

What­ev­er the truth, the insti­tu­tion­al back­ing for Fletch­er — and the DCCC’s ear­ly attempt at sab­o­tage — will keep pro­gres­sives sus­pi­cious of the even­tu­al result. In any case, giv­en Fletcher’s advan­tages in the race and the fact that she was expect­ed to come out on top, her vic­to­ry looks less like the tri­umphant vin­di­ca­tion of estab­lish­ment pol­i­tics than the aver­sion of a poten­tial humiliation.

It’s also dif­fi­cult to know how much sig­nif­i­cance to ascribe the race. Despite the rep­u­ta­tion the con­test achieved nation­al­ly, local polit­i­cal observers viewed the race as dull, large­ly due to the lack of polit­i­cal day­light between Moser and Fletch­er. Aside from their dif­fer­ences on strat­e­gy and on health care — Moser backed sin­gle pay­er, while Fletch­er com­mit­ted her­self only to sav­ing the Afford­able Care Act — and the fact that Moser’s cam­paign staff union­ized, the two were large­ly in agree­ment, with frus­trat­ed debate mod­er­a­tors try­ing in vain to find what sep­a­rat­ed one from the oth­er dur­ing the race. If the con­test offers a les­son here, it may be sim­ply about the lengths the DCCC is will­ing to go to sup­press any sym­bol of grass roots chal­lenge to its influence.

Those look­ing to use the defeat as an argu­ment against run­ning more pro­gres­sive can­di­dates are ignor­ing wider trends. After all, at least sev­en of the can­di­dates endorsed by Our Rev­o­lu­tion won their pri­maries last night, includ­ing Stacey Abrams, the first black woman to be nom­i­nat­ed for gov­er­nor of Geor­gia. (Our Revolution’s cur­rent dif­fi­cul­ties aside, its endorse­ment is a sol­id indi­ca­tor of a candidate’s pro­gres­sive cre­den­tials). This fol­lows on from the var­i­ous pri­ma­ry vic­to­ries won by pro­gres­sives and social­ists last week, as well as last November’s wave of left-wing vic­to­ries, includ­ing the DSA-backed Lee Carter, who nabbed the seat of one of Virginia’s most con­ser­v­a­tive Repub­li­cans. Viewed in total­i­ty, it’s hard to argue Moser’s defeat is a death knell for the via­bil­i­ty of left wing politics.

Pro­gres­sives may ulti­mate­ly take some solace from this par­tic­u­lar loss in the most unlike­ly of places: the con­ser­v­a­tive move­ment of the 20th cen­tu­ry. Once upon a time, back in the 1950s and 1960s, the Right was in a sim­i­lar posi­tion as the Left is today: large­ly shut out of pow­er, with its nom­i­nal par­ty embrac­ing a cen­trist phi­los­o­phy that favored elec­tabil­i­ty over principle.

Mem­bers of the nascent orga­nized Right respond­ed by cob­bling togeth­er an enthu­si­as­tic grass­roots move­ment that chal­lenged the GOP establishment’s hold on pow­er, and which was char­ac­ter­ized by seem­ing­ly quixot­ic cam­paigns that achieved lit­tle in the short term — but suc­ceed­ed in gal­va­niz­ing scat­tered con­ser­v­a­tives in the long run. Joseph Shell’s 1962 pri­ma­ry chal­lenge against Richard Nixon was an elec­toral fail­ure, for instance, but his­to­ri­ans today view it one of the key open­ing salvos in an intra-par­ty war that would see con­trol of the state GOP fall to the hard Right, and even­tu­al­ly lead to Bar­ry Goldwater’s 1964 pri­ma­ry vic­to­ry in the state and pres­i­den­tial nomination.

Lau­ra Moser may not be Bernie Sanders — and she’s cer­tain­ly not Bar­ry Gold­wa­ter. But for a brief moment, she made the par­ty estab­lish­ment sweat, and that could have ram­i­fi­ca­tions well beyond one sin­gle House race in 2018.

Branko Marcetic is a staff writer at Jacobin mag­a­zine and a 2019 – 2020 Leonard C. Good­man Insti­tute for Inves­tiga­tive Report­ing fel­low. He is work­ing on a forth­com­ing book about Joe Biden.
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