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.
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 the author of Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden.