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Why Democrats trying to build a blue wave in Texas are leaning left in the primaries

Democratic congressional candidate Laura Moser campaigns in Houston days before her runoff election. (Michael Stravato for The Washington Post)

The big story in Tuesday's primaries across four states, anchored by runoffs in Texas, is that Democrats can't decide what direction to go in the era of Trump.

Should they focus on getting out their already energized base by electing candidates that will fire them up? Or should they try to reach out to disenchanted independent and Republican voters with candidates whom those voters will find more amenable?

That battle has manifested most clearly in a Democratic congressional primary outside Houston, in one of Texas Democrats' best pickup opportunities of 2018.

In the 7th Congressional District, Tuesday will bring a runoff between Lizzie Fletcher, who is trying to appeal to the center, and Laura Moser, an unapologetic liberal. The two outperformed five other candidates in a March primary, but neither got a majority of the vote. The winner of Tuesday's runoff election will try to unseat Rep. John Abney Culberson (R), who won reelection in 2016 despite Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton taking the district by one percentage point.

A win by Moser would be a disaster from Washington Democrats' perspective. They think she is such a politically poor fit for the district that they published a scathing opposition research paper about her, highlighting the fact that she wrote in 2014 that “I'd rather have my teeth pulled out without anesthesia” than move to rural Texas.

But influential Democrats in Texas are much more Zen about who wins this race and as many as half a dozen congressional runoffs across the state. That's because they're open to the idea that candidates such as Moser, who supports Medicare for all, can help turn Texas a little less red.

That seemingly paradoxical strategy has emerged for two reasons, according to conversations with Democratic operatives in Texas:

1. Voter enthusiasm is high on the left, and competitive primaries with engaging candidates help boost that. Texas Democrats are running candidates in every single congressional race in November, and they have a potentially serious challenger to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.). At the state level, they are challenging Gov. Greg Abbott (R), 14 out of 15 state Senate seats and nearly 90 percent of the state's 150 state House seats.

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Texas Democrats haven't put up that kind of defense in a quarter-century. A good number of those races won't be competitive in November (this is Texas, after all). But it does give Democratic voters a candidate in every corner of the state for the first time in years.

Advocates of this approach say the results are already showing: One million people voted in Democrats' March primary in Texas, the highest Democratic turnout for a midterm election in 16 years.

So, yes, candidates such as Moser may be controversial, but in this case, some Texas Democrats argue, controversy can be good for the party.

2. The state Democratic Party also has shifted its strategy over the past few years from trying to woo crossover Republican voters to connecting to voters who are more inclined to vote Democratic. That means appealing to their base with more liberal candidates and trying to win over nonvoters who lean left, such as high school students or Latino voters.

Proponents of this strategy argue that electing more moderate Democrats who then try to win over Republican voters hasn't worked at all.

“Texans see right through political pandering,” said Manny Garcia, the deputy executive director of the state's Democratic Party.

A number of the candidates being shunned by operatives in Washington fit right into Texas Democrats' lean-left strategy. The state party is staying out of these primaries, but when you overlay their strategy with the candidates in the 7th Congressional District, it sure looks as though Moser is a better fit for them than Fletcher. Here's Politico's Elena Schneider in Houston describing the two candidates' difference:

Moser believes in expanding the electorate, activating non-voters with a progressive pitch including support for Medicare-for-all. She said she’s “focused on bringing in new people to the process,” by deploying 2,000 volunteers to find them, while Fletcher wants Republicans to “cross over.”

But not every Texas Democrat feels that way. Politico talked to a Democratic strategist based in Texas who thought Moser was “defaulting to Republicans” by refusing to give independent-minded Republican voters a reason to vote for her.

The same divide is playing out in a runoff Tuesday for which Democrats will launch a long-shot challenge to Abbott this fall.

Liberal-leaning candidate Lupe Valdez finished first in March's primary but still needs to win a runoff against Andrew White. The two are politically very different. White, whose father was one of the last Democratic governors in the state in the 1980s, personally opposes abortion and argues that a moderate Democrat is the best way to win the governorship of Texas. Recent elections back up White's argument: Abbott defeated liberal hero Wendy Davis in 2014 by nearly 20 points.

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And yet Texas Democratic operatives to whom The Fix talked on Monday are rooting for Valdez, the first openly gay Hispanic female sheriff in the nation and a daughter of migrant farmworkers.

“She's got this deep, deep story that we think regular Texans who don't vote and who are worried about making ends meet can connect with,” said one operative who was granted anonymity to speak candidly about an ongoing primary.

Is leaning left a controversial strategy? In Washington, certainly. A paradoxical approach to campaigning? Definitely. But it's one that a number of Texas Democrats are buying into ahead of defining primary runoffs for their primary, a reflection of how the party is divided nationally about which direction to take. At least in Texas, we'll find out in November whether it worked.

Correction: Manny Garcia, the deputy executive director of the Texas Democratic Party, was originally misidentified.