Nationally, the Democratic Party, which gave indispensable assistance (“Basket of deplorables”) to the election of today’s president, seems intent (“Impeach!”; “Abolish ICE!”; “Free stuff!”; “I am Spartacus!”) on a repeat performance. Here, however, in the 7th Congressional District, in what might turn out to be the year’s most instructive House race, Democrats seem serious about winning, and if they do with Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, they will have a template for 2020 nationally.
One of her handouts inexplicably describes her as a “fierce advocate,” as though Americans are experiencing a fierceness deficit and pine for a ferocity infusion. Actually, she speaks with the measured precision of a lawyer who has worked at a major firm (Vinson & Elkins) and who is fluent in the business-school patois (“The delta last time was . . . ”) of her corporate clients. The ginger group Our Revolution, which is a residue of Sen. Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign, supported a candidate to her left in a seven-candidate primary, perhaps because Fletcher would not genuflect at the requisite altars: She has endorsed neither a single-payer health-care system, nor Medicare-for-all, nor putting lipstick on socialism, least of all a ban — this is Texas, for pete’s sake — on offshore drilling.
In New York, and then in Massachusetts, two 10-term House incumbents, both males, were defeated in primaries by females running to the incumbents’ left in safe Democratic districts. Here, in a district held by Republicans for the past half-century, a woman is not far behind — in some polls, within the margin of error — the Republican incumbent.
A fifth-generation Houstonian, Fletcher is trying to become just the fourth person to represent the current iteration of the 7th District, which she describes as “leaning purple but still light pink.” It was reconfigured in 1966, when it was won by 42-year old George Herbert Walker Bush, who still lives in the district. After his two terms, it was held for 15 terms by Bill Archer, who rose to the chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee. His successor, John Abney Culberson, 62, wants to “let Texans run Texas,” but is not a conscientious objector to non-Texas money he can send home from his perch on the Appropriations Committee. His conservatism had a Trumpian tang six years before Trump came down his New York tower’s escalator: In 2009, Culberson co-sponsored a “birther” bill that would have required presidential candidates to prove they are natural-born citizens. A legislative lifer, Culberson won the first of seven two-year terms in the state House in 1986 at age 30. He won his 2016 congressional reelection with 56 percent of the vote.
If the best kind of generals are lucky ones, Fletcher, 43, is that kind of candidate. The tight Senate race between incumbent Ted Cruz and Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who has already visited all 254 Texas counties, is apt to energize Democratic turnout statewide. Culberson perhaps did nothing untoward when he sold a biotech stock — the one for which Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.) has been indicted on charges of insider trading — 10 days before the shares lost 99 percent of their value, but the optics are not optimal. And while their city was still prostrate from Hurricane Harvey, Houstonians heard the president’s stupefying statement that the Coast Guard had to save 16,000 people because they “went out in their boats to watch the hurricane.”
It has been a while since Texas was, in Gene Autry’s lyric, “Where the longhorn cattle feed/On the lowly gypsum weed.” It is the 15th-most urban state (84.7 percent in 2010), with the nation’s fourth-, seventh-, ninth-, 11th- and 15th-most populous cities (Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, Austin and Fort Worth). Hillary Clinton mopped the floor with Donald Trump in nearly all of them, which is one reason Trump carried 21 states by larger margins than his 9 percentage-point victory in Texas.
A Fletcher victory might be an early tremor of a political earthquake. In presidential politics, Democrats have three large, safe states — California, New York and Illinois — with a combined 104 electoral votes, 38.5 percent of the necessary 270 to win election. Texas, the Republicans’ only such state, today has 38 electoral votes and, after the 2020 census, will have two, perhaps three more. If it turns purple, every year divisible by four will be, for Republicans, a year of living dangerously.
Nationally, Fletcher’s party seems determined to emulate Yasser Arafat’s description of the Palestine Liberation Organization: They never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Here, the party seems serious about winning.