The congressional district where I grew up, the Texas Seventh, serves three-quarters of a million Houston residents, spread across a dozen wealthier-than-most suburbs in the western part of Harris County: neighborhoods where public schools are good but private schools are everywhere, and where modest bungalows share space around the murky Buffalo Bayou with huge brick colonials and faux-Mediterranean mansions. Republicans have held the Seventh since 1966, when George H. W. Bush, then forty-two, took the congressional seat representing his neighborhood. (Bush still lives there; once, I saw him at Walgreens.) Since 2000, John Culberson has represented the district. Culberson, sixty-one, is a standard-issue Texas Republican, with a Tea Party edge, most famous for co-sponsoring birther legislation and offhandedly comparing Obamacare obstructionism to the heroic acts aboard United Airlines Flight 93. He keeps a minimal presence in Houston but wins elections handily: he opposes abortion, same-sex marriage, and the “liberal obsession with climate change,” and he maintains an A+ rating from the N.R.A.
This year, it might be different. In 2016, the Seventh—which voted 59–40 for John McCain over Barack Obama, in 2008, and 60–39 for Mitt Romney, in 2012—surprised everyone by going blue, 49–47 for Hillary Clinton. Since then, the district has come suddenly, fiercely into play. Hurricane Harvey soured many Houstonians on Culberson, who hasn’t faced a serious challenger since ’08. There are now six candidates in the Democratic primary, and four of them are remarkably strong. National Democrats have focussed their attention on the race, as the Seventh is exactly the type of district—not a swing normally, and a stretch this year—that the Party will have to win in order to retake the House. The district reflects a degree of Houston’s exceptional diversity, and contains a few strongly liberal pockets, but culturally it is a white-conservative stronghold, the sort of place where longtime residents pride themselves on being “gracious.” The Democratic attempt to take it will likely be akin to the battle for the Georgia Sixth, where Jon Ossoff lost a special election last year.
The candidate who’s gotten the most national attention is Laura Moser, who grew up in Houston. She attended one of the district’s private schools, St. John’s, and moved out of the city in 1999. She’s a writer: most recently, she was the education columnist at Slate. (Her brother Benjamin is also a writer, and has been published by The New Yorker.) Her husband, Arun Chaudhary, was Obama’s videographer—in 2015, a photo of their two-year-old daughter having a tantrum at the White House went viral—and later served as the creative director on Bernie Sanders’s campaign. Chaudhary now works at Revolution Messaging, an agency that provides “full-service digital for progressives.” After the 2016 election, Moser founded Daily Action, an anti-Trump resistance group that now has more than a quarter of a million subscribers. She and her family moved back to Houston last April. Thanks, in part, to her natural facility with messaging and her narrative as an emboldened citizen-activist and mom, her campaign has attracted broad, fervent support: she’s received more than fifteen thousand donations, she announced recently, and is working with a base of more than a thousand volunteers.
But Moser is not a front-runner—the race is stacked. Her competition includes Alex Triantaphyllis, an executive at a respected local nonprofit that provides refugee services; Jason Westin, a physician and researcher at M. D. Anderson, Houston’s flagship cancer center; and Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, a longtime reproductive-rights activist who became the first woman partner at a well-known Houston law firm—and who, last November, was endorsed by the pro-choice political-advocacy group Emily’s List. All three of these candidates are much more locally rooted than Moser; Triantaphyllis and Fletcher have only really left the city for college and law school. (Both, like Moser, are St. John’s alums—as is the filmmaker Wes Anderson, who drew on his time there for the movie “Rushmore.”)
None of these candidates is likely to win a majority, and so the initial primary vote will surely be followed by a runoff election. But the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee doesn’t want Moser to make it to the runoff: on February 22nd, the D.C.C.C. took the unusual step of intervening in the primary, denouncing Moser, in a statement, as “a Washington insider, who begrudgingly moved to Houston to run for Congress. In fact,” the statement continued, “she wrote in the Washingtonian magazine, ‘I’d rather have my teeth pulled out without anesthesia’ than live in Texas.” Actually, in that piece, from 2014, Moser is specifically referring to Paris, Texas, a town of twenty-five thousand people near the Oklahoma border. The other charges—that Moser took a D.C.-based mortgage exemption on her 2017 taxes and that her campaign contracted her husband’s firm—also seem like pretexts: Moser has since corrected her paperwork, and it’s surely pragmatic, not corrupt, to enlist Revolution Messaging in the campaign. (The D.C.C.C. also redirects plenty of candidates to their own consultants, as The Intercept pointed out.) But even after some Democrats expressed shock at the condemnation, the D.C.C.C. kept at it, telling the Texas Tribune that “Laura Moser’s outright disgust for life in Texas disqualifies her as a general election candidate, and would rob voters of their opportunity to flip Texas’ 7th in November.”
What’s really happening is that the D.C.C.C. is using one strategic worry—that Texans won’t vote for a prodigal daughter—as a stand-in for the real concern: that Moser is too far left. Mark Jones, a political-science professor at Rice University who’s been covering the primary, told me, “Keep in mind, Clinton won the district by 1.4 per cent, but generic Republican judicial candidates won by twelve and sixteen per cent. This Democratic candidate is going to need to convince a large number of people who generally vote Republican, a large number of Greg Abbott voters.” Abbott, the state’s governor, won sixty per cent of the vote in 2014. “What the D.C.C.C. is saying is that there’s no way these people are going to vote for Laura Moser, who’s been calling for Trump’s impeachment.” You couldn’t fault the D.C.C.C. for that statement, Jones said. “They’re right on the money that Laura Moser is the most far left of all the candidates, and that she would be a real liability in C.D. 7.”
Others, of course, disagree. John Floyd, a Houston criminal-defense lawyer and Democratic precinct chair who endorsed Moser, told me, “Laura’s issues are bread-and-butter American issues—that we believe in the value of equality, that we need to keep our children safe.” Floyd said that the D.C.C.C.’s opposition to Moser has actually increased support for her among some Houston Democrats who had voted for other candidates: he’d met some of them at a Moser rally last Saturday, he said. “A lot of more progressive-minded voters here believe that the D-Trip should not be getting involved here—that the good-old-boy establishment that’s been running the show has led to where we are, with the President we’ve got,” he added. The Democratic establishment that exists in Houston has always tended toward pro-business centrism: their approach is distinct from that of new, proudly progressive groups like Our Revolution, the organization that was spun out of Bernie Sanders’s Presidential campaign and that recently endorsed Moser. (Floyd is a chair of the local Our Revolution committee.)
One side of this debate is being naïve, but it’s not immediately evident which side that is: maybe Houston has more progressive potential than it gets credit for, or maybe reaching moderate Republicans is truly the only way to win. (That was arguably Ossoff’s losing strategy in Georgia—though his opponent, Karen Handel, was probably stronger than Culberson is now.) It also remains to be seen whether the D.C.C.C.’s intervention will have its intended effect. Moser, who has recently been accompanied on the campaign trail by the actress and activist Alyssa Milano (a high-profile presence during Ossoff’s race as well), said that her campaign had raised eighty-six thousand seven hundred dollars in the three days following the D.C.C.C. statement. She told the Tribune that this reflected local aversion to “politics as usual,” and to the idea that national Democrats know what’s best for Houston.
Texas is changing—it’s been changing for decades, though that change has been masked by the stagnant predictability of politicians like Culberson. “When I first started practicing law in Harris County, in 1994, there was not a single Democrat elected on any of the benches,” Floyd told me. Then, in the last election, a blue sweep in Harris County hit every countywide office. Floyd mentioned that his son had run for a school-board seat in the conservative suburb Pearland on a platform that called for transgender bathroom equality—and won. There are many shades of Texan identity. Would the well-heeled voters in this district recoil at Moser’s distaste for small-town living, or would some of them secretly agree?
Early voting began on February 20th, and Democrats have been voting in record numbers. By Thursday, Democratic turnout in the fifteen largest counties in Texas was higher than Republican turnout; it was double the Democratic turnout from the midterm primaries in 2014. The Republican primary vote may also be telling, Jones told me. Culberson is running against a blip of an opponent, Edward Ziegler—a vote for him would most likely be a protest vote against Culberson, signifying a person who’s more likely to defect in November. In Houston, the permafrost of Bush-era orthodoxy is melting. “I’ve felt like a little blue dot in a sea of red,” a Houston resident named Ruthie Miller, who went to high school with both Moser and Fletcher, wrote to me over e-mail. “Since the 2016 election I’ve realized I’m not alone.”