In Texas, a Demo­cratic tem­plate for 2020

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - GE­ORGE F. WILL georgewill@wash­post.com

Nhous­ton ation­ally, 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 sev­en­can­di­date 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 per­cent­age­point 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.

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