House Democrats face dozens and dozens of key primaries in 2018. Will the eventual nominees be able to get away with vague promises to oppose President Trump, or will Democratic primary voters demand more? Gero Breloer AP
House Democrats face dozens and dozens of key primaries in 2018. Will the eventual nominees be able to get away with vague promises to oppose President Trump, or will Democratic primary voters demand more? Gero Breloer AP

Politics & Government

Dems wonder: Is opposing Trump enough to win primaries?

By Alex Roarty

aroarty@mcclatchydc.com

January 03, 2018 04:00 AM

HOUSTON

Democrat Elizabeth Pannill Fletcher says Donald Trump has a “basic disrespect” for his fellow man. She calls his Twitter-based diplomacy “irresponsible with all of our lives.” And she states flatly that he isn’t qualified to be president.

But when it comes to Democratic Party policy positions, this House candidate — and one of the top fundraisers of 2017 — is far more circumspect. Single-payer health care? Not yet practical, she says. Impeachment? Due process comes first. Progressive? No, this lawyer from battleground Houston rejects the label.

“I’m not really good at labels,” Pannill Fletcher said during an interview inside her campaign headquarters. “This district has historically been Republican, but I think it’s a centrist district, and I think that is what we’re seeing in the rejection of Donald Trump.”

One of the most significant questions facing Democratic candidates in House races this year is whether running against Donald Trump — something nearly every House Democratic candidate will promise to do — will be enough to secure victory. Can congressional hopefuls win over primary voters on criticism of Trump alone, as the party’s moderates suggest, or are the increasingly influential progressives right when they say Democratic voters demand something more?

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The answer will shape general election matchups against Republicans in the fall and could complicate what many Democrats expect will be a wave election year.

After a devastating 2016, Democrats are looking to reclaim both the House and the Senate in 2018 but there are a few obstacles in their way.

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“Opposition to Trump, that’s table stakes,” said Mark Longabaugh, a senior adviser to Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign. “From there, in many of these primaries and especially in Democratic-leaning seats especially, you’re going to have to have a bolder progressive agenda to put on the table, or it’s not just going to be enough. You’re going to get outflanked.”

Pannill Fletcher is one of seven candidates running in a crowded Democratic primary for this Houston-area seat, held by vulnerable Republican Rep. John Culberson. Democrats, who have received a surge in new candidates since Trump took office, face a multitude of similar multi-candidate brawls in House races this year, in key districts ranging from upstate New York to Orange County, Calif.

Democratic strategists fret that in such crowded primaries, the competition for votes will drive candidates further and further to the left as they try to stand out from the pack. Those concerns are most acute on issues such as single-payer health care and impeachment, issues where public support is relatively soft, but also extend to liberal priorities such as free college tuition and so-called “sanctuary cities” for undocumented immigrants.

With so many contenders, even a relatively small share of the vote could deliver a victory — or at least push the candidate into a two-person runoff. (In Texas, the top two candidates in a primary advance to a run-off if neither receives more than 50 percent of the total vote.)

At least one of Pannill Fletcher’s rivals has already begun staking out more liberal ground.

“What do they mean by moderate?” asked Laura Moser, a former journalist turned liberal activist after Trump’s election. “Do they mean they don’t want to kick 13 million people off their health care, they just want to kick 6 million people off?”

Moser, who founded a national activist group that urged members through a text-message service to take action against the Trump administration every day, said she’d support legislation to convert the nation’s health care into a single-payer system, though she doubted such legislation has a realistic chance of passage. More broadly, she took issue with Democratic candidates who hesitate to embrace a progressive identity and agenda, arguing that they’re necessary to oppose Trump and congressional Republicans.

Democrats need to be about more than opposing Trump, Moser said.

“Being not evil is not enough,” she said. “We have to fight for the good.”

Texas’ primaries are on March 6, the earliest in the country. Pannill Fletcher has raised the second largest sum among Democrats through September, trailing only Alex Triantaphyllis. Both candidates are considered favorites to advance to a May run-off.

In an interview, Triantaphyllis also expressed some reservations with parts of the liberal agenda, including single-payer health care.

“Well before I even thought about running for office at all, I described myself as a practical progressive,” Triantaphyllis said. “Strong and proud in my progressive values, but at the same time, using evidence and applying data to my decisions.”

For all the talk of a rising liberal movement within the Democratic Party, even some progressive strategists expressed reservations that their brand of candidate will have widespread success this year. Many House races are relatively low profile, lacking in local media coverage and with smaller pool of money available for TV ads and other media.

Those who win often do so because they raised the most money.

“The ideological divide, if it was purely about that, I clearly think the candidates with the boldest progressive agendas would be the ones emerging from these primaries,” Longabaugh said. “But … some of these progressives are not going to put the money together.”

Through September, Triantaphyllis raised $668,000 while Pannill Fletcher had rasied $550,000. Moser had $400,000.

Not every House primary might be primed for an ideologically liberal candidate, either. During his 2016 presidential primary fight against Hillary Clinton, liberal presidential candidate Bernie Sanders won only 25 percent of the vote in Harris County — which includes the 7th District.

Pannill Fletcher is also far from a conservative Democrat: She argued climate-change is a pressing concern for the city, resolutely opposes the GOP’s tax bill, and touts the benefits of immigration. She’s also a longtime supporter of abortion-rights, saying that one her formative political experiences was standing outside a Houston Planned Parenthood clinic during the 1992 Republican National Convention to protect it from protestors. (Pannill Fletcher has been endorsed by EMILY’s List, which supports Democratic women who favor abortion rights.)

“This district especially is looking for alternatives to the Trump administration and the tea party, and I think they want people who are going to stand up and fight for our values,” she said. “That’s what the Democratic electorate right now cares about the most.”

Alex Roarty: 202-383-6173, @Alex_Roarty