Texas Showdown: Inside the Battle for the Democratic Party

Texas Showdown: Inside the Battle for the Democratic Party

Texas Showdown: Inside the Battle for the Democratic Party

Insurgent populists are facing off against establishment picks in a series of high-stakes runoffs.


San Antonio 

Rick Treviño is on a mission. We’re in the middle of Fiesta, the city’s annual commemoration of the battles of the Alamo (won by the Mexican Army) and San Jacinto (won by the Texas settlers). It’s a 10-day-long street party with music, parades, and its own rituals, one of which is the accumulation and display of Fiesta medals. These brightly colored enamel pins, often suspended from a piece of ribbon, range from advertisements to calaveras (sugar skulls) to cartoon characters. Treviño, a Democratic candidate in Texas’s 23rd Congressional District, came here to meet voters and sell some medals he’d made himself to raise money for his campaign. Based on the Lotería (a kind of Mexican bingo using cards with images instead of just numbers and letters), Treviño’s medals depict him standing in front of a chalkboard over the caption El Maestro (“The Teacher”).

The problem is that Treviño, who only quit his job as a high-school teacher in August, keeps running into former students. “My school, Sam Houston High School, was about 50/50 black and Hispanic,” he says. “The common denominator was poverty.” So after asking about their parents and congratulating those who have found jobs or are still in school (and commiserating with those who haven’t yet been able to find work), Treviño ends up giving away almost as many medals as he sells. For most candidates, this would still be a sensible goodwill gesture, but Treviño actually needs the money.

“Talk about a grassroots guy campaigning on a shoestring? He’s it!” says Chris Kutalik, coordinator for Our Revolution Texas, which endorsed Treviño in December, when almost no one else took his candidacy seriously. Back then, Treviño stood out from the Democratic field for his youth (he’s 33) and his Chapo Trap House rhetoric, describing Goldman Sachs as “evil,” ridiculing corporate Democrats, and tweeting “Neoliberalism fucking sucks.” 

“I’m not a liberal—I’m a lefty,” Treviño says when we first meet at Jim’s, a burger-and-breakfast joint. Phone calls or texts to his campaign get answered by the candidate himself. And while he has a campaign treasurer—Joleen Garcia, a local activist who frowns every time the candidate gives away another medal—Treviño for Congress runs out of the back of his car. “My headquarters is in the cloud,” he says. “Or whatever restaurant has good Wi-Fi.” 

Stretching west from San Antonio to the outskirts of El Paso and running south along the Mexican border, the 23rd Congressional District covers 58,000 square miles, making it bigger than the entire state of New York. It’s also one of the most flippable districts in the country, swinging from Republican to Democrat and back repeatedly over the last 12 years. The current incumbent, Will Hurd, a former CIA officer and one of three black Republicans in Congress, was reelected in 2016 by just 3,000 votes. 

Most reporting on the March 6 primary tended to depict it as a two-person race between Gina Ortiz Jones, who served in Air Force Intelligence during the Iraq War and would be the first openly LGBTQ representative from Texas, and Jay Hulings, a former federal prosecutor who was in the same Harvard Law School class as Julián and Joaquin Castro, the twin brothers who dominate local politics. Hulings, who was endorsed by House minority whip Steny Hoyer, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, the Blue Dog Democrats, and End Citizens United, raised and spent over $600,000. Jones, backed by Emily’s List as well as LGBTQ and veterans’ groups, raised more than $1 million, three-quarters of which came from PACs and wealthy donors, and spent about $700,000. 

As for Treviño, he raised a little more than $40,000, including about $3,200 from himself. “I took out all my savings and cashed in my retirement. I took the 20 percent hit,” he says. “Hopefully I don’t twist my ankle or get sick, because right now I don’t have health care.” 

Instead of the consultant-crafted mailings and TV ads deployed by his opponents, Treviño relied on shoe leather and gasoline, seeking out voters in places like the unincorporated colonias along the border, where some of the poorest people in North America live without basic services. “They’d tell me, ‘I vote every year, but nothing’s changed. We still don’t have paved roads.’ Most of them had never seen a candidate before. And none of them thought Medicare for All or the right to a living wage was a crazy idea.” 

When the ballots were counted, Hulings’s $92-a-vote campaign bought him a fourth-place finish with 6,600 votes. Jones led the field with 18,000, at a cost of about $39 per vote. And Treviño, who spent just $29,000, came in second, making it into the May 22 runoff with a little over 7,600, at a cost of just $3.80 per vote. “There are no established laws of political science by which this should have been possible,” noted a San Antonio Express News columnist.

Big wave coming—get off the beach,” said seven-term congressman Charlie Dent (R-PA), explaining his decision not to seek reelection this year. If Dent is right, then anybody on a board has a chance of catching a wild ride—perhaps explaining why some Democrats are putting so much time and effort into pushing other Democrats off the ballot. Maybe the real fear isn’t that voters in Texas and other supposedly red states aren’t ready for Medicare for All or a $15-an-hour minimum wage or tuition-free education at public universities—but that they are.

The same poll that put Democratic Congressman Beto O’Rourke in a dead heat in his bid to unseat Senator Ted Cruz also showed that Texans are a lot less conservative than the stereotype, favoring tougher gun laws, a process for DACA Dreamers to stay and apply for citizenship, and the legalization of marijuana possession—all by considerable margins. Yet somehow, you never hear corporate Democrats being told, “Kid, this ain’t your night” so that a more progressive candidate can avoid an expensive primary fight over “minor policy differences.” Pragmatism “is a moral imperative,” preaches Jonathan Alter in The Daily Beast—as if ignoring the urgent needs of the rural poor, or the criminalization of African-American men, or the terrible damage to our environment were some kind of higher wisdom.

Alter’s not alone. Lately, the airwaves and pixels have been full of centrist Democrats warning the rest of us to quit griping about health care or Wall Street corruption and take one for the team. That list includes the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), which, having decided that it can do a better job of picking “winners” than the party’s own electorate, keeps putting its thumb on the scales in contested primaries across the country. And Hoyer, who was recently caught on tape pushing a progressive challenger in a Colorado congressional race to drop out. And Emily’s List, which picked sides in a race between two equally pro-choice women here in Texas—while refusing to back another who was the only woman on the ballot in her district, and is now in a runoff against a former Republican. All this so-called pragmatism comes from the assumption that the parameters of practical politics are already fixed—and as narrow as the space separating Andrew Cuomo from Chuck Schumer.

But what if that’s just plain wrong? For example, Alter’s claim that only candidates whose policies are acceptable to big donors can raise enough money to compete against the “mountains of cash” coming from Republican billionaires isn’t actually true. Ever since Howard Dean out-fund-raised all his competitors—and all of his predecessors—Democrats have known they don’t need to rely on corporate money to win. As pollster Stan Greenberg recently warned the party, if Democrats just keep talking about Trump or Russia, let the Republicans get away with tax cuts for the rich, and ignore the fact that for most people, wages still haven’t caught up with the cost of living, that big blue wave might not happen at all. “Momentum has stalled,” Greenberg warned, encouraging the party to refocus on health care and the economy because “Democratic voters are genuinely struggling…They remain in pain.”

What if the election of Donald Trump represents not merely a rightward swing of the pendulum, requiring Democrats to do little more than wait for the inevitable counterstroke, but a wrecking ball to politics-as-usual? What if the shape of the electorate is changing, making the kind of left-populist coalition the Bernie Sanders campaign never quite managed to put together a real possibility? Insisting we can’t win—that young people or minorities won’t turn out to vote, that what divides us is more important than our shared knowledge that the system is rigged and our shared anger at those who rigged it—is an old stratagem. But it may not be a winning one any more.

Just ask Laura Moser. A fifth-generation Texan, Moser is part of the surge of women who reacted to Trump’s election by deciding to run for office themselves. A longtime journalist and the founder of Daily Action, a text-messaging service that sends its 300,000 subscribers one concrete call to action every day, Moser had a national profile—and Washington connections from her husband Arun Chaudhary’s years as official videographer in the Obama White House. Although Chaudhary’s consulting firm, Revolution Messaging, had done some work for Sanders in the 2016 primary, Moser herself had rung “hundreds of doorbells for Hillary” in Northern Virginia during the fall. She even cited Clinton as her inspiration for powering through a cold on the campaign trail in Texas’s Seventh Congressional District.

Then, just over a week before the March primary, the DCCC dumped a dossier of opposition research onto its website, attacking Moser as unelectable in a move that appeared designed to bolster one of her opponents, Lizzie Pannill Fletcher. As The Intercept‘s Ryan Grim reported, Fletcher was backed by Houston megadonor Sherry Merfish, a longtime Emily’s List supporter who’d also bundled more than $250,000 for Clinton. Though both candidates are vociferously pro-choice—Moser’s parents were active in Planned Parenthood, and her mother Jane organized the clinic defense during the 1992 Republican convention that Fletcher features in her own campaign literature—Emily’s List came in hard on Fletcher’s behalf. Despite the attacks, Moser made it through to the May 22 runoff.

I caught up with both candidates at a meet-and-greet for the local Muslim community at Tarboosh, a Mediterranean restaurant north of Katy, the West Houston suburb named for the Missouri-Kansas-Texas (MKT) railroad that runs through it. Fletcher, a lawyer, was poised and businesslike in her presentation. Moser seemed a little more tentative. But her account—to a roomful of immigrants—of her grandfather’s flight from Nazi Germany six weeks before Kristallnacht touched a nerve.

Knocking on doors in the neighborhood later that afternoon, Moser tells me about her grandparents. Frank Moser, who fled Berlin, was a lawyer. Her paternal grandmother, Elizabeth Lurie, served as the first female president of the Houston Jewish Community Center “during World War II, when the men were away.” Her own mother ran a children’s bookstore and taught speech at Houston Community College.

Moser can remember attending then–Texas Governor Ann Richards’s inaugural as an eighth grader and stuffing envelopes for Planned Parenthood. “I always canvassed. I love canvassing,” she says, despite the day’s wilting heat and the fact that, especially in Latino neighborhoods, “people don’t answer the door now” due to fear. During Hurricane Harvey, Moser organized a drive to get food and clothing to the unincorporated parts of Harris County. She credits her activism not to her political childhood, but to her experience as a freelance writer. “That teaches you that you have to turn it in. You have to pitch it. You have to show up.”

Though Moser enjoyed her time in DC—a photo of her 2-year-old daughter prostrate on the carpet during a White House seder went viral—she always intended to come home to Houston. “Washington is a really insular place, disconnected from people’s lives,” Moser says. “The DCCC attacks demonstrate that: ‘We disagree with you. Or we don’t think you’ll win. Therefore we’re going to destroy your character and life.’ It’s why I’m committed to living here. Also, my mom went to the grocery store for me yesterday.”

Ironically, getting monstered by the DCCC precipitated a spike in Moser’s fund-raising; in less than a week, she raised more than $86,000. Besides falsely implying that she’d put her husband on the campaign payroll, the DCCC dug up a snarky Washingtonian piece in which Moser had written that she’d rather have her “teeth pulled out without anesthesia” than live in rural Paris, Texas. The DCCC press release left that last part out, making it sound like Moser was dissing her entire home state. The oppo researchers had even tracked down some insensitive comments she’d made as a 22-year-old freelancer after attending a gospel service in London. So Moser’s endorsement by the group Houston Black American Democrats in late April meant a lot to her.

The DCCC “tried to paint her as some kind of racist [and] totally misrepresented who she is as a person,” says Ginny Stogner McDavid, president of the Harris County AFL-CIO, which opposes Fletcher, citing her firm’s work on an $8 million lawsuit against the Justice for Janitors campaign. “Lawyers are the new Pinkertons,” McDavid continues. “Half a century ago, corporations hired Pinkerton operatives to break strikes. Now they just use lawyers—Pinkertons with cuff links.” 

Having Emily’s List against Moser hurt her, too. Not just because she’s a feminist who describes her support for Medicare for All as “a feminist issue,” but because the group’s imprimatur matters here. Norri Leder, a former Texas chapter leader of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, told me, “The Emily’s List endorsement made me sit up and take notice. I don’t think they would endorse someone unless they thought she could win.” Incensed by Republican incumbent John Culberson’s vote to repeal the Obama administration’s rule preventing people with severe mental illnesses from buying guns, she’s volunteering for Fletcher.

In a district that Clinton carried in 2016, it’s hardly surprising that the Democratic primary would be competitive. But the nastiness of the race signals there’s more going on here than personal rivalry, though that may also be a factor. When I ask Fletcher if it’s true that her father and Moser’s were once law partners, she says they were, adding: “Laura was a couple of years behind me in high school.” (Wes Anderson fans will recognize their alma mater, St. John’s, as the setting for Rushmore.)

Both candidates are formidable women with extensive connections to Houston’s Democratic establishment. Fletcher’s campaign manager, Erin Mincberg, is the daughter of David Mincberg, former chair of the Harris County Democratic Party. Both are endorsed by Moms Demand Action and by CWA Local 6222. Moser is also endorsed by National Nurses United, the Harris County AFL-CIO, the Seafarers, the Teamsters, and the United Food and Commercial Workers union. Either would be an enormous improvement over Culberson, a Tea Party drone with a A-plus rating from the NRA who co-sponsored a “birther” bill in 2009 and opposes abortion, marriage equality, and the “liberal obsession with climate change.” Yet the turnout in the Republican primary, where Culberson faced token opposition, was 5,000 votes higher than in the seven-person Democratic slugfest.

One response to that cautionary note is that, to flip this district, Democrats need to give Republicans—people who voted for Greg Abbott for governor—somebody they don’t feel uncomfortable voting for. In other words, a rerun of the Jon Ossoff campaign in Georgia, with no need to change the “Panera Bread strategy” of ignoring economic inequality and the party’s own dependence on corporate donors. “Democrats are winning Harris County,” Fletcher told me. “We don’t need a new approach.”

Moser disagrees. “We have tried something over and over in Texas politics which is to run to the middle and to the right, and it’s not working,” she told the Houston Chronicle. “So why not stand firm for the values that we share?” Fletcher says she’s for defending DACA; Moser says she would have voted to shut down the government to force a deal. Fletcher’s website calls for “maintaining and improving the Affordable Care Act”; Moser is for Medicare for All—the surest dividing line between Democrats who just talk the talk and those who walk the walk. 

But it isn’t only Moser’s messaging—which stresses the need to get big money out of politics, federal aid to rebuild Houston’s flood defenses, as well as health care and immigration reform—that sets her apart. Fletcher’s running a campaign; Moser is building a movement. 

“We started [the runoff] with 1,300 volunteers and created a grassroots structure around that,” says Josh Levin, the campaign’s field director. Relying on volunteers to “grow their own” teams for phone-banking and block-walking means that, win or lose, Moser is expanding the progressive base of the party. “We are planning to flip this district whether or not we make it through the runoff,” says campaign manager Linh Nguyen. “We regularly meet with the Democratic precinct chairs, helping them with digital organizing and advising on when to start GOTV [get out the vote] efforts.” It’s an approach that has already convinced one prominent Ossoff supporter, actor/activist Alyssa Milano. She’s backing Moser this time.

Thanks to years of GOP gerrymandering, 
any Democrat now faces an uphill fight in Texas. (Last December, the New York Review of Books blog ran one of the best analyses I’ve seen of the classic racist techniques of “packing and cracking” voting blocs. The writer? Laura Moser.) But that fact, and the results of this year’s elections, shouldn’t obscure what’s at stake—in Texas and across the country. Despite what you may have read, this isn’t a fight “for the soul of the Democratic Party”—an entity whose very existence, like other supernatural phenomena, is a matter of faith, not evidence.

What’s at stake here is power: Who has it, who gets it, and how they use it. Those who believe that “America is already great”—perhaps because they themselves have done so well—will never deliver more than gradual change. But as Jim Hightower, the veteran Texas populist, put it to me when I stopped by to see him in Austin: “People aren’t interested in incremental change. People are being fucked.”

Travelling the state in his role as a board member of Our Revolution, Hightower got a close look at what he calls “the culmination of a two-party duopoly doing nothing for regular people.” Reminding me that the 19th-century Populist revolt first caught fire just a few hours north, in Cleburne, Hightower says his group has endorsed 29 candidates in Texas—of whom “17 won or made the runoffs.” Yet he worries that some of the current crop “are running for the wrong races. Running too high on the ballot.” After half a century in the fight, Hightower knows that our side needs some wins.

One of the most improbable could be gathering force just on the other side of town. When Mary Wilson first entered the campaign to unseat Lamar Smith, the climate-change denier who represents the 21st Congressional District, nobody paid her much attention. Though Smith, with ample backing from ExxonMobil and the Koch brothers, had done enormous damage as chair of the House Science Committee, he had also been repeatedly reelected by 20-point margins since first winning the seat in 1986. (Smith’s 2006 Democratic challenger, John Courage, was backed by Our Revolution in his successful race last year for a seat on the San Antonio City Council.)

Yet when Smith announced last November that he wouldn’t be running for reelection, the open seat drew a crowded field, including Derrick Crowe, an environmental activist and former Nancy Pelosi staffer backed by Our Revolution and (Nation) writer and environmentalist Bill McKibben. Already in the race was Joseph Kopser, a former Republican and West Point graduate backed (surprise!) by 
Steny Hoyer and other “national Democrats.” The DCCC promptly added the seat to its target list. 

Here again, the primary coverage focused on Kopser and Crowe. Wilson, when she was mentioned at all, was described merely as the “fourth Austin Democrat in the race” or, more expansively, a “gay math teacher turned pastor.” (Although it’s been largely ignored, Texas has also seen a lavender wave this year, with more than 50 openly LGBTQ candidates running for office statewide.) Kopser, who spent over $800,000 in the primary, came in second with 14,787 votes, beaten by Wilson, who spent less than $50,000 for 15,736 votes—or about $3 each compared to Kopser’s $54.

“Being first is not always easy,” Wilson told me when we sat down over pancakes in Austin. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told I’m going to hell.” Though her campaign office looks like a converted garage, Wilson seemed determined to prove “that caring for one another is really a viable political position.” Despite her political commitments, she still spends Sundays at the Church of the Savior, the pulpit she took up while teaching mathematics for 20 years.

“I come at this whole campaign from the perspective of people impacted by policies that favor the wealthy,” she continued. “My father worked at McDonnell Douglas, helping to build the Mercury capsules. He was a ‘drop-hammer guy’—a union machinist. At 91, he has a pension and health care. Everyone who works hard deserves that.”

Last spring, Wilson spent days at the Texas Legislature protesting, testifying, and lobbying. “I testified against the bathroom bill. Got there at 7 am; testified at 9 pm. Afterwards, I said to myself, ‘I want one of those votes.’ This felt like the next step.”

“How do you make the House of Representatives reflect the country?” she asks. “Joseph’s not a bad guy. It’s just that we have a ton of guys like him already. I’ve been in courtrooms, jails, detention centers. How many people do we have in the House who’ve lived paycheck to paycheck? Or who have listened, as I have, to a 69-year-old woman say, ‘I got sick, lost my job, and now they’re going to evict me.’ If he wins the primary, there are progressives that will stay home.”

Wilson credits her victory partly to her message and partly to “being the only woman in the race in the Year of the Woman…. I can bring together the entire party, from Our Revolution to Hillary voters. The women who dominate the crossover vote will look at me and see the mom and grandma, and see someone who does the same things they do.” Although a spokesperson from Emily’s List told The Nation that “we hope to see Mary Wilson in the general election,” the group has yet to endorse her in the runoff against Kopser.

Watching Rick Treviño work the line at the Community Day barbecue at Chinati, the modern-art museum in Marfa founded by artist Donald Judd, I keep remembering something that Hightower said: In rural Texas, “it’s not enough to be for the farmer. You’ve gotta be against these bastards who are trying to run over the farmer!” Some of the latter are here, including a woman who tells Treviño she doesn’t think she should have to pay for other people’s health care. He thanks her anyway and then goes over to chat with the security guards and catering workers. 

On the 400-mile drive here, I learned a lot about what Treviño is against: the bigotry that greeted his mother when she emigrated from Mexico. The insurance and pharmaceutical companies that profiteer off of his sister’s fibromyalgia. The assumption that his students’ lives are worth less because they are poor. And the Big Ag companies who treat the farmers in his district like peons.

Both his parents became nurses, and Treviño describes his childhood in Laredo as idyllic. “We were back and forth across the border all the time—in Nuevo Laredo, beers were $1 apiece.” The family home in San Antonio is comfortable, on a well-maintained suburban street. Treviño, who says he’s “always had access to passing-for-white privilege,” started a farmers’ market with his students as a school project. He was propelled into politics only after two of his kids were killed. “Kiana James—she was a cool kid.” He fights off a tear. “And Tru Sincere Trusty. It made me angry. I knew I could do more.

“I ended up precinct chair, then secretary of the Bexar County Democratic Party.” Treviño has always been a voracious reader—on the drive, he talked about Mark Twain, Toni Morrison, Thomas Pynchon, Ulysses S. Grant’s memoirs, the famous 1971 debate between Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault, and Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton. One day in 2013, Treviño happened across a video of Bernie Sanders railing against “chained CPI”—the Obama administration’s move to change the way that Social Security benefits are calculated. It’s a wonky topic, but as I was learning, inside Treviño’s football-player chest beats the heart of a wonk.

“It gives the administration plausible deniability, but it’s still a cut,” he explains. “The government gives you less money in the future.” After that, he adds, “I never looked at the Democratic Party the same way. I felt hoodwinked. For me, being a Democrat was part of my identity.” Treviño remains a Democrat: “It’s the only game in town.” But he organized almost all of Bexar County’s precinct chairs against the Trans-Pacific Partnership. In 2016, he was a Sanders delegate in Philadelphia. The next year, he ran for San Antonio City Council—missing the runoff by 28 votes.

It’s that margin that keeps him going now—that and the sense that being the only Latino running in a district that’s 70 percent Hispanic may go some way to counter his lack of funding. Like Mary Wilson and Laura Moser, Treviño is confident of his chances in November. First, though, he has to make it through the runoff.

If he does, he’ll face Will Hurd, who won the GOP primary by 60 points, his profile buffed by a Texas-to-DC road trip last March with Congressman Beto O’Rourke. Two weeks after their #CongressionalCannonballRun blew up Twitter, O’Rourke declared his candidacy for the Senate.

Despite my best efforts, I never came within 200 miles of O’Rourke during my Texas journey. But when I spoke with him by phone, I could see what the campaign worker in Houston who described him to me as “progressive lite” was getting at. (He meant it as a compliment.)

“The response everywhere is encouraging,” O’Rourke said, describing the crowd in McKinney, “a very, very red area. People are very excited. It transcends party lines and other divisions.” So far, so bland. But then he said: “People want to save the country. I think everyone gets that this is on the line. Everything that you care about could be decided this year.

“I was just in Tulia, Texas, in the Panhandle,” he continued. “The issue was health care. Being able to see a doctor, fill a prescription, be well are just so fundamental. Talking to these farmers, who are trying to make ends meet on the most narrow of margins. If we lose this, and deport a million Dreamers—and build a 2,000-mile wall…”

With his toothy grin, floppy thatch of hair, and Irish charm, O’Rourke has inevitably drawn comparisons with the Kennedys. But there’s something else that reminds me of Bobby: his uncanny ability to have it both ways—Mayor Daley and Cesar Chavez. Not only has O’Rourke, a Clinton superdelegate in 2016, now come out for Medicare for All, he’s being guided by a cadre of Sanders organizers. He’s for the farmers—and against big money in politics. Yet he still talks about bipartisanship as an ideal, not as a sordid alibi for corporate power.

If Texans are really lucky in November, they might get to have it all, too: Beto’s long-shot crusade to paint the state purple, and the radical energy of Democratic representatives in Congress who know exactly what they’re up against. A few weeks ago, a headline in The Dallas Morning News advised that if you’re betting on Beto O’Rourke, “Make sure you get odds.” That’s probably still good advice—and even more so for Moser, Wilson, and Treviño.

But that doesn’t mean the other side is a safe bet. Heading back from Marfa, we get pulled over by the police outside of Alpine. “Oh, shit—here we go,” says Treviño, who is trying to get back in time to see his girlfriend. He carefully lowers the passenger-side window and retrieves his license, keeping his hands in sight. The officer, whose name tag reads “Garcia,” walks over, looks across at the driver, tells us we’d been going five miles over the speed limit, then breaks into a grin. “You’re Rick Treviño. You’re that guy running for Congress,” he says. And with that, he sends us on our way.

Note: This story has been edited after publication to reflect the fact that Laura Moser campaigned for Hillary Clinton in Northern Virginia, not Houston.

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