Editor's note: This story has been updated.
WASHINGTON – Something strange is happening in Texas: Ambitious Democrats are coming out of the woodwork to run for Congress in places few in the party paid attention to even just a year ago.
Take the 7th Congressional District currently represented by Houston Republican John Culberson. Four Democrats had already filed for the seat before Wednesday morning, when two more jumped in.
“I’m running for Congress because I think we need to hold the president accountable,” said Alex Triantaphyllis, the director of Immigration and Economic Opportunity at Neighborhood Centers Inc., a Houston nonprofit. He said his young daughter was a motivating force for his run.
“I want her to know that we got results in our efforts, that we didn’t just have good intentions,” he added.
Jason Westin, a cancer researcher, was thinking along similar lines Wednesday morning.
“The politics of late is prompting me to say this is enough, and we need to get new people who aren’t the typical politicians ... and get off the sidelines and do something,” Westin said, after his own announcement.
In past cycles, national Democratic groups had a heavy hand in candidate recruitment and telegraphed favored candidates to donors and reporters. This time around, thanks to a burst of anti-Trump enthusiasm and wounds from the 2016 presidential primary fight, party brokers are letting the primary process run its course without playing favorites in many districts around the country — including in Dallas and Houston.
The result is a crush of candidates lining up to run for office, including three who announced their campaigns on Wednesday.
Triantaphyliss and Westin joined a crowded field vying to run against Culberson that already included Joshua Butler, James Cargas, Debra Kerner and Laura Moser.
Up north in Dallas, former Hillary Clinton staffer Ed Meier also announced he would join former NFL player Colin Allred in running for the Democratic nomination to take on U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions. Several others – including Awbrey Tyler Hughlett, Stephen Leroy Love, Ronald William Marshall, Danielle Pellett and Darrell Allen Rodriguez – have also filed to run for the seat.
Party officials anticipate even more candidates to run in both districts.
“It is extremely unique – we don’t usually have this volume of conversations by April of the off-year,” said Jeff Rotkoff, of candidate outreach to his organization, the Texas AFL-CIO. “We have more interest in people running for Congress than I’ve ever experienced in my career.”
As for these two seats, the Dallas-based 32nd District and the Houston-based 7th District, Republicans scoff at the notion that either is competitive.
"John Culberson and Pete Sessions have strongly defined independent brands fitting their respective districts, which is why they’ve proven they can win in every political environment,” said Jack Pandol, a National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman.
“While Democrats pat themselves on the back, their candidates will be left to navigate bloody primaries attempting to thread the needle between an increasingly vocal far-left base and mainstream Texas voters.”
In the recent past, national Democrats were often overt in playing favorites in House primaries.
But now, power brokers in Washington are reluctant to weigh in for two reasons: The sheer number of recruits is overwhelming, and there is little appetite to anger the grassroots.
Democrats in Washington are flat unsure if they can win these seats – but they want to have candidates in place because Hillary Clinton carried these two districts last fall, even as Trump won the state by 9 points.
Culberson and Sessions have survived challenges with ease in the past. But some Democrats on Capitol Hill are growing more optimistic about their chances of retaking the U.S. House in 2018 and see Texas as a place to expand the map.
Whoever wins those primaries could become what is referred to in Washington as “surfers," meaning candidates who take advantage of a 2018 wave to ride into office.
And national Democrats could claim a moral victory, even if none of these candidates ever makes it to Congress. Both Sessions and Culberson are major contributors to the national effort to win U.S. House seats – they channel hundreds of thousands of dollars from their campaigns to help other House candidates around the country.
If a Democratic challenge spooks either of them into buying general election television ads in their districts, that's money not being sent to GOP incumbents in places like California or Pennsylvania.
But for now, even optimistic Democrats consider these seats on the competitive fringes, while the focus centers on incumbents like U.S. Rep. Will Hurd of Helotes, who represents a district that regularly flips between parties.
That seat's Democratic field is is less clear, thanks to ongoing litigation over the district’s lines and contenders who have yet to make decisions.
But state GOP spokesman Mike Joyce pointed to that seat as a the proof Democrats’ optimism is flawed.
“If you are betting on the fact that in 2016 Hillary Clinton outperformed Donald Trump, that somehow that’s going to trickle down to a congressional race, I would point to [Congressional District] 23, where that happened as well,” he said, noting that Hurd outperformed Trump’s margins there.
And yet, Democratic candidates flocking to already-crowded primaries seem to not care about such arguments.
Competitive primaries can be mixed blessings.
Most of these contenders have never run for office before. A competitive primary gives the winning candidate a chance to learn and improve before the general election klieg lights turn their way. The most famous example of this is then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama’s epic presidential primary against then-U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton in 2008. A primary campaign can also energize the base and get a campaign off the ground early.
But not every primary ends like the Obama/Clinton fight. Many saw Clinton's primary last year against U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont Independent, as damaging to her general election campaign.
Still, national Democrats note the the Texas primary is one of the earliest on the calendar – in early March. Campaigning for a nomination rarely kicks up in full force until after the holidays, allowing for only about two months of intense fighting unless there is a runoff.
The biggest drawback of primaries at the congressional level, however, is financial. A competitive primary campaign – particularly in expensive media markets like Houston and Dallas – has the potential to deplete funds a candidate could put toward the fall campaign.
No matter, says Rotkoff, the veteran of Texas Democratic politics. He argued that a “respectful” primary process to serve in Congress ought not to be a cake walk.
“The voters are served when candidates have to work really hard for this amazing job,” he said. “It’s such a unique and special thing that it ought to be hard to get.”
Read related Tribune coverage:
- Trump's first 100 days in office exhausted - and enthralled - Texans on Capitol Hill.
- While in Austin, U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi named Texas GOP Congressional targets.
- Candidates are eyeing challenges to Texas Congressional incumbents around the state.
- Texas Democratic leaders met secretly earlier this year to plot their 2018 midterm strategy.