In the early spring of last year, Houston attorney Lizzie Pannill Fletcher attended a town hall hosted by her congressman, Republican John Culberson.
As he responded to constituents' questions about his views on health care, gun regulation, immigration and net neutrality, Fletcher didn’t like what she heard.
“I shook his hand, and had a pleasant and brief exchange,” she said.
And then she decided to run against him.
On Tuesday, Fletcher secured her party’s nomination to take on the Houston Republican. The Democratic primary, which erupted into a nationalized flare-up involving the House Democratic campaign arm and her runoff rival, Laura Moser, is now behind her, and it is finally game on with Culberson in the fall.
Despite their political differences, the two candidates have much in common. Both grew up in the district. Culberson attended Lamar High School and Fletcher graduated from nearby St. John’s School. Both left the district for their undergraduate degrees — he attended Southern Methodist University and she went to Kenyon College in Ohio.
They are also both lawyers — he returned to Houston to attend South Texas College of Law, and she matriculated from William & Mary in Virginia.
At 43, she has spent most of her adult life practicing law in Houston.
Culberson, 61, served in the Texas Legislature from 1987 until he was elected to Congress in 2000.
The incumbent is a quirky presence around Capitol Hill. He’s known for his passions: Thomas Jefferson, collecting historical artifacts and space policy.
Save for the 2008 Democratic wave, Culberson has generally coasted to re-election year in, year out.
But the 2016 election scrambled things. While Culberson won re-election against an underfunded Democratic opponent by 12 points, Hillary Clinton narrowly carried the district.
Early last year, national Democrats announced they would target the seat. Culberson’s operation was rusty and frightened Republicans in Washington. Since then, he’s hired as his lead consultant Cam Savage, who was behind now-U.S. Rep. John Ratcliffe’s successful upstart challenge to U.S. Rep. Ralph Hall in northeast Texas in 2014.
Culberson's fundraising has since improved — he raised $385,000 last quarter and sits on $921,000 for the fall. More than one Republican operative described him as “righting the ship,” and many now suggest that while he will have to work for re-election, this race is coming off their worry list.
Culberson has an interesting theory on why he fared so much better than Donald Trump in his district two years ago. He pointed to the district's most famous voters — former President George H.W. Bush and First Lady Barbara Bush — and suggested their lack of support for Trump may have depressed the Republican vote but mostly at the presidential level. That dynamic is not an applicable scenario to his re-election bid this year, Culberson said.
“This is a Republican seat, it always has been and will continue to be,” he said.
National Democrats, on the other hand, are ebullient with how the primary turned out, if not at the path it took to get there.
Ahead of the March primary, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, concerned that Moser was too liberal for the district and had other liabilities, published opposition research against her online. Moser placed second behind Fletcher out of seven candidates in the March primary but lost badly to Fletcher in a runoff Tuesday night.
Fletcher was the nominee a number of Capitol Hill insiders wanted from the get-go, and she showed herself to be a proven fundraiser during the primary, though she will have to rebuild her war chest for the general.
But while Moser ran a spirited campaign against Fletcher, she conceded the race quickly and graciously and pledged to back Fletcher's bid.
Fletcher said that a key principle of her primary campaign strategy was "making sure we didn’t have a situation where we couldn’t move forward."
Texas is a heavily gerrymandered state, but so are many districts in other states. With Clinton's one-point margin of victory in Texas' 7th Congressional District in 2016, the Fletcher-Culberson matchup amounts to low-hanging fruit for Democrats looking for potential pickups on the national map.
Upon Fletcher’s victory, Culberson released a statement emphasizing the importance of his seat on the U.S. House Appropriations Committee.
While the mention of such an assignment might make the average Houstonian’s eyes glaze over, it could be the crux of the general election fight. Culberson argues that Houston cannot afford to lose his seat on the committee that is integral to deciding how the government will spend its money, particularly in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.
Culberson added that as important as the position on the committee is, so are his relationships and political foresight. He was the lone Texas Republican to back the northeastern states in their efforts to secure disaster relief funds following superstorm Sandy in 2013.
“I did it because I knew we would be in the same boat someday,” he said.
And as the rain fell in Houston last year, members from New York and New Jersey hurled criticism at the Texas Republicans who were pleading for federal aid.
But, Culberson said, U.S. House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen, a retiring New Jersey member, recalled Culberson’s earlier support.
“Rodney remembered and approached me right away: You were there for me, and I’m going to be there for Texas.”
Culberson is also quick to tout his other achievements in Congress – his efforts to expand the Katy Freeway and to bring NASA “back to its glory days of Apollo.”
Should she win, Fletcher aims to someday join the Appropriations Committee herself — but it is an earned privilege. Under House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Democrats typically have to wait one — if not two — terms before earning an assignment on appropriations.
Fletcher charges back that more should have been done to improve flooding infrastructure in the years leading up to the disaster.
“She’s just not familiar with the process and the work I’ve done,” Culberson countered, adding that he has always delivered on the requests coming out of Harris County.
As for Fletcher, it’s clear Republicans are readying their shots at her. And the most likely one is that she did not support the massive tax cuts the GOP passed through Congress last year along partisan lines.
Culberson gently tweaked her in a statement Tuesday night after she secured her victory, stating that "too much is at stake for Houston to experiment with the far-left ideas of my opponent."
For Fletcher, the attack feels like par for the course this election season.
“From where I sit, some people complained in the primary that I was too conservative ... and now I’m too liberal, which means I’m probably the perfect fit for the district,” she responded.
The world has changed since John Culberson last ran a robust Congressional campaign. Back in 2008, "social media" was a foreign term and super PACs were still two years away from coming to pass.
At the same time, Fletcher has never run for public office before. If this race becomes competitive in the fall, she will have Culberson and Republican outside groups spending millions of dollars against her.
Is this political novice ready for the coming rumble in River Oaks?
“Yeah, I am,” Fletcher said.
“I’m a fighter, and I’ve been fighting for my clients for years, fighting for institutions I believe in and somebody’s got to take this fight to John Culberson and all the way up to Donald Trump."
Disclosure: Southern Methodist University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
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