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HOUSTON — Whether the geography was intentional or not, U.S. Rep. John Culberson marvels at the view from his west Houston campaign office. From the strip mall office where he is waging the fight of his political life, he can gaze at his legislative baby: the Katy Freeway, otherwise known as a busy commuter strip of Interstate 10.
“One of my greatest pride and joys [is that] I get to look at every single day there, the Katy Freeway,” he boasts, pointing to the massive road several hundred yards to the north of his campaign office. “If the district had not elected me, that freeway would not look the way it does. It would not have been done.”
That freeway forms the transportation artery that residents of the district’s most noteworthy neighborhoods and suburbs — Katy, Memorial, Jersey Village, Bellaire and River Oaks — use to commute and shop, and Culberson is betting his political future that voters in Texas' 7th Congressional District will grasp the value of his prized committee assignment that allowed him to bring such projects home.
In previous elections, Culberson didn't have to make those kinds of bets — the 7th District has been solidly Republican for the past 50 years, dating back to the first term of future President George H.W. Bush.
But two events upset the equilibrium here. First was Election Day 2016, when Hillary Clinton narrowly outperformed President Donald Trump in this district. And 10 months later, Hurricane Harvey hit the area, inundating some of the neighborhoods in the 7th District, most notably Meyerland, with heavy flooding.
Now, Democratic attorney Lizzie Fletcher is riding a wave of anti-Trump sentiment to give Culberson his toughest challenge yet. With the GOP majority in the House hanging in the balance, the race has garnered national attention — and money.
“A very different election cycle”
First elected to Congress in 2000, Culberson has long been a friendly presence on Capitol Hill.
House Democrats desperately want to win this seat, but the targeting is less personal than with other Republican incumbents. Culberson has been a rare Texas Republican whom Democratic members will privately concede they can work with. Regardless of the sentiment, the party is all in against him, and this is Culberson’s toughest race ever.
“I’ve been at this well over 18 months ... I’ve been working at this,” he said. “I started way early because I recognized this was going to be a very different election cycle. I recognized that it needed a lot of extra work.”
Fletcher is a native of River Oaks, one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Texas, and she is a newcomer to politics.
She and national Democrats stake her campaign on the public backlash to Republican efforts to repeal former President Obama’s signature 2010 health law, the Affordable Care Act.
“I think the issues that people have been talking to me about since I got into the campaign ... Health care is number one, head and shoulders above everything else, more than Harvey,” she said in an interview in her office not far from her home neighborhood.
“Harvey affected a lot of people, and it affected our community and devastated parts of our community,” she said. "Health care affects everybody.”
Fletcher backs Obama's health care law, including its protections of those with pre-existing conditions, which has become a contentious issue in races across the state and country. She also goes a step further in calling for Medicare to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies, and she supports the public option, which is a means to buy into a federal insurance program that would compete with the private market.
Culberson has repeatedly voted to repeal Obama's 2010 health care law and supports allowing insurers to sell policies across state lines, but he also was part of a trend of GOP lawmakers who more recently supported legislation that would back pre-existing condition coverage.
Fletcher shot back at a recent debate that the GOP legislation for pre-existing conditions could price out customers.
"So if your insurance can charge you 20 times more for insurance that you can’t afford, it’s not really available to you," she said. "If your monthly insurance premium is $15,000-20,000, then it's not really available to you."
Culberson dismissed Fletcher's characterization of voters’ priorities.
“The flooding issue is number one, two and three out here,” he countered. “She’s relying on national polling. I'm relying on what we’re seeing here on the ground.”
As a member of the powerful Appropriations Committee, Culberson was at a the center of efforts to bring billions in aide back to southeast Texas over the last year.
Culberson says his position on the committee, which allocates federal spending, puts him "in the right place and the right time" for Houston voters and told The Texas Tribune that voters not sending him back to Washington would be a legislative catastrophe.
He argues that because of a rule that limits GOP House members from chairing committees for more than six years, he's well positioned to one day take the Appropriations gavel.
“Under a Democrat speaker, [the chairman] would have to die or be defeated in order for a vacancy to open ... so if my opponent were able to fool people into voting to elect her, not only is the Appropriations seat gone but the chairmanship is gone, probably forever."
But Fletcher counters that Culberson should have already used his committee position to heed warning signs from Tropical Storm Allison in 2001 and help revamp Houston's infrastructure ahead of the next storm.
“There’s a frustration in the failure to invest in flooding infrastructure as well as transit infrastructure that would be forward-thinking,” Fletcher said.
She also took on Culberson’s baby.
“Even the Katy Freeway project, people are frustrated with it,” she said. “The Katy Freeway’s full already, and we skipped the opportunity to have commuter rail and other things that would make mass transit easier.”
It’s now conventional wisdom that Texas' 7th District is central to whichever party will control the next Congress. As a result, the national parties are sending their top surrogates to Houston. Vice President Mike Pence campaigned here in August for Culberson; venerable U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia attended church with Fletcher on Sunday.
The intensity of the competition is also apparent in the race's price tag: From the primaries through Oct. 17, candidates and outside groups spent more than $20 million here, according to a Texas Tribune analysis of data from the Center for Responsive Politics.
The national parties and their counterpart super PACs are fully engaged, with the Houston airwaves and digital channels completely saturated with television ads both positive and negative.
Fletcher and allied groups, including the Democratic House campaign arm and multiple well-funded super PACs, have spent $11.9 million on this race, according to a Texas Tribune analysis of data from the CRP — though a sizable amount of the pro-Fletcher money was spent on securing the Democratic nomination earlier this year during a feisty primary where she ultimately prevailed in a tough runoff against activist Laura Moser.
The House GOP campaign arm and a GOP super PAC called the Congressional Leadership Fund joined with Culberson to spend about $7.3 million on the race, according to data from the CRP.
Both candidates are raising big money outside of the district: As of Oct. 17, 42 percent of Fletcher’s money and 28 percent of Culberson's came in from outside Texas, according to the CRP.
Fletcher has dominated Culberson in campaign fundraising and spending. As of mid-October, she had outspent him by $2 million.
Culberson shrugged off the spending disparity.
“Doesn’t bother me a bit,” he said. "I’ve always been outspent. Every election I ever had where I faced a competitive Democratic opponent, I always get outspent because they forget you don’t count dollar bills on election night.”
Fletcher says she has become accustomed to the rhythms of campaign season, thanks to her protracted primary and runoff.
“I love this part of the campaign,” she said. “This is the third time I’ve done it this year. There’s so much energy in this office ... It’s like you’re in a foxhole, and everyone’s in it together.”
Culberson, who’s represented portions of the district since his state legislative days dating back to 1986, remains confident in his politicking skills, but he playfully declined to detail how he will get out the vote.
“That’s for my opposition to figure out,” he said. “I never give away trade secrets. I have a whole lot of trade secrets.”
Brandon Formby contributed to this report.