National Democrats are vowing to stick with their strategy of aggressive involvement in primary elections, even after their interference in a Texas House race seemed to boost the candidate they came out against – setting up more potential battles in advance of the May run-off.
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“As we’ve indicated all cycle, the DCCC is keeping all options on the table to work with our allies and ensure that there’s a competitive Democrat on the ballot for voters to elect in November,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee communications director Meredith Kelly said to ABC News in a statement.
The campaign committee targeted Laura Moser, a progressive candidate from their own party, in the battle to take on incumbent GOP Rep. John Culberson in November in Texas' 7th Congressional District. Despite the attack, Moser advanced to the May 22 runoff against Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, who’s been endorsed by establishment Democratic groups like EMILY’s List.
The DCCC, which is based in Washington, had attacked Moser as a “Washington insider who begrudgingly moved to Houston to run for Congress,” and is not ruling attacking Moser again in the runoff.
After the primary race was called, the committee released a statement on the House race that left out any direct mention of the Democratic candidates.
“Texas Democrats have been working hard for over a year to hold John Culberson accountable and flip this district blue, and after picking a clear frontrunner are in a strong position to win in November,” DCCC spokesperson Cole Leiter said.
Culberson’s district, which Hillary Clinton won in 2016, is seen as one of the party’s best bets for the 24 they need to flip in order to retake control of the House.
And while parties have interfered in primaries in the past to help ensure the candidate they see as the strongest to win in November becomes the nominee, the public way the DCCC stepped into the Texas race caused concern.
Rice political science professor Mark Jones believes the DCCC’s intervention may have backfired because it identified Moser as the most progressive candidate in the race.
“In an electorate where many people were voting as much to cast a vote against President Trump as to choose a nominee, Moser served as a great vehicle for that protest,” he said.
Additionally, voters have demonstrated in the past they don’t like national parties to tell them how to vote.
Edward Espinoza, a former DNC staffer and executive director at Progress Texas, said that's what happened in Texas and it could happen in other House races should the DCCC do something similar.
“There were people that were really put off by it. They’re not from here but they came here to tell you how to vote. That doesn’t sit well with voters anywhere. It really doesn’t sit well with Texans,” he said.
Republicans crowed over the Democratic move.
“The DCCC’s habit of doubling down on failed strategies is the stuff of legend. We thank them for attacking Democratic candidates with vigor usually reserved for groups like ours and look forward to facing whatever damaged candidates emerge from their civil war,” said National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Jesse Hunt.
In the battle against Culberson, Democrats are hoping to flip a seat which the GOP has held for 50 years.
One Democratic strategist who has worked on House races said the DCCC’s interference is “unlikely to have lasting consequences” going into the November election.
Even if Moser emerges from the runoff as the Democratic nominee, the party would be expected to coalesce around her.
“I’m sure it will be an awkward phone call,” the strategist said of the DCCC having to call Moser ton congratulate her if she wins. “Will it be awkward, sure. Will it be damaging to winning the seat, probably not.”
At her election party Tuesday night, Moser told ABC News she is “relieved” but wishes the DCCC’s attack didn’t happen.
“I believe if you stand strong on progressive values you will get more people to the polls,” she said. In response to the DCCC attack, a progressive base has energized rallied behind her.
Democracy For America (DFA), which has been a strong supporter of Moser’s campaign, says her performance sends a message.
“Laura Moser’s strong finish tonight sends her to the May run-off election and makes it clear that, no matter what attacks the Republican-lite hacks at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee throw at them, voters in Texas’ 7th Congressional District are ready to send a progressive leader to Congress,” said Jim Dean, chairman of the group. Meanwhile, Stephanie Schriock, president of EMILY’s List, called Fletcher the “strongest candidate to defeat House Republican John Culberson this November in this competitive district.”
Despite the controversy over the DCCC’s public role in this House race, Democratic officials were feeling good Tuesday morning about the results out of Texas, the first state to hold primary elections in the 2018 midterm.
While most strategists concede that turning the Lone Star state blue is unlikely, all felt Democrats have a good shot at picking up House seats in November that could help them retake control of the lower chamber.
“If anyone in Texas thought Texas was going to turn purple or blue this cycle I would hope that last night’s results brought them back to reality,” Jones said.
But the combined Democratic enthusiasm and the quality of the candidates in the competitive districts may give Democrats a shot at taking the House back, Jones said.
“If they can pick up these three seats in red Texas then that will put them in a very good position to recapture the majority in the U.S. House of Representatives,” he said.
Democrats touted their high voter-turnout numbers as proof their base is energized going into the general election.
Turnout for Democrats topped the one million mark, a number not seen since 2002. And the party more than doubled their turnout in the 2014 midterm primary election.
“Enthusiasm wins midterms,” said Brad Bannon, Democratic strategist and President of Bannon Communications Research.
But Republicans also set a record for turnout last night, passing 1.5 million votes, which surpassed the previous high of 1.48 million set in 2010.
Republican National Committee spokesman Michael Ahrens points out that “in 2006 – the last time Dems took back the House – Republicans had a 12-point advantage in Texas primary turnout. Last night, Republicans had a 20-point advantage in turnout.”
The real test, of course, will be in November.
ABC News’ John Verhovek contributed to this report.