AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — National Democrats breathed a sigh of relief after a liberal outsider lost her runoff in a high stakes U.S. House race for one of three Republican-held seats they hope to flip this November in the deep red state.
The most-watched race of Tuesday’s Texas primary runoffs saw liberal activist Laura Moser defeated by Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, a former Planned Parenthood board member. The result was cheered by the party establishment, who saw Moser as an unelectable drag on their chances of retaking the House.
Democrats also nominated a candidate for governor who breaks barriers but is expected to struggle to gain traction against Republican Gov. Greg Abbott in November. Lupe Valdez is the first openly gay and first Latina gubernatorial candidate in Texas. But she’s faltered on the campaign trail with basic policy issues while failing to win the endorsement of some Hispanic activists because of her past cooperation with federal immigration agents while serving as Dallas County sheriff.
Both outcomes soothed party nerves in a slate of runoffs Tuesday night that otherwise unfolded with little fanfare in Texas, which remained shaken by a high school shooting that killed 10 people just as early voting ended last week.
While Democrats have few illusions of ousting Abbott in November, Valdez’s win spared the party from putting at the top of their ticket Houston businessman Andrew White, a moderate who personally opposes abortion.
“Tonight is a victory for all of us who are fighting for a stronger and fairer Texas. A tolerant and diverse Texas. A Texas where the everyday person has a voice and a fair shot — just as I had,” said Valdez, who once picked green beans as a migrant farmworker.
In Congress, Fletcher’s win was one of three Texas primary runoffs that are key to whether Democrats can flip the minimum 24 GOP-held seats they’ll need to seize a House majority in November.
Not willing to take any chances, the fundraising arm for congressional Democrats worked to undercut Moser in a district that Republican John Culberson has held since 2001 — but has shifted to a more Hispanic, better educated battleground that Hillary Clinton narrowly won in 2016.
Moser made the runoff despite the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee criticizing her for writing jokingly in 2014 that she’d rather have teeth pulled than live in small-town Texas.
Susan Wright, a voter in Houston, said she thought “Democrats in Washington really screwed up” by attacking Moser.
“It was too bad they decided to make it sound like someone has done a big investigative report on her. I never saw it.” Wright said.
Guns did not appear to be a major issue in the runoff days after the shooting at Santa Fe High School outside Houston. Hours before polls closed Tuesday, Abbott hosted the first of three round table discussions this week with policymakers to discuss better fortifying schools.
But Abbott hasn’t mentioned gun control and Democrats say Texas Republicans — who have a dominating majority in the state Legislature — won’t dare cross the National Rifle Association by considering tighter firearm limits. Democratic candidates generally agree on gun control and there hasn’t been much debate so far in the runoff races.
Two other Texas districts Democrats hope to flip are Dallas U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions’, which supported Clinton instead of Trump, as did Rep. Will Hurd’s, encompassing 800 miles of Texas-Mexico border from San Antonio to El Paso. Former NFL linebacker Colin Allred advanced to face Sessions and Air Force veteran Gina Ortiz Jones won to take on Hurd.