Democrats, encouraged by President Donald Trump’s flagging approval and the emphasis on health care in this year’s election, have grown confident in U.S. Rep. Lizzie Fletcher’s re-election odds, though a recent fundraising surge by Republican Wesley Hunt has injected some concern into the battleground Houston race.
Fletcher, a Houston Democrat who unseated Republican John Culberson in 2018, entered her first re-election cycle widely viewed as one of the country’s most vulnerable House members. Now in the homestretch, she expressed confidence in winning another term in the once-reliably Republican district.
“I hear from Republicans in the middle that they feel politically homeless right now,” Fletcher said. “What they want is responsible governance and what they see is that is what Democrats are doing.”
It’s a confidence shared by outside groups, including the Democratic House Majority PAC, which the Texas Tribune reported shifted money to a nearby race anchored in Fort Bend County.
Hunt sees the race differently, pointing to his nearly $2.8 million fundraising haul from July through September, more than double the roughly $1.3 million Fletcher raised during that span. With his cash surge, Hunt has sought to refocus the conversation on Fletcher’s support for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her record on energy policy — and, perhaps most importantly, away from Trump.
“This is not about President Trump, this is not about anybody else or (U.S. Sen.) John Cornyn, this is about Wesley Hunt and Lizzie Fletcher and who’s going to properly represent the energy capital of the world,” Hunt, a former Army helicopter pilot, said. “And if we stay focused on that, then I’m very confident in where we are going to be in November.”
Still, Hunt is battling headwinds atop the Republican ticket, as polls have consistently shown voters hold unfavorable views of Trump and his handling of the coronavirus, said Renee Cross, senior director of the University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs. The president narrowly lost Texas’ 7th Congressional District in 2016 and has seen his approval subsequently plummet in the suburbs, suggesting favorable trends for Fletcher.
“Whatever vulnerability there is, I think she’s got a lot of aspects that are definitely leaning in her favor,” Cross said.
What could power Hunt to victory, Cross said, is his focus on framing himself as a champion for the oil and gas industry, which drives the district’s economy. In numerous ads, Hunt has sought to tie Fletcher to progressives such as Pelosi and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, including in one released just after the March primaries that features a clip of Sanders saying the U.S. must “transition away from fossil fuel,” before saying Fletcher “will rubber-stamp Sanders’ socialist agenda.”
“No matter what Lizzie Fletcher says or whatever she talks about, how she’s pro-energy or for the Energy Corridor or for the energy capital of the world, I can’t buy it. I think the people of this district don’t buy it,” Hunt said. “You cannot vote with Nancy Pelosi 99 percent of the time and then authentically say that I am pro-oil and gas. That’s just categorically false.”
Fletcher, who has vocally opposed the Green New Deal and legislation by U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York that would ban fracking, said the claim that she has voted with Pelosi 99 percent of the time doesn’t take into account the vast majority of the more than 600 votes she cast in her first term. Pelosi only voted 79 times — mostly on the House’s top-priority legislation, like government funding, defense spending, health care and trade.
“It’s just a convenient way of not looking at my entire record,” Fletcher said. “It’s manipulating the data to get the statistic you want.”
Hunt issued a press release Thursday highlighting Fletcher’s 37 percent approval rating from the American Energy Alliance, the political arm for the Institute for Energy Research, a pro-fossil fuel think tank. Her score is tied for second-highest among all House Democrats, although it is worse than that of all but two Republicans.
“I think she broke her promise from day one by voting for Nancy Pelosi,” Hunt said earlier this year. “By voting for the head of that party, that basically represents legislation that would kill jobs here in Houston.”
Though the alliance disagreed with most of Fletcher’s votes, they cited her opposition to bills that would ban offshore drilling and restore protections against drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as positive votes. Fletcher also wrote in a Houston Chronicle op-ed that the Green New Deal “relies too much on top-down, government solutions that will deepen partisan divisions, harm our economy, and squander our unique opportunity to get this right.”
“People in the energy business know I’m good on energy issues,” Fletcher said. “They’ve been working with me on important matters, and they know I have a good working understanding of them from my decade as a Houston lawyer representing energy companies on a wide range of matters.”
Fletcher, meanwhile, says energy is not the top issue in the district. Like virtually every Democrat, she is focusing on health care — an issue that helped her flip the district in 2018, and which she says is even more relevant in 2020.
The Supreme Court is scheduled to take up a Texas-led challenge to the Affordable Care Act a week after the election and Democrats contend that Republicans are dead set on scrapping the law, including its popular protections for preexisting conditions.
“We’re in this existential crisis with COVID,” Fletcher said. “There’s a lawsuit to take away the Affordable Care Act. People are terrified they’ll get COVID, they’ll have a preexisting condition the rest of their lives, they won’t be able to get coverage. It’s terrifying what’s happening — and it’s real.”
Hunt says he believes those with preexisting conditions should be protected, even if the ACA is repealed. Hunt also said he supports allowing people to stay on their parents’ insurance policies up to the age of 26, another provision of the ACA.
He did not specify what legislation he would support to accomplish either goal, but said the ACA has gotten too expensive and that competition in the market would help drive down prices.
“This is an opportunity for us to have substantive conversations to keep the good parts from the ACA intact and also address the cost issue,” he said. “That’s what I’m in favor of doing. And I think it’s actually the responsibility of the legislative branch to do just that.”