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Democrats wonder: Is opposing Trump enough to win primaries?

Alex Roarty, McClatchy Washington Bureau on

Published in Political News

HOUSTON -- Democrat Elizabeth Pannill Fletcher says Donald Trump has a "basic disrespect" for his fellow man. She calls his Twitter-based diplomacy "irresponsible with all of our lives." And she states flatly that he isn't qualified to be president.

But when it comes to Democratic Party policy positions, this House candidate -- and one of the top fundraisers of 2017 -- is far more circumspect. Single-payer health care? Not yet practical, she says. Impeachment? Due process comes first. Progressive? No, this lawyer from battleground Houston rejects the label.

"I'm not really good at labels," Pannill Fletcher said during an interview inside her campaign headquarters. "This district has historically been Republican, but I think it's a centrist district, and I think that is what we're seeing in the rejection of Donald Trump."

One of the most significant questions facing Democratic candidates in House races this year is whether running against Donald Trump -- something nearly every House Democratic candidate will promise to do -- will be enough to secure victory. Can congressional hopefuls win over primary voters on criticism of Trump alone, as the party's moderates suggest, or are the increasingly influential progressives right when they say Democratic voters demand something more?

The answer will shape general election matchups against Republicans in the fall and could complicate what many Democrats expect will be a wave election year.

"Opposition to Trump, that's table stakes," said Mark Longabaugh, a senior adviser to Bernie Sanders's 2016 presidential campaign. "From there, in many of these primaries and especially in Democratic-leaning seats especially, you're going to have to have a bolder progressive agenda to put on the table, or it's not just going to be enough. You're going to get outflanked."

 

Pannill Fletcher is one of seven candidates running in a crowded Democratic primary for this Houston-area seat, held by vulnerable Republican Rep. John Culberson. Democrats, who have received a surge in new candidates since Trump took office, face a multitude of similar multi-candidate brawls in House races this year, in key districts ranging from upstate New York to Orange County, Calif.

Democratic strategists fret that in such crowded primaries, the competition for votes will drive candidates further and further to the left as they try to stand out from the pack. Those concerns are most acute on issues such as single-payer health care and impeachment, issues where public support is relatively soft, but also extend to liberal priorities such as free college tuition and so-called "sanctuary cities" for undocumented immigrants.

With so many contenders, even a relatively small share of the vote could deliver a victory -- or at least push the candidate into a two-person runoff. (In Texas, the top two candidates in a primary advance to a run-off if neither receives more than 50 percent of the total vote.)

At least one of Pannill Fletcher's rivals has already begun staking out more liberal ground.

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