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WASHINGTON — Lizzie Pannill Fletcher‘s political career became something of a trophy to Washington Democrats in 2018 after she won the Houston-based 7th Congressional District — long a bastion of Texas Republican leadership.
The seat was once held by the late President George H. W. Bush, and one of Fletcher’s most prominent constituents is U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz. The 7th was designed to be a safe Republican stronghold, but the 46-year-old former trial attorney snatched it away three years ago. And while many of her classmates from the 2018 Democratic wave lost reelection in 2020, she held on against a formidable Republican opponent.
Any day now, she’ll find out how intent Texas Republicans are on taking the seat back.
The Texas Legislature is poised to unveil its proposed maps for new Texas Congressional districts, and some expect they’ll redraw the 7th in a way that dooms Fletcher’s chances of winning there again.
Fletcher is well aware she is in political purgatory.
“I’ve always known that this is just part of the process and … there’s so much happening here, that perhaps it’s good that it’s not my focus,” she said in an interview. “It’s on my radar that my job is to represent my constituents and certainly hearing what I’ve heard, knowing what I know, I do feel a responsibility to try to protect the district and to protect them.”
During two terms in the U.S. House, Fletcher has been a somewhat overshadowed presence, a quietly loyal party member among the boisterous pack of Democrats who took back the chamber in 2018.
She is a strong fundraiser — amassing more money this cycle than any Texas other Democratic member. She does not create headaches for party leadership and avoids the bombast of modern social media politicking.
But redistricting is blood sport, and Republicans this time around have an even freer hand to carve up the state for partisan advantage after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 decision gutting key provisions of federal laws that protected voters of color.
No Texas Democrat is more often cited as a likely victim of the redistricting pen than Fletcher. Whether or not Republicans take an aggressive posture toward her could set the stage for the next decade in the Texas congressional delegation.
Much of the animus toward her in the Republican consultant class is rooted in geography: Fletcher represents a seat that was never meant to be competitive, let alone held by a Democrat.
Two of the previous congressmen elected there are Republican legends: the elder Bush and former House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Archer. Fletcher does not run from that history.
She’s loosely in touch with the Bush camp, and when she met this week with one of her interns from the University of Texas who is part of a program named for Archer, Fletcher was quick to point out that he once represented the district.
While some Republicans take umbrage with this, she is a creature of her hometown.
Reared in the Afton Oaks neighborhood during the 1980s oil bust, she attended the city’s most elite private school. She left the state for her undergraduate degree and law school, but returned in 2006 to work for Vinson & Elkins, one of the most politically wired firms in town. Prior to her run, she was a partner at Ahmad, Zavitsanos, Anaipakos, Alavi & Mensing law firm.
Now, as the congresswoman, she has two grown stepchildren and lives with her attorney husband near the area where she grew up.
She came to this political place in early 2017. Fletcher joined the wave of political neophytes who ran for Congress in a backlash to the election of former President Donald Trump. She ultimately defeated U.S. Rep. John Culberson, a longtime Republican who had mostly faced nominal Democratic opponents in the past.
Her first election was so crucial to national Democrats that they sent one of their most effective surrogates — the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis — to campaign with her at African American worship services the weekend before the election.
That day still imbues her Washington office, where she displays several framed photos of herself with Lewis from that day, and another from a pre-pandemic 2020 march on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma where the civil rights icon was nearly beaten to death by police decades earlier.
Houston iconography also abounds — coasters with one of the local area codes, 713 — and her older sister’s art work celebrating the city. There are two framed maps of the 7th Congressional District — which includes much of west Houston and its suburbs.
What that district will look like after the Legislature is done drawing new maps is now one of the most debated questions in Texas politics, and the merciful scenarios for Fletcher are limited.
It’s an open secret that House GOP leadership wants to elevate her 2020 rival, retired veteran Wesley Hunt. And after Republicans held onto the Legislature last year, speculation began about how to draw maps in a way that would make it impossible for her, and U.S. Rep. Colin Allred, a Dallas Democrat also elected in 2018, to win reelection.
Given that House Democrats only have an eight-vote margin, it was easy to see early this year how the road to a majority for Republicans must pass through Texas, and through Fletcher’s district.
“When you’re looking at the big picture … You definitely have heard people saying there is an effort to take back the House through redistricting,” she said.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea to take back the House by not letting people vote,” she said, referencing the recently passed state voter access bill. “I also don’t think it’s good to take back the House by dismantling districts that are effectively performing for their constituents.”
There’s also a frustration in GOP circles that Fletcher has a Teflon shield. She tends to vote with her party but is perceived locally as a moderate. They argue she is weak on the district’s main economic sector — fossil fuels. The 7th Congressional District has long been home to many of the great oil barons. It’s a charge that can bring flashes of subtle ire to Fletcher’s normally cheerful disposition.
Already, a Republican group aligned with national GOP leaders called American Action Network has made a small television buy tying her to U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
The House GOP campaign committee is also keeping an eye on Fletcher.
“Texans are paying more for gas and groceries because Lizzie Fletcher keeps supporting Democrats’ socialist spending sprees,” said National Republican Congressional Committee spokesperson Torunn Sinclair. “It will cost her reelection.”
But eight state and national Republican operatives with direct ties to the Texas delegation warned in interviews that an aggressive effort to unseat Fletcher could endanger the Republican incumbents who surround her district: U.S. Reps. Michael McCaul of Austin, Dan Crenshaw of Houston and Troy Nehls of Richmond.
Historically, the Legislature listens to the sitting Congressional Republicans when they redraw maps, and McCaul, as a senior Republican, is serving as a point person between the state lawmakers and his GOP colleagues.
While early details of the new districts remain closely held, some Republican sources said they sense survival instincts are setting in among the federal Republicans. Meaning, few are excited about the notion of pulling conservative voters from nearby Republican incumbents’ districts to take out Fletcher.
Instead, the map drawers could decide to leave Fletcher alone, and siphon Republicans from her district to bolster the long term reelection chances of Republicans in neighboring districts.
But that might hurt Fletcher in a different way: Her district could end up including many new Democratic voters unfamiliar with her, leaving her vulnerable to a primary challenge from an established Houston Democrat.
While incumbents across the country carried a bit of anxiety around the Capitol this week, Fletcher’s fate remains the focus in Texas.
By all appearances, Fletcher likes serving in Congress. She has a coveted seat on the U.S. House and Energy Committee, which has oversight of the oil and gas industry, and she’s begun branching out on national television to discuss a key issue she ran on as a candidate, abortion rights.
But if the maps bring bad news her way, she will have some difficult choices to make.
“I don’t know that I’ve thought through my process,” she said, describing how she will sort out her political future. “But I’m generally most concerned about making sure that my constituents get the representation they deserve.”
“At this point, all options are on the table,” she said.
When asked if that included retirement, she laughed: “I’m too young to retire, right?”
But there is another option.
The 2018 wave was consequential in Texas partly because it gave Democrats a farm team for the first time in decades. Fletcher could run for a different office.
“If I think I have something to offer, or if I think I can contribute … I have to kick the tires for a long time before I feel confident that I can do a job here, but I think I’ve done a good job here,” she said.
As for the psychology of this strange, once-in-a-decade political dance, she said the sheer volume of legislation before the congress this week — an abortion bill, a potential government shutdown, House Democratic efforts to convince the Senate to take up a voting bill — has kept her too busy to dwell.
“I can’t control everything, so I’m in a pretty good place, and I’m going to see what my options are and make my decisions,” she said. “It’s not much of a process.”
“But you know, I’m going to see what my options are, and I tend to be pretty analytical, and so I’m sure I’ll think for a long time, and we’ll see.”
“You never know, right?”
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