On this Saturday in August, wearing a campaign T-shirt, a black miniskirt, and flip-flops, Fletcher prepped her volunteers by invoking the anniversary of Hurricane Harvey. It was exactly one year before that Harvey had dumped as much as 51 inches of rain on Houston, killing 75 people in Texas, and the trauma still ran deep. “For so many of us, Harvey was really a low point and a high point of our lives in Houston,” she said. The low point was obvious. But the high point, she said, was that in this community, “if you could help, you did.”
She didn’t have to adopt a hyper-partisan caricature—rallying for Donald Trump’s impeachment, say, or decrying his big tax cut for the wealthy—to energize the room. Rather, she compared volunteer efforts in the aftermath of Harvey to that day’s canvassing. “We are in a crisis in our country,” she said, her slight Southern lilt elongating her i’s. “And the best way—the best way—to do something about it is to do what y’all are doing today: Just show up.”
The sentence reflected Fletcher’s understanding of the dynamics at play ahead of November. The Seventh is not Brooklyn. It is not Chicago. Ultimately, this election could be a referendum not on national policy, but instead on local leadership in times of local crisis. In Fletcher’s view, this is where Culberson has failed the district, and she intends to use the aftermath of Harvey to make her case.
Texas may be changing. But Fletcher sees her path to victory as a more tried and true one. “If we all just show up,” she told the room that morning, “we will win.”
To understand Texas is to understand the Seventh, and vice versa. When the elder Bush carried the district, it reflected the white, middle-to-upper-middle-class tapestry dear to mid-century America. So it did for the next three decades, as Bush’s successor, the Republican Bill Archer, enjoyed a steady reign. When Archer retired in 2000, he was succeeded by Culberson. By then, whites no longer dominated the Seventh, but it was still considered one of the safest GOP districts in the nation.
Today the district claims one of the most ethnically and economically diverse populations in Houston. It is 38 percent white, 31 percent Latino, 12 percent African American, and 10 percent Asian. To drive through the Seventh is to glimpse a vast number of takes on American life. The district touches some of the ritziest parts of Houston—the flashy mansions of River Oaks, the designer-stocked Galleria. Track a few miles southwest and you’ll find Gulfton, where Indian and Pakistani restaurants line the so-called Gandhi district and a single street might host Ethiopian and Guatemalan churches. Spin back up I-10 and there’s the Barker Reservoir, behind which many upper-middle-class homes were destroyed by Hurricane Harvey.
As the state undergoes a demographic transformation with the political shifts to match, the question for some political analysts has become not if Texas will turn blue, but when. So it has with the Seventh: The decades-long Republican stronghold swung for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, and Democrats have since zeroed in on it as a linchpin of their map to secure the House majority. “Any blue wave from Texas to Washington, including California, is going to start with this race,” the longtime Democratic lobbyist Scott Eckart told me. “If Culberson loses, I think all the others will follow.”