WASHINGTON—As Democrats gear up to flip five Republican-held Texas congressional seats this year, Texas Democrats are imploring their party to send national money to Texas—but leave the national strategists home.
Three candidates national Democrats sought to help in key races this month failed to advance from the first round of Democratic primaries. A fourth candidate, who the party committee attacked, saw a late surge of support from the grass roots and made it into a runoff.
"The challenge for any party in Texas is the sheer scale of the state," said Cliff Walker, Democratic Party of Texas political director. "We're happy to have any investment of resources, whether it's doors knocked, mail, digital any sort of voter communication—that's a net benefit to everybody."
But, he said, "Even among candidates and activists that were critical of the (Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee), the overwhelming sentiment has been: 'Bring your resources, not your attacks.' "
National Democrats are stepping up their engagement this year. They're targeting five Texas races in 2018, compared to one in 2016.
The national party's primary troubles could be a sign it's struggling to connect with Texans.
"Part of me wants to say 'Engage more,' part of me wants to say 'Stay out,' " Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Texas, said of his national party's involvement in Texas.
"I don't know who's making the decisions over there but they should be relying on the advice of Democratic members from (the state)," he added.
National Democrats acknowledge the party's brand is in rough shape in Texas.
The DCCC is already exploring subtle ways to help candidates there and other states without sounding alarm bells about its influence. Those moves could include digital ads, field staff, and cash transfers to the state committee—all tactics it's recently deployed to help a special election candidate in a conservative district in Pennsylvania.
"The national party needs to improve its brand in Texas for sure," said Ruby Woolridge, a Democrat in the runoff for retiring GOP Rep. Joe Barton's seat—a race that is not on national Democrats' target list.
Three candidates the committee quietly sought to help in top-tier races, Jay Hulings in Texas' 23rd district, Ed Meier in the 32nd district, and Alex Triantaphyllis in the 7th district, failed to advance to their party's runoff elections.
Meier and Hulings both led most of their opponents in fundraising—usually a sign of the blessing of party leaders—but finished fourth in their primaries.
National Democrats aren't backing down on their strategy, including helping runoff candidates they think give them the best shot of winning in November.
Eleven Texas congressional races will feature May Democratic primary runoffs, including four of the races the DCCC is targeting. The committee is working on races to unseat GOP Reps. Will Hurd, John Culberson, Pete Sessions and John Carter, as well as the race to replace retiring GOP Rep. Lamar Smith.
The national Democratic party faces pushback in the primaries from groups who want the party to pick more progressive candidates, ones who they hope will excited a dormant base of Democrats in Texas.
"Texas is not a red state so much as a low voter turnout state," said Chris Kutalik-Cauthern, statewide coordinator for the Bernie Sanders-backed group Our Revolution Texas. "With the decades (of) defeat and weakness and centrist strategy you haven't even been able to mobilize the type of constituencies that would typically vote for the Democratic Party (in Texas)."
Our Revolution endorsed 14 politically progressive candidates in Democratic primaries, including Laura Moser, the Democrat the DCCC attacked in the race to challenge Culberson.
The committee's moves in that race could underscore an even bigger problem for national Democrats.
Moser raised roughly $100,000 following the attack, a sign the party brand could be in rough shape, even among its most loyal supporters. She's now running aggressively against "party bosses," and attracting grass-roots attention with her complaints about the national party.
"If they were trying to put their finger on the scale, it's working the other way," Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa said of national Democrats.
Among the grass roots, "Indivisible" groups that popped up with fervor after President Donald Trump's election bristle at the association with Democrats, despite backing what the groups call "progressive policies."
They want to court new political activists who disagree with Trump, but aren't yet ready to affiliate with a party that's failed to win a statewide race in more than two decades in Texas.
"We don't back candidates just because they're Democrats," said Heather Thornton, a leader of the Grapevine-area Indivisible club.