HOUSTON — There is never a good time for a lengthy hospital stay, especially not when you're a political candidate in a tough race a month out from Election Day.
Nevertheless, that's the situation facing Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas, the longtime Houston-area congressman, who spent a week and a half laid up dealing with "complicated diverticulitis," an intestinal infection, as he faces one of his toughest fights in his 18-year House career.
The infection forced him to postpone his planned Monday debate with Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, his Democratic opponent. It has also kept him off the campaign trail until later this week. In the meantime, others have been forced to step in to help, including Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, a fellow-Houston area member, who stumped for him Saturday just over three weeks until Election Day in a cycle predicted to be a windfall for House Democratic candidates.
"It's a tough time to do that," Brady told volunteers ahead of a scheduled block walk Saturday morning. Belinda Culberson, the congressman's wife, said that he was expected to be in the hospital for two to three days, before ultimately spending 10 days at Memorial Hermann Hospital.
The race has been on the radar for Democrats throughout the 2018 cycle as they target Republicans in suburban districts. Some others in Texas are on their target list, including Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, in the Dallas area and Rep. John Carter, R-Texas, in the Austin suburbs. They were also buoyed in the 7th District by Hillary Clinton defeating President Trump by a single point in 2016 after Mitt Romney won there by 21 points four years earlier. Outside of Utah, no battleground district swung more toward Democrats in 2016 than Culberson's.
"Like many of our suburban races, it's a battle," Brady said in an interview. "John's had to fight back against a lot of just baloney, whether it's healthcare or spending or the tax cuts — just had to fight through a lot of misleading information. He's doing a great job doing it."
The race has been a slog for Culberson. He has not faced a tough re-election fight since winning his seat in 2000, with his two closest races being in 2008, which he won by 15 points, and 2016, which he won by 12 points. This forced Republicans to up their game and get Culberson ready for a fight.
"The name of the game in the Culberson race is he had to be defossilized," said one Republican strategist. "In the last six months, he's been doing a good job, working harder, raising money."
Culberson's team insists he'll be ready to go Sunday for the debate, which comes on the eve of early voting in Texas, as big money continues to be poured into the state. The House Republican campaign arm, the National Republican Congressional Committee, and the Congressional Leadership Fund have spent $4.5 million combined to back the incumbent Republican, largely in an attempt to tether Fletcher to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
"It's Texas. We don't need anything else," said the GOP strategist.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, meanwhile, has spent $1.6 million against Culberson, bashing his vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act last year and arguing that he didn't do enough to prevent flooding in the district ahead of Hurricane Harvey that hit the region last year.
Nevertheless, Republicans are seeing movement in the area to their side, largely due to the fight over Justice Brett Kavanaugh that consumed much of the past month prior to his confirmation to the Supreme Court. According to the strategist, Culberson led by 5 points before the Kavanaugh fight.
"Everyone's doing better now," the strategist said of the post-Kavanaugh environment. "The Kavanaugh fight hurt Democrats in districts like this because it reminds voters in the middle how crazy Democrats are, how out of the mainstream [they are]. They just hate the president so much. All they want to do is give the middle finger to the president. ... This has excited and united the base in a way that it has not been excited and united in years."
Culberson's defenders also point to his long history as an appropriator and work to secure $141 billion in federal relief after Hurricane Harvey, which his campaign's first ad focused on and is a top-of-mind issue for many voters.
"Talk about the Lord putting the right person at the right place at the right time," Brady said of Culberson.
In a poll conducted by the New York Times Upshot in September, Culberson held a 3-point lead.