Texas Special Election Tests Democrats’ Chamber-Flip Optimism (1)

Some of the Democratic Party’s big names have been trying to sway a small special election in Texas. If they succeed, the party would get a well-timed motivational boost.

“This race is a pit-stop on the way to the real election, which comes in November,” said Joshua Blank, research director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas. “It’s the only available surrogate for both parties to test their abilities to mobilize voters.”

Both parties have said the race will influence how much of a say the out-of-power Democrats will have when districts are revised to make room for as many as three more seats in Congress.

“It would be absolutely earth-shattering if we were able to pull this thing off,” said Jessica Post, president of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which put up the money for a six-figure ad buy.

“Democrats believe they can win House District 28 and that if they did it would be a magical indicator of a coming wave,” James Dickey, chairman of the Texas Republican Party, said in an email. “They are wrong on both counts.”

(Photo by Loren Elliott/Getty Images)
November 6, 2018 in Houston, Texas. Voters cast ballots in Houston, Texas, November 6, 2018.

Former presidential hopefuls Beto O’Rourke and Julian Castro joined more than 400 volunteers knocking on doors on behalf of state House candidate Eliz Markowitz (D). She’s also been endorsed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, former Vice President Joe Biden, and entrepreneur Michael Bloomberg, emphasizing the importance of the state House ahead of redistricting.

If Markowitz, an academic instructor, defeats businessman Gary Gates on Tuesday, Democrats would need to flip eight seats to take control of the state House. The winner of the special election also will have to defend the seat in November.

Gates was one of three GOP candidates who split the party’s vote in the first round of balloting. He came in second to Markowitz, 39 percent to 28 percent. The race went to a runoff because no candidate won a majority of the vote.

Changing Demographics

The district, which overlaps the area represented in Congress by Pete Olson, and before him by Tom DeLay, has long been safely in Republican hands. John Zerwas (R), who gave up the seat for a university post, was first elected in 2006 and won re-election in 2018 with 54 percent of the vote.

The Hispanic and Asian populations of Fort Bend County, southwest of Houston, have been growing, and it’s “entirely plausible for a Democrat to win these days,” said political scientist Cal Jillson of Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

Jillson said he considers Markowitz the favorite to win, in part because Gates has run and lost several campaigns before. Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy in Houston rates the seat as leaning Republican—and ranks only two other seats as headed toward flipping from red to blue in the fall.

Democratic control of the Texas House is “at least marginally unlikely,” said Jillson, noting the party had already picked up “the low-hanging fruit” from the 2018 cycle.

“I don’t think that Democrats are delusional in pinning their November hopes to the outcome of this race, but, barring actual results, they may be overconfident in their interpretation of its meaning,” said Blank of the Texas Politics Project.

“Win or lose we’ve already made Republicans commit resources to a very historic Republican district,” Texas Democratic Party spokesman Abhi Rahman said. “A few years ago this thing wasn’t in play.”

(Michael Bloomberg, who backs Markowitz, is the majority owner of Bloomberg Government’s parent company.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Paul Stinson in Austin, Texas at pstinson@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Katherine Rizzo at krizzo@bgov.com; Kyle Trygstad at ktrygstad@bgov.com