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Democrats Confront Bellwether Expectations As Texas House Special Election Reaches End

Democratic candidate for House District 28 Eliz Markowitz listens as former Congressman Beto O'Rourke speaks to her supporters in Fulshear on Jan. 25, 2020.

KATY — It is hard not to argue Democrats have gone all in on the special election runoff for House District 28.

Ahead of the Tuesday election, at least three presidential candidates have come to the aid of Democratic candidate Eliz Markowitz. State and national groups have poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into her race against self-funding Republican Gary Gates. And Beto O'Rourke has practically made Fort Bend County his second home, spending days at a time there to help Markowitz to flip the seat — and give Democrats a shot of momentum as they head toward November intent on capturing the lower-chamber majority.

But all the activity belies the reality that District 28 is far from the most competitive district that Democrats are targeting this year, a point they are increasingly making as expectations balloon around Markowitz's campaign. Republicans, meanwhile, are voicing confidence after the early-vote period, raising the prospect of a decisive win Tuesday that delivers an early blow to Democrats' hopes of flipping the House.

"We want to send a message after this election," Gates said at a block walk launch here Saturday morning. "We don't want to win by 2 or 3, 4 points."

Markowitz and Gates are vying to finish the term of former Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, who won reelection in 2018 by 8 percentage points while O'Rourke lost the suburban Houston district by 3. Those numbers do indeed put HD-28 far down the list of 22 seats that Democrats have designated as pickup opportunities in November — 16th, to be exact.

But there is no denying that the deluge of high-profile Democratic attention has laid the foundation for a highly anticipated result Tuesday, complicating efforts to keep the race in perspective. Texas Democratic Party spokesman Abhi Rahman said Friday that Democrats "have already won by the fact Republicans have had to invest as much as they have in this district."

"I'm hard-pressed to see how we lose on Tuesday regardless of the outcome," Markowitz said in an interview Sunday evening. "Whether or not we walk away having won [the runoff] ... we will have walked away establishing a movement for change and that movement will continue across the state of Texas through November."

Republicans are scoffing.

“Democrats are clearly managing expectations after spending the last three weeks talking a big game in the district," said Aaron De Leon, political director for the pro-Gates Associated Republicans of Texas. "Now as early vote tallies roll in, they are trying to save face at the last minute as Fort Bend voters are clearly rejecting their radical progressive agenda.”

The four-day early voting period ended Friday, and turnout was 16,332, which blew past that of the November special election, which drew 14,270 voters. That is especially notable because there were 12 days of early voting for the November election, and many more polling places were open. Also, Gates was vying against five other Republicans, while Markowitz was the sole Democratic candidate.

But who that increased turnout benefits is a separate question. In the Gates campaign analysis, the early vote was 53% Republican, 30% Democratic and 17% independent — auguring a massive disadvantage for Markowitz heading into Election Day. Democrats have not offered similarly detailed numbers, but Markowitz said their "analysis is showing that we're at a dead heat and it's really going to come down to Election Day turnout."

Up through the final days, the race is attracting a remarkable amount of money for a state House contest, starting with Gates himself, who has loaned his campaign over $1.5 million and been able to easily outspend Markowitz. To be sure, though, the Democratic effort has been well-funded, with Markowitz raising over $800,000 since July 1 and benefitting from six figures of outside spending.

A majority of Markowitz's money has come from state and national groups with an interest in flipping the Texas House. Her biggest donors have been the House Democratic Campaign Committee and its national counterpart, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which have each given her well over $100,000. The DLCC's investment is nearing $200,000 after it infused $125,000 into her campaign last week to help pay for a last-minute ad buy on broadcast TV.

Markowitz has also been massively boosted by Forward Majority, a national Democratic super PAC focused on flipping state legislatures. The group has been easily the biggest known outside spender in the race, unloading over $400,000 on TV and digital ads, mailing and polling. Most notably, one of the group's TV ads introduced a sensitive subject into the runoff: a 2000 child-abuse case that has followed Gates through his several runs for office.

As the final day of early voting began Friday morning, Forward Majority issued a lengthy memo downplaying the notion that HD-28 is a "bellwether" district for whether the House will flip but defending its heavy involvement in the contest. The memo called HD-28 "exactly the type of district where Democrats need to compete to win majorities."

Gov. Greg Abbott endorsed Gates as soon as he advanced to the runoff, but high-profile GOP involvement in the race did not ramp up until this past week. A series of other statewide elected officials added their endorsements — as did the DLCC's Republican counterpart, the Republican State Leadership Committee — and Abbott's political operation revved up for Gates, organizing an "HD-28 Deployment" that involved busing in volunteers this weekend and promising to pay for their travel, hotel and food.

O'Rourke says his new Powered by People group has brought over 1,000 people to the district, and on its first weekend of action, there were over 90 cities represented. Most were from Texas, he says, but 11 other states and Washington, D.C., were represented, including a group of 20 people who flew in from Washington state.

Of course, all the third-party efforts are layering on top of campaigns that have been making robust field efforts since Abbott announced the race began late last summer. Gates has been particularly open about working much harder personally than in his past races, saying that he committed to knocking on 150 doors a day and was up to 17,650 doors as of last Monday.

The Democratic side — Markowitz's campaign along with allies such as O'Rourke — has knocked "close to 15,000 doors," Markowitz said.

Tuesday's outcome will no doubt amplify discussion around the political potency of O'Rourke, who has said flipping the House is his top political priority this year. While Texas Democrats lack anyone else with his star power, he is also a galvanizing force for Republicans, especially after a failed presidential campaign during which he tacked further to the left than he did in his near-miss Senate bid.

Over an hour of block walking Saturday morning in a Katy neighborhood, it was not difficult to see how O'Rourke can be a valuable asset in a down-ballot race. Joined by his wife, Amy, and state Rep. Chris Turner of Grand Prairie, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, O'Rourke encountered a number of former supporters thrilled to see him — and some mainly aware of the special election due to his involvement.

Democratic candidate for House District 28 Eliz Markowitz speaks to supporters at a block walk in Fulshear on Jan. 25, 2020.
Credit Michael Stravato | The Texas Tribune
Democratic candidate for House District 28 Eliz Markowitz speaks to supporters at a block walk in Fulshear on Jan. 25, 2020.

"I haven't really honestly been following the election so closely this time ... [but] I had to follow" O'Rourke's lead in backing Markowitz, said Tania Kathuria, a 48-year-old who works in medical management, after taking a picture with O'Rourke in her driveway. "I was so hoping for him, and I was so disappointed when he dropped out."

A short time later, O'Rourke was in the garage of a man who exclaimed "Beto! I vote for you!" when he saw the former candidate approaching. After O'Rourke made his pitch for Markowitz and asked if the man would vote for her, he responded without hesitation. "You bet!" he said, adding a word of encouragement for O'Rourke, telling him to "keep it up because behind you is a lot of people."

As O'Rourke was wrapping up the block walk, a young man driving by stopped his car, rolled down the window and playfully yelled out to O'Rourke, "What are you doing here?" O'Rourke, who had met the man the night before while also stumping in the district, quickly responded by asking him if he was going to knock on doors today.

The driver paused for a beat. "I am now," he said.

Earlier that morning, the speakers who came before Gates at the block walk launch referred repeatedly to O'Rourke. On Friday, the RSLC released an online ad against Markowitz that prominently featured O'Rourke, while Abbott's campaign has released web spots exclusively focusing on O'Rourke. The appeal at the end: "Say 'no' to Beto. Again."

After the Saturday morning block walk, O'Rourke told the Tribune that he is not worried about becoming a liability for down-ballot candidates. Republicans, he said, "wouldn't be mentioning us so much if they didn't see some kind of threat or challenge in what we're doing."


Republican candidate for House District 28 Gary Gates speaks to supporters in Katy on Jan. 25, 2020.
Credit Michael Stravato | The Texas Tribune
Republican candidate for House District 28 Gary Gates speaks to supporters in Katy on Jan. 25, 2020.

Republicans maintain their voters have been fired up by O'Rourke’s all-in approach to the runoff, as well as the involvement of presidential contenders Joe Biden, Michael Bloomberg and Elizabeth Warren. At the same time, they say, the bold-faced names have obscured the actual political DNA of the district.

"This race has been made to look competitive by the Democrats," said Jason Walker, a Fort Bend County GOP activist who attended Gates' block walk launch. "I really don't think this as big of a bellwether they think it is."

The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Patrick Svitek is a reporter for the Texas Tribune. He previously worked for the Houston Chronicle's Austin bureau. He graduated in 2014 from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. He originally is from Fort Wayne, Indiana.