The ongoing political fight for Texas in 2020 reached its first checkpoint of the year on Tuesday night, as Republican Gary Gates convincingly beat Democrat Eliz Markowitz by 16 points in a special election runoff for a Houston suburb State House seat.
Gates' victory in Texas House District 28 shows steady Republican support in the suburbs and provides a reality check for Democrats looking to compete up and down the ballot and flip the State House ahead of redistricting in 2021.
The win for Gates comes as Democratic presidential candidates endorsed or canvassed with Markowitz, with the goal of energizing the base turnout. Former Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Elizabeth Warren endorsed Markowitz earlier this cycle, while former New York city Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former presidential candidate Julian Castro both canvassed for her this month.
Texas-native and former Representative Beto O'Rourke, who also ran an unsuccessful campaign for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, has been consistently campaigning for Markowitz, and launched an organization focused on flipping the state House chamber.
Gates, meanwhile, received the support of Republican Texas Governor Greg Abbott and partially self-funded his campaign, pouring about $1.5 million of his own money into the race.
"It shows, on the Republican side, if we get out and work hard and knock on those doors, that we can prevent many seats from flipping and maybe even take some back," Gates told reporters at his election party.
In a statement after the race was called, Texas GOP Chairman James Dickey said the coordination they saw with Gates' campaign, "is the model for our 2020 Victory efforts."
"We will defend Texas from the liberals' socialism and we will unite to fight again for victories from the White House to the courthouse this November. We will keep Texas red," Dickey said.
National and Texas Democrats put close to $1 million into this race and have been pointing to metropolitan areas like this district, which have been historically red but have a shrinking margin of error for Republicans, as a sign of promise for the 2020 ballot.
Mitt Romney's 30-point win in this district in 2012 shrunk to a 10-point Donald Trump win in 2016. O'Rourke lost the district by just three points in his 2018 Senate race against Republican Ted Cruz.
State Representative John Zerwas held this Houston-Fort Bend seat for more than 12 years and handily won most of his reelections before deciding to step down. His smallest margin of victory came in the most recent election in 2018, when he won by 8 points.
But while encouraged by the trend lines, Democrats were looking to downplay this district's "bellwether" label ahead of Tuesday night. Forward Majority, an organization that has spent $400,000 in this race in support of Markowitz, sent out a memo this week hoping to reduce any weight put on Tuesday's results while also justifying their investment.
"We're downplaying it because it's a traditionally Republican district and the fundamentals of this district favor Republicans," Forward Majority Communications Director Ben Wexler-Waite said. "Win or lose in this district, there's a clear path to a Democratic majority in November in the Texas State House."
The runoff also serves as the first notable redistricting battle in 2020, especially in a state that is poised to gain up to four Congressional seats in 2021. After Gates' win in House District 28, and Democratic wins in House District 100 and 148, the state House remains nine seats away from flipping.
National Democratic Redistricting Committee Communications Director Patrick Rodenbush said it's imperative for Democrats to flip the chamber and "get a seat at the redistricting table and force Republicans to compromise on the maps in some way."
On Monday, the Texas Democratic Party and Texas House Democratic Campaign Committee unveiled a list of 22 state House seat targets, all of which had single-digit margins in the 2018 midterm elections. House District 28 was ranked 16th on that list in terms of favorable margins for Democrats.
At a briefing earlier this year, Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee President Jessica Post said there are other viable, competitive districts.
"The other nine seats in Texas are quite easier, but if we're able to win it, it says that our odds to flip Texas are even better than what we thought they were," Post said.
The DLCC is looking to spend $50 million in 2020 on state legislative races, joining other groups like the NDRC and Forward Majority, who plan to pour at least $10 million into state House races this cycle. In addition, issue-oriented groups like the Brady PAC, started by the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, are also looking to invest in 20 to 25 Texas state races.
Currently, Republicans hold majorities in 59 of the 99 state legislatures nationwide. The Republican State Leadership Committee launched their "Right Lines 2020" redistricting campaign in September, and raised at least $19 million in 2019. They have not disclosed their 2020 fundraising goal yet.
Some of the state targets that both the DLCC and RSLC are expected to compete heavily in are Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan.
However, both Post and Wexler-Waite called Texas the "crown jewel" of redistricting.
"We see Texas as our number one strategic priority," he said. "We're going to be playing in around 20 districts in Texas in November. And I think an inherent part of our strategy is to contest in every district where we think Democrats might have a chance."
Fort Bend County Democrats Chair Cynthia Ginyard said the impact of redistricting was not a big factor for voters in this runoff, but it'll be a central message in the upcoming March primaries and November general election, which will most likely be a rematch between Markowitz and Gates.
"Then, you'll have the full gambit of the ballot on there," she said. "We need Democrats. We need our experienced legislators because they're the ones who are going to have to fight for that. And heaven knows it'll be a fight."