Republican projected to beat Democrat for Texas state House, in race watched for 2020 clues

The race for a state House seat had been watched for a glimpse as to just how competitive the delegate-rich state might be in the presidential election.
Image: Beto O'Rourke campaigns with Texas State Representative candidate Dr. Eliz Markowitz in Katy on Jan. 11, 2020.
Beto O'Rourke, fresh off his failed presidential bid, went door to door urging people to turn out for Eliz Markowitz, the Democrat who appeared to come up short in a runoff Tuesday for a Texas House seat.Annie Mulligan / for NBC News

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By Lauren Egan

WASHINGTON — A Republican candidate for a Texas state House seat beat his Democratic rival, in a special election Tuesday which had been closely watched for a glimpse as to just how competitive the delegate-rich state might be in the presidential election, according to unofficial results.

Gary Gates, a self-funded businessman, beat Democrat Eliz Markowitz, an education specialist, for the House District 28 seat, according to unofficial results. The margin, according to those unofficial results, was 58.05% to 41.95%.

Gary Gates, the Republican candidate for Texas State Representative, speaks during an interview in Katy, Texas, on Jan. 11, 2020.John L. Mone / AP file

The Republican State Leadership Committee tweeted that "Gary Gates defeated the entire national Democratic party tonight."

Gates, speaking to supporters at around 9 p.m. Tuesday, said "They thought this was a seat they could flip," according to The Texas Tribune.

Tuesday’s election was a runoff to replace Rep. John Zerwas, a moderate Republican who is not running for re-election.

In the November election, Markowitz, the only Democrat in the race, won 39.1 percent of the vote. Gates received 28.4 percent, while three other Republicans split the remainder of the vote.

The legislative stakes of the runoff in House District 28, a rapidly diversifying suburb of Houston, are relatively low.

Gates will most likely not even cast a single vote before they have to face re-election in November, as the Legislature does not meet this year. And even had Markowitz won, Texas Republicans would still have controlled the House by eight seats.

Markowitz, rallying supporters at around 8 p.m., referenced the November election, saying "we get to do this all again in 11 months, y’all!" according to the Texas Tribune.

Democrats are itching to demonstrate that Texas is a competitive state and will be up for grabs in 2020. The state has 38 votes in the Electoral College, second to only California, with 55. Many say that demographic changes in the district, part of ethnically diverse Fort Bend County, are part of a larger shift in suburbs around the state — trends that could shift electoral results in Democrats' favor.

"Fort Bend County is representative of what is happening in Texas writ large. There are a lot of immigrants," said Brendan Steinhauser, a Texas-based Republican strategist who ran Sen. John Cornyn's 2014 campaign. "Republicans want to hold this and need to hold this to say: ‘Look, we can stem the tide of the blue wave that everyone is talking about.’"

House District 28 has long been considered reliably Republican, voting for President Donald Trump by 10 percentage points in 2016 and backing Republican Sen. Ted Cruz over Democratic challenger Rep. Beto O’Rourke by 3 points in the 2018 Senate race.

"The fundamentals in the district right now favor the Republicans," said Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas, Austin.

But the greater Fort Bend area tells a different story: Hillary Clinton won the county in 2016 by almost 7 percentage points, and O’Rourke beat Cruz in 2018 by 12 points. Texas Democrats point to census data suggesting that the electorate is more diverse than ever — residents of Fort Bend County are now roughly 32 percent white, 25 percent Latino, 21 percent Asian and 20 percent African American — suggesting that the rest of the county will soon be trending blue, too.

"The question about a district like this is, how are the changes of the composition of the electorate changing what our expectations should be," Henson said.

Democrats have poured resources into the race, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in support of Markowitz. Forward Majority, a Democratic super PAC focused on flipping state houses, says it alone spent $400,000 on the race, including airing an ad that resurfaces allegations from 2000 that Gates abused his children. Child Protective Services ultimately dropped the case against him.

Even Democratic presidential candidates, otherwise preoccupied with their own primary race, have chimed in.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg have all endorsed Markowitz. Former Housing Secretary Julián Castro, a native of San Antonio who dropped out of the 2020 race this month, has campaigned for Markowitz in the district. And O’Rourke, fresh off his own failed presidential bid, has spent days at a time in the district, energizing the Democratic base and going door to door to urgeg people turn out for Markowitz.

Despite the Democratic hype around the contest, early voting results from last week did not look good for the party. By Monday, many were downplaying expectations, quietly throwing cold water on the idea that Tuesday’s outcome would serve as a bellwether for November.

"This isn't easy terrain for us in the first place," said Abhi Rahman, a spokesperson for the Texas Democratic Party. "The fact that it's so close is a win for us already. ... The fact that Republicans had to spend here already shows how diverse and changing Texas is."

Texas Democrats gained 12 seats in the state House in 2018 and need to flip only nine seats to gain control of the chamber and take the majority. With redistricting just around the corner in 2021, control of the Texas House is paramount to both parties. Texas, because of its population growth, is expected to gain multiple U.S. House seats.

"They’re all worried about redistricting. We have to hold the House," said Steinhauser, who said he has heard from members of Congress concerned that Democrats could take the Texas House, giving them the ability to redraw congressional districts to be more competitive.

"That's first and foremost on their minds: Am I going to lose my seat?" Steinhauser continued. "The donors are talking about it. The state party leadership are talking about it. The county parties are talking about it. The candidates are talking about it. It's on the front of their minds, in some ways more than congressional races."