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Democrats Regroup After Republicans Score Easy Win In Texas House Special Election

Eliz Markowitz speaks to supporters at her election night watch party on Tuesday.
Michael Stravato
The Texas Tribune
Eliz Markowitz speaks to supporters at her election night watch party on Tuesday.

State and national Democrats are regrouping after a tough loss Tuesday in a special election runoff for a Texas House seat that they had targeted in their drive to flip the chamber in November.

The result — a 16-point win by Republican Gary Gates over Democrat Eliz Markowitz — left Democrats insisting the seat will be more competitive in November and citing unique factors like Gates' self-funding capacity. But they also acknowledged they could have some lessons to learn after a race that drew a flood of out-of-district attention — and the higher stakes that came with it.

On one hand, Austin-based Democratic consultant Glenn Smith said, HD-28 is a "really hard district." It ranks 16th out of 22 on the list of seats that Democrats believe they can flip in the fall.

"On the other hand, sometimes we get out in front of ourselves by raising expectations and frankly talking too much about what we're doing and what we're gonna do instead of just doing it," said Smith, who was not involved in the race. "I completely agree with taking the fight to the other side whenever we can ... but they got in front of themselves about how wonderful this was gonna be."

Republicans took a victory lap Wednesday, bashing Democrats for overplaying their hand and energizing GOP voters with their cast of high-profile surrogates, most prominently Beto O'Rourke. Some Democrats, too, were spending the election aftermath contemplating O'Rourke's outsized role in the runoff.

After losing a dozen House seats two years ago, the GOP voiced new confidence after Gates' victory that it could not only protect its House majority but also make significant strides toward reclaiming its 2018 losses.

"The Democrats are right about one thing — this is a bellwether district that's a swing district, and voters in Texas are gonna swing, they're gonna swing to the ... Republican side," said Dave Carney, Gov. Greg Abbott's top political strategist, predicting Republican will take back "at least half a dozen" seats. As for HD-28, Carney told reporters Wednesday that he does not think it "will be competitive at all in the general election."

Democrats remain nine seats away from the majority. Regardless of Gates' win, "the Texas House will be in play in the general election of November 2020," said Justin Nelson, honorary co-chair of the House Democratic Campaign Committee.

Gates, a businessman who had unsuccessfully sought office several times before, was competing against Markowitz to finish the term of former Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, who stepped down last year to take a job with the University of Texas System. Prior to that, Democrats were already eying his district, where he won reelection by 8 percentage points in 2018 while U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz carried it by 3.

Gates ended up doubling Zerwas' margin, leaving silver linings few and far between for Democrats.

Gates did have a financial advantage thanks to his personal wealth. He outspent Markowitz and an allied group, Forward Majority, by at least a few hundreds of thousands of dollars while his self-funding topped $1.5 million. She was well-funded — raising $863,000, most of it from groups like the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee and the HDCC — but could not keep up with Gates.

In an interview Wednesday morning, the DLCC's president, Jessica Post, argued Gates' big spending showed how competitive Democrats made the race. Still, asked what her side could have done differently, Post offered a few things.

"One thing that I think we could've improved was the pivot from the [November special election] into the runoff, so we're taking that lesson," she said, referring to the relatively quiet period late last year after the runoff was set. "We're also looking at the Republican infrastructure in Texas knowing that folks like Gov. Abbott are going to go all out to protect their majority."

Post also said she thought "some of the negatives around Gates might be more impactful," a point echoed by other Democrats who were at least slightly surprised he so thoroughly consolidated the GOP vote despite the baggage he brought to the race. That included a 2000 child abuse case that has followed him through his previous campaigns — and that Democrats still hope will dog him through November.

"Now, Republicans are tethered to a credibly-accused child abuser with Donald Trump at the top of the ticket," Texas Democratic Party spokesman Abhi Rahman said after Gates won Tuesday night.

In any case, there was little doubt that Gates was a different candidate. He personally worked harder, committing to knocking 150 doors a day and ultimately hitting over 17,000. His messaging was a little more personal, focusing on how he raised himself and his family after his father, a pilot, was murdered. And after weathering intraparty conflict in his prior races, Gates welcomed the opportunity this time to helm a team effort once he made it to the runoff.

After his victory speech, Gates told The Texas Tribune that his win "shows on the Republican side, if we will 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 was also disciplined, his supporters say, mostly keeping his head down as the runoff became increasingly noisy and nationalized.

Democrats faced regular decisions about how much outside support to welcome. It was a former White House contender — O'Rourke — who ended up as easily the top surrogate for Markowitz as he made Fort Bend County his second home for several weeks.

There was no question the former El Paso congressman was a galvanizing force for Democrats. Through his new group, Powered by People, he brought 1,100 volunteers to the district representing 155 cities in 19 states, according to a Tuesday fundraising email. Between Powered by People and Markowitz's campaign, Democrats knocked on over 60,000 doors between the November election and runoff.

But Republicans say O'Rourke was just as much of a galvanizing force for their side, and Democrats closely involved in the runoff say there is some truth to that. Both parties' polling had his image significantly underwater in the district, and while Democrats continue to welcome his commitment to the House majority fight, there was a sense Wednesday that he could be more strategic in how he picks his battles going forward.

O'Rourke said over the weekend he was not concerned about becoming a liability for down-ballot candidates.

Markowitz's campaign manager, Odus Evbagharu, defended the nationalization of the race Wednesday, describing the strategy as "high-risk, high-reward" given the district's lower-tier position on Democrats' target list.

"Nationalizing is something we had to do to raise the money, to build the volunteer infrastructure," he said. "Nationalizing also helped bring attention to a state that is the biggest battleground state in the country. The presidential candidates haven't been visiting Texas for just this race."

In HD-28, O'Rourke was especially visible during the early voting period, the tail end of which Markowitz was sidelined by the flu. While early voting turnout increased over that for the November election, it became clear by the weekend that it was benefitting Republicans. Analyzing the turnout, the GOP projected it would end up with an early vote share in the high 50s, while Democrats were looking at finishing in the low 40s.

Despite the numbers, Markowitz claimed Sunday evening that the race was a "dead heat" after early voting and it would come down to election day turnout. The DLCC, meanwhile, sent out a fundraising email in the final days exclaiming that a "new poll" found Markowitz "currently TIED" with Gates, though it appeared to be referring to a Democratic poll released in mid-December.

The race was effectively over once polls closed at 7 p.m. Tuesday and early voting results showed Gates leading by 18 percentage points. About an hour later, an upbeat Markowitz showed up at her election night party at an Italian restaurant in Katy and gave a rousing speech in which she wasted little time looking forward to the general election.

Several miles away in Richmond, Gates was huddling with his consultants at a Mexican restaurant and preparing for an experience that had escaped him for many years: electoral victory. Gates was relatively understated in his victory speech, briefly acknowledging the race "brought a lot of national attention" and Democrats thought they could nab the seat.

O'Rourke, meanwhile, was on the road back to El Paso after appearing at Markowitz's party. Livestreaming from the driver's seat, O'Rourke looked on the bright side, telling supporters all the work they did in HD-28 will pay off in November and encouraging them to "keep your eyes on the prize."

Before that, though, O'Rourke acknowledged the music blasting from the car stereo, calling it a "good song to hear right now." The song? Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'."

Disclosure: The University of Texas System has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

The Texas Tribune provided this story.

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.