Last night marked the completion of the first elections of 2020 as the spotlight centered on three runoff elections for Texas House seats. The marquee race was in Fort Bend County, which saw Republican Gary Gates square off against Democrat Eliz Markowitz in a runoff that received national attention and all but overshadowed even the most contentious primary races up until last night.
In what can only be described as a strong victory for the Texas GOP, Republican candidate Gary Gates won the special election runoff with 58 percent of the vote, defeating his opponent with a 16-point margin of victory.
Fort Bend County has been a hotbed of political activity since Rep. John Zerwas (R-Richmond) retired in September. Texas Democrats rallied in hopes this race would begin their steady climb to regain control of the Texas House.
State and national Democrats largely threw their support behind one candidate, Eliz Markowitz. Former congressman and one-time presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke spent countless hours campaigning for Markowitz in an attempt to galvanize his supporters to help win the seat for Texas Democrats.
O’Rourke threw rallies, block walked, fundraised, and was present with Markowitz on the ground all throughout election day.
Political heavyweights like Joe Biden, Mike Bloomberg, Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren, and Wendy Davis all supported Markowitz either by endorsing her candidacy or even, in Bloomberg’s case, coming to Texas to knock on doors for the candidate.
National and state special interest groups, including the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee and the Texas-based progressive women’s group Annie’s List, took advantage of the unorthodox election date and spent concentrated time, money, and attention on House District 28.
Altogether, approximately $1 million was spent on this state house race by Democrats and left-leaning allies.
Meanwhile, businessman Gates boasted an expensive campaign himself and spent $1.5 million of his own money on the race.
Governor Greg Abbott lent his support and endorsed Gates once he made it into the runoff election. Gates bested five other Republican candidates to earn the right to face off against Markowitz. Other officials, including Lt. Governor Dan Patrick and Zerwas, also gave Gates their endorsement.
However, the race was certainly not without drama.
Gates, a father of 13 including 11 adopted children, faced attacks from his opponent and Texas Democrats who resurfaced a 2000 child abuse case in which Gates was the accused. His campaign responded with an ad from their camp, in which one of his adopted daughters praised her father for “[taking] such great care of our family, no matter what.”
Gates has previously run for various other offices in Texas, but until Tuesday night had been unsuccessful.
Supporters of the Republican Party were quick to laud the victory as an indication of GOP strength going into the 2020 general election. The same rhetoric was used in 2018, when then-candidate Pete Flores (R-Pleasanton) won Senate District 19 in a stunning upset after running an aggressive grassroots campaign that was heavily supported by statewide elected officials.
Regardless of the Flores’ special election results, 2018 proved to be an incredibly difficult year for Texas Republicans and a strong year for Texas Democrats, as they gained an impressive 12 State House seats and 2 State Senate seats riding the coattails of then-U.S. Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke.
In Texas, Republicans are historically more successful in securing tough special elections, which have a much lower turnout than the cornerstone March or November elections. The lower turnout means strategic campaigning can more easily result in an upset, even in districts like Flores’.
Rep. Erin Zwiener (D-Driftwood), who was one of the 12 who joined the ranks of the Texas House after Democrats made gains in 2018, tweeted after the results came in, saying, “Dems were never supposed to win HD28 in a special. We are worse at specials and the numbers are hard. But they will keep getting better through November. This is just Round 2 of 3.”
Both Markowitz and Gates still have multiple elections ahead of them, as this victory for Gates only temporarily secures his position as a state representative. They must both go on to win their respective March primary elections — though Markowitz has no primary opponent — and are expected to go head to head once again in November.
Though the battle for House District 28 certainly garnered the most attention, two other Texas House special election runoffs were decided last night as well.
In Dallas County’s House District 100, two Democrats faced off. Lorraine Birabil won against James Armstrong III to replace now-Mayor Eric Johnson (D-Dallas). Birabil boasted an endorsement from Beto O’Rourke, while Armstrong had the endorsement of The Dallas Morning News.
Birabil won with 66 percent of the vote.
A short drive away from all the action in Fort Bend County, Houston-based House District 148 also saw a bipartisan battle waged for the seat vacated by Rep. Jessica Farrar (D-Houston). However, Democrat Anna Eastman won handily with 65 percent compared to Republican Luis LaRotta’s 35 percent.
McKenzie Taylor serves as Operations Manager and resident plate-spinner for The Texan. Previously, she worked as State Representative Kyle Biedermann’s Capitol Director during the 85th legislative session before moving to Fort Worth to manage Senator Konni Burton’s campaign. In her free time, you might find her enjoying dog memes, staring at mountains, or proctoring personality tests.