January 29, 2019

Hit List Refinement

Runoff Loss in National Spotlight Race Could Prompt Democrats
to Scale Back on Total House Targets for More Selective Approach

MIKE HAILEY

The special Texas House runoff that Republican Gary Gates won on Tuesday night didn't prove to be the national bellwether event that it appeared to have the potential to be when Democrats from across the country were injecting hundreds of thousands of dollars into the race in the past few weeks.

But Gates' victory with 58 percent of the vote in overtime in the special House District 28 battle has minimal significance as a weather gauge for the fall in a House district that Democrats hadn't ever dreamed of winning until a seismic shift at the Texas polls less than 15 months ago.

The special competition for the House in Fort Bend County was an important litmus test for the Democrats at the national level nonetheless in terms of their willingness and desire to commit substantial resources to the Lone Star State as a possible burial ground for President Donald Trump's re-election bid in 2020.

The outcome of the special HD 28 election and the novel circumstances surrounding it have given Democrats a better idea of what might be achievable and how to tailor a game plan in a pragmatic and selective fashion in a crusade for their first state House majority in Texas in 18 years.

Democrats as a consequence could determine based on the runoff vote in HD 28 that they should rethink their plan to target 22 Republican seats in the lower chamber and concentrate on a dozen districts that are clearly in reach versus those that are pie in the sky. Democrats could win simply because they're on the ballot in the event of a leviathan blue wave in districts that all the out-of-state donations in the world couldn't buy without it.

HD 28 would be on the bubble at best in that regard as a district where the Democrats didn't even bother to field an opponent for Republican John Zerwas in three of his last four re-election races as the former representative who quit the House last fall so he could take a job in higher education.

The Democrats' hit list on the House battlefield in 2020 contains 10 or more seats that the GOP will be attempting to defend this fall in races that would be expensive long shots for the minority party in the best case scenario. The special election gave the Democrats here a national stage to make a statement about their growing muscle in a state that they have a chance to carry at the top of the ticket in 2020 for the first time in almost four dozen years.

But the Democrats don't have to prevail this fall in HD 28 like they do in other targeted races in districts where wins will be imperative and costly considering how heavily armed they can expect the enemy to be with its back against the wall.

Gates' seemingly bottomless bank account complicates the designs that Democrats had on HD 28 as a perennial candidate who's made it clear that there's no limit to the amount of money that he'll invest in political pursuits that have included a half-dozen bids for legislative and statewide offices that he'd lost before the turn of fortune last night.

A curtailing of resoures in HD 28 would free up funds for races in House districts that Beto O'Rourke carried as the Democrat at the top of the Texas ticket in 2018 when he came close to beat Republican U.S. Senator Ted Cruz in several others. But the Democrats here probably will be inclined to go all out once more in the 2020 general election in HD 28 where Eliz Markowitz appeared to be a relatively strong candidate in most aspects of the competition except the final box score for the runoff.

Markowitz can expect a much closer fight as a result in a general election rematch after the double-digit loss that she suffered in the HD 28 runoff when Gates came from behind to beat her in overtime. Markowitz will get another shot at Gates as long as he doesn't become one of the shortest-serving state legislators in Texas history with an ouster in his next appearance on the ballot when he squares off with primary rival Schell Hammell five weeks from now.

While a Gates loss in OT would have sent Republicans into a collective panic attack from coast to coast, the Democrats never really thought that they were going to flip HD 28 in a special election without the inherent advantages that they envision for November with Trump crowning the GOP ticket again.

The Democrats have a history of turning out to vote in stronger numbers in White House elections in Texas where they expect Trump to be an unprecedented magnet in that respect in light of the depressive effect he had on down-ballot Republicans in 2016 and when he wasn't running two years later.

The Dems have to decide now if HD 28 is worth the gamble based on the new information at hand in the runoff wake.

Mike Hailey's column appears on a regular basis in Capitol Inside

CONSIDER THE SOURCE

Mike Hailey presents state politics with a personal touch. He's the only Texas Capitol journalist who's been to the dark side and back - having worked for two major newspaper bureaus before signing on as press secretary for Bob Bullock - the most powerful and legendary political leader of his time in the state. Hailey's Comment, which is published in Capitol Inside on a regular basis, is a direct reflection of that experience.

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