February 9, 2019

Bad Bet

Democrats Blue State Visions Have Delusional Tint in Runoff Wake
as Bold Gamble Backfires in Way that May Be Tough to Overcome

MIKE HAILEY

The Democrats probably never expected to win with a high-stakes gamble in a special Texas House election that ended late last month in a spirit-crushing overtime loss that could have a devastating psychological effect on their push to take the state back at the polls this year.

While the Democrats aren't going to pull the plug on a lower chamber majority quest based on the results of a singular election, the lopsided margin of defeat in the special runoff vote in the House District 28 has Republicans who'd been fearing the worst feeling relatively relaxed now about their prospects for the fall.

The momentum-killing debacle for the Democrats in the suburban district on the outer edge of the Houston area has created the impression that the Republicans had stopped the bleeding that had them on the brink of unraveling in Texas and beyond with President Donald Trump as their leader.

Some GOP loyalists and strategists are even raising the specter of gains in the Texas Capitol's west wing in the general election in the wake of a HD 28 election that State Rep.-elect Gary Gates won in a blowout after a half-dozen failed bids for other elected offices in the past 18 years.

The HD 28 overtime results seemed to say between the lines that the Democrats simply can't compete with an economy that's thriving regardless of whether the president has done anything at all to bring that about. The Gates margin of victory made the Democrats' plans to target 22 Republican state House districts here seem delusional in a state where they could seize control of the chamber for the first time in almost two decades with a net-gain of nine seats in November.

While the Democrats have nine months to try to turn the tide back in their favor, they don't have a Barack Obama or Bill Clinton to bail them out in an election season that got off to a horrible start with the special state House runoff before an epic embarrassment several days later with the Iowa Caucus meltdown.

The Democrats at the national level appeared to think they had nothing to lose with an all-out effort in the special battle in HD 28 where their paramount goal had been the collection of data that will be highly-valuable for voter identification and targeting across the state this fall.

There's no reason to think that the Democrats were not successful in that overriding tactical objective after injecting more than a million dollars into the special election and runoff in a district that had been safely Republican in a suburban swath of the Houston area in Fort Bend County.

But the wager backfired in a way the Democrats clearly hadn't anticipated when the perennial candidate from Rosenberg beat Democrat Eliz Markowitz of Katy in a 16-point OT demolishing that cast substantial doubts on the potential for another blue wave at the ballot box in the Lone Star State in 2020.

The overtime outcome represents a public relations nightmare for Democrats who made the critical mistake of making it appear like they had a realistic shot to flip HD 28 in a contest that both sides thought would be close regardless of who prevailed. The runoff results when measured against expectations and resource investment have given the impression that the Democrats had been grossly overestimating their potential and strength in suburban areas that hadn't already gone blue on their own.

The minority party saw the opportunity to create the appearance of an unstoppable train with an upset in a district where former Republican lawmaker had John Zerwas had defeated a Democratic challenger who'd had minimal funding by a mere 8 percentage points in the general election 15 months ago. Zerwas had been the House's most powerful member who wasn't the speaker in his role as the Appropriations Committee chairman.

Gates would be the ultimate lightweight ostensibly in the minds of Democrats as a candidate who'd been portrayed by fellow Republicans in the past as a slumdog millionaire who'd had children taken from his home by the state. Gates would have twice as much cash to spend on the special election with almost $2 million in personal loans. But Gates had a history of losing despite major money advantages over foes in the past - and the Democrats had been licking their chops when he advanced to the HD 28 runoff in a field that initially included several GOP rivals who'd appeared highly-formidable on paper.

Conventional wisdom would suggest that the Democrats in Texas and their allies in Washington will be cutting the state House hit list in half in the HD 28 aftermath in a strategy reality check that would make it possible to concentrate resources on nine or 10 seats that are realistically in their reach.

But the Democrats might need nothing short of a national recession at this point to reverse their fortunes in a state where they appeared to plunge with the OT returns in HD 28 two weeks ago.

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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