Special elections are strange animals, and anything can happen in them (e.g. Laura Thompson becoming the first independent to win a House since 1936), but an Eliz Markowitz victory on Tuesday must be considered an upset were it to occur. Markowitz faces Rosenberg real estate investor Gary Gates, who is making his third run for this seat and sixth overall run for state office since 2002.
In the November special election, the six Republican candidates collectively received 61% of the vote, led by Gates’s 28%. Markowitz, the lone Democrat in the race, received the other 39%. Turnout was 19.7% of 148K registered voters. Markowitz received a majority of votes in 11 of the district’s 35 precincts. We expected Markowitz to be the clubhouse leader after the first round, but also thought her best chance of flipping the seat was winning outright then, when Republicans’ support was divided.
While this Fort Bend Co. district has gone from 14 points redder than the state as a whole in 2002 to less than a point redder in 2018, it was still nearly 3 points redder than any House district won by a Democrat that year. The majority of this observed partisan shift has occurred since 2014, when the district was 8 points redder than the state and the average statewide Democratic candidate received 30% of the vote head-to-head against the Republican. The average statewide Democrat fared 15.5 percentage points better in 2018 than in 2014, but still lost by an average of 9 points.
Unquestionably, HD28 is experiencing one of the fastest shifts toward Democrats in the state. Only three other House districts’ electorates have shifted more during the past four years, and one of those is already in Democratic hands. However, based on our metric of how much redder or bluer a House district is relative to the state as a whole, HD28 is just the 14th most likely to flip to the Democrats in 2020. In fact, it’s not even the likeliest House district in Fort Bend Co.
That would be adjacent HD26, one of the three districts shifting blue-ward faster than HD28. Democratic candidates running in HD26 are, on average, about 2 points better off than those running in HD28. Former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-El Paso) carried HD26 over U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R) by 1.6 points in 2018, but Cruz carried HD28 by 3.1 points. Mary Scoggins, the 2018 Democratic nominee for HD28, received 46% of the vote against Zerwas, 2 percentage points lower than DeMerchant. No Democrat ran for HD28 in 2016. Or 2014. Or 2012.
The potentially daunting electoral math hasn’t stopped money from pouring into HD28, which Democrats would love to claim as a sign that Texas might finally be poised to turn blue again. Markowitz has raised $728K as of January 18. Just 7% ($49K) of that total came from district zip codes while 44% ($317K) came from out of state. Since then, Markowitz has reported receiving $125K from the Washington, D.C.-based Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which would mean a majority of her funds have come from outside Texas.
Gates has almost entirely self-funded his campaign, enabling him to outspend Markowitz by nearly $1M. He has raised $76K from other contributors as of January 18, of which $9K came from district zip codes (12%).
These figures do not include independent expenditures from outside groups, of which there has been a lot, much of which will not be disclosed until after the election. The Washington, D.C.-based Forward Majority Action Texas PAC has spent $379K supporting Markowitz through January 18, including a six-figure buy for its ad rehashing a 20-year-old, dismissed child abuse complaint against Gates. Markowitz has also received endorsements and appearances from at least five Democratic presidential candidates.
Meanwhile, the state’s top Republicans have rallied to defend the seat. Gov. Greg Abbott (R), Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R), U.S. Sen. John Cornyn (R) and Land Comm. George P. Bush (R) have endorsed Gates, as has Sen. Lois Kolkhorst (R-Brenham), whom he ran against in a 2014 special election. There is a sense of urgency here, and that likely translates into sufficient Republican votes to keep the seat, at least for now.
Early voting turnout for the runoff election exceeds the November special election. More than 16K people voted in person during the abbreviated four-day early voting period, a 14% increase over the 12-day early voting period for the special election. According to Republican political consultant and data analyst Derek Ryan, the largest bloc of early voters through the first half of early voting were Republican primary voters (46%). Democratic primary voters comprised the second largest bloc but were far behind at 24% of early voters.
Assuming those voters stick to their partisan identities – They should, since seven out of 10 HD28 voters cast straight-party ballots in 2018. – then Markowitz needs around 80% of the vote from everyone else to win the seat. Even with a significant influx of non-primary voters that could lower that required vote share, the hurdle would remain quite high.
We project a Gates victory.
HD100: Democrats Lorraine Birabil and James Armstrong III emerged out of a five-person field with 33% and 21% of the vote, respectively. Armstrong edged out Daniel Clayton by just five votes to claim the second runoff spot.
Birabil has out-raised Armstrong, $183K to $46K, and outspent him, $133K to $44K, for the election cycle, but the gap has been much narrower since the special election. Including daily contribution reports filed since their runoff reports, Birabil has out-raised Armstrong, $57K to $27K, with more than half of Armstrong’s total coming from Texans for Lawsuit Reform PAC.
Turnout has been very light. Just over 1K people voted early in person (68%) or by mail (32%), corresponding to roughly 1.3% of registered voters. Turnout for the November special election was already light at 7.9%.
Birabil was stronger in mail ballots (42%) and in-person early voting (40%) than on Election Day (30%) as she finished first in all three vote types. About two thirds of special election voters cast their ballots on Election Day, bucking a statewide trend. If that proportion holds, then just over 3K people will cast ballots in this race.
Low-turnout elections hinge on which candidate does a better job at turning out the people who already voted for them once, and Birabil has a bigger such pool to pull from and more resources to do it. Anything can happen when very few people vote. Forced to pick a winner, we would say Birabil, but we would not be surprised to see Armstrong eke out a narrow victory. We also would not be surprised if someone else ends up as the eventual Democratic nominee. The field for the special election has filed for the primary, and this time attorney Paul Stafford is eligible to run.
HD148: What a difference hotly contested municipal elections make! Just over 3K people have voted early in person (59%) or by mail (41%) for the runoff election, a 56% drop from the special election that shared a ballot with Houston’s mayoral and council elections. Turnout for the special election was 25%. Early turnout for the runoff is around 3.5%.
Democrat Anna Eastman (20%) and Republican Luis LaRotta (16%) emerged from a 15-candidate special election field that saw the Democrats combine for 69% of the vote, consistent with the 68% former Rep. Jessica Farrar (D-Houston) received in the 2018 general election. Eastman has outspent LaRotta more than 6-to-1 over the campaign cycle.
Prominent Republicans’ support for LaRotta has been nowhere near the level given to Gary Gates in HD28. For example, Abbott has contributed $30K in kind to the Gates campaign. His campaign’s contribution to LaRotta was a video shoot the campaign valued at less than $100.
Under normal circumstances, we would say LaRotta has a slimmer chance than Eliz Markowitz in HD28, but special runoff elections in January are not normal circumstances. It is safe to say that Democrats appear less urgent about defending this seat than Republicans are about HD28. Very low turnout could give the underdog a shot, but the current is still very much against him. Some might view the relatively high proportion of mail ballots as possibly giving him an advantage, but Farrar received 66% of the mail ballot vote in 2018. There simply are not many paths to victory for LaRotta. We expect Eastman to prevail.
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