Can Democrats flip the Texas House? Today's result will provide a clue

The January 28 special election runoff for Texas House District 28 (HD-28) will provide an important signal about the feasibility of the Democratic Party flipping the Texas House in 2020. And, if Democrats flip the Texas House, the probability of the GOP flipping the U.S. House during the next decade will decrease.

Democratic control of the Texas House has significant national implications. With Democrats controlling the House, Republicans, who will have a 100 percent lock on the Texas Senate and governorship in 2021, would be unable to draw tailor-made congressional districts in 2021. This in turn would prevent Republicans from engaging in the partisan gerrymandering needed to retain control of a disproportionate number of the state’s 38 or 39 (up from 36) districts during the 2023-2032 period.

And, as the U.S. House GOP caucus’s largest state delegation (now 23 strong, followed by Florida at 14), as goes the Texas GOP delegation, so goes the House GOP caucus. That’s because the likelihood of a GOP U.S. House majority decreases without a Texas-sized delegation from the Lone Star State. 

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HD-28 is located southwest of Houston in suburban Fort Bend Country. Its population of 160,000 has become increasingly diverse, with the citizen voting age population presently 51 percent white, 17 percent Latino, 16 percent Asian American and 15 percent African American. In 2016 Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpWinners and losers from the South Carolina debate Five takeaways from the Democratic debate Democrats duke it out in most negative debate so far MORE defeated Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDemocratic insiders stay on the sidelines in 2020 race Hillicon Valley: Twitter falling short on pledge to verify primary candidates | Barr vows to make surveillance reforms after watchdog report | DHS cyber chief focused on 2020 The Hill's Campaign Report: High stakes at last Democratic debate before Super Tuesday MORE by 10 percentage points in HD-28, while the baseline GOP margin of victory in the district was 20 percent. In 2018 Republican Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzSteyer calls for Senate term limits to pass gun control legislation Cruz targets California governor over housing 'prescriptions' This week: House to vote on legislation to make lynching a federal hate crime MORE narrowly defeated Democrat Rep. Beto O’Rourke by 3 points in HD-28, while the baseline GOP margin of victory fell to 9 points.  

After the 2018 election, Republicans retained an 83 to 67 advantage over Democrats in the Texas House. To flip the House in 2020, Democrats need a net-gain of nine seats. At present, 21 House seats are considered to be especially competitive: Eight seats “Lean Democratic” (six Democratic, two Republican), five seats are “Toss Ups” (two Democratic, three Republican) and eight seats “Lean Republican” (eight Republican). Even if Democrats are able to hold all of their “Lean” and “Toss Up” seats as well as pick up the five lowest hanging GOP seats, they still will need to win at least four of the “Lean Republican” seats to capture the House, that is half of the districts with partisan profiles like HD-28. 

Texas special elections employ a two-round “jungle primary” system where all candidates compete in a first round, and if no candidate wins an absolute majority of the vote, a runoff is held between the top two finishers. In the November first round there were six Republican candidates and one Democratic candidate. The Democratic candidate, Eliz Markowitz, finished first with 39 percent of the vote, followed by Republicans Gary Gates (29 percent), Tricia Krenek (18 percent), Anna Allred (9 percent) and three other Republicans who combined for 5 percent of the vote.

In Gates, Democrats obtained their preferred runoff rival. Between 2002 and 2016 Gates ran and lost in four Republican primaries and one special election in a safe Republican Senate district. As a result, he possesses some political baggage from the attacks he suffered from his GOP rivals in those races. Gates also lacks the same appeal to college educated suburban white women possessed by Krenek and Allred. Gates’ principal advantage over Krenek and Allred was his ability to self-finance his November campaign to the tune of $1 million. Altogether, Gates has loaned his campaign $1.9 million.

But Gates’ self-financing advantage has been neutralized by Markowitz’s ability to raise large sums of money from a wide range of national and state donors, bringing in $879,000 so far this cycle. In all, 48 percent of Markowitz’s donations have come from Texans and 52 percent from donors outside of Texas.

Special elections are by definition special. And, regardless of the runoff outcome, Markowitz and Gates are headed for another faceoff on November 3 to determine who will represent HD-28 during the next legislative session. That said, the 30,000 to 40,000 voters expected to cast a ballot in this special election will provide the first concrete evidence of which way the wind is blowing in the United States’ most important November 2020 state legislative battle. And the outcome will help determine whether or not the U.S. House remains under Democratic control during the next decade. 

Mark P. Jones is the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy’s fellow in political science and the Joseph D. Jamail chair in Latin American Studies at Rice University as well as a co-author of “Texas Politics Today: 2017-2018 Edition.” Follow him on Twitter @MarkPJonesTX.