AUSTIN, Texas – If Texas is going to be competitive in 2020, the first race wasn't.
Democrats went all-in on a legislative runoff in the booming Houston suburbs, drumming up endorsements from Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren and putting $1 million on the ground. Still, a Republican real estate developer who had lost seven previous tries for office cruised to a double-digit victory.
It was a high-profile defeat for Democrats who supercharged a sleepy statehouse special election in a bid to make an early 2020 strike on the GOP's biggest turf. On Wednesday, Republicans called it a lesson.
“They made a big mistake by nationalizing," said Republican strategist Karl Rove, the former adviser to President George W. Bush.
In final unofficial results, Republican Gary Gates polled 58% of the vote to 42% for Democrat Eliz Markowitz.
But despite the unusual attention on the race, the outcome is no surefire predictor of what's in store for Texas. Turnout for the race was more than 30,000 — far better than typical statehouse runoffs in Texas but still a fraction of how many are expected to vote in fast-growing Fort Bend County come November. And Democrats, who need to flip nine legislative seats to claim a majority in the Texas House for the fist time since 2001, have more favorable targets than state House District 28.
But before Tuesday's blowout, Democrats said there was reason to believe. President Donald Trump carried the district by 10 points in 2016, but two years later, Beto O'Rourke got within 3 points in his failed U.S. Senate run. In the final stretch, the race drew support from Biden, who said it could “set the tone for the entire general election in 2020."
Democrats sought to downplay the loss, and outside groups that amplified the race said it wouldn't cause them to retreat in Texas.
“That really isn't going to change," said Ross Morales Rocketto, co-founder of Run for Something, which recruits Democratic candidates nationwide. “But I think one thing a lot of Democratic and progressive donors need to really think hard about is what is going to be required to invest in the state of Texas, in order for us to get the outcomes that we want?"
Texas' fast-growing suburbs that carried the GOP for a generation are quickly changing, and Democrats are counting on voters there turning away from Trump to make gains. Last summer, Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, a Republican, was caught confiding to a conservative activist in a secretly recorded meeting that Trump was “killing us” in urban and suburban districts.
Dave Carney, an adviser to Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who helped Gates' campaign, said Trump wasn't a factor.
“The president really wasn't an issue other than the motivation for these national Democrats to come down here and talk," Carney said.
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