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Analysis: In special Texas House election, Democrats bit off more than they could chew

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Gary Gates thanks supporters during his election night watch party at Gallery Furniture in Richmond, TX, on Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020. Annie Mulligan for The Texas Tribune

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If the result in House District 28 is the harbinger for 2020’s elections, Texas Democrats are in for a hard, hard winter.

Their high-visibility play for a blue win in red territory failed in the worst way, giving Republicans a generous public relations boost and a strong counter to the Democrats’ claim that Texas is becoming a swing state.

The biggest takeaway is not that Democrat Eliz Markowitz lost the race to replace Republican John Zerwas, or that Republican Gary Gates won it. It’s not even that the win was huge, which it was: Gates beat Markowitz by 16 percentage points. What happened in this Fort Bend County race was more or less predictable, given the district’s history.

But the Democrats made such a national spectacle of their impending upset victory that their late attempts to call it a noble-but-unsuccessful effort to win on hostile ground fall flat.

The results were scarcely different from the first round of the special election, when Markowitz got 39% against a field of Gates and five other Republicans. In the runoff against Gates, she got 42%, while Gates was getting almost the same share that went to the whole field of Republicans in round one.

Between the two of them and their supporting casts, estimated spending topped $2 million. That’s a lot of money for a race to fill the remaining year of a two-year term in the Texas House, which isn’t even scheduled to meet again until next January. What was at stake here? Bragging rights, which would have been considerable after a Democratic win in Republican territory — and which have become considerable for the other side in the wake of a win in the face of the Democratic hype about the race.

Without all of that, this would have been a run-of-the-mill Republican win in a special election in a Republican Texas House district. Because of the buildup, the story is that all the Democrats’ horses and all the Democrats’ spin couldn’t put this seat in their column again.

The Republicans are having a field day.

The race got the attention it got because of the 2018 election results and the continuing political changes in Fort Bend County, a former Republican stronghold where Democrats have turned most of the electorate their way.

House District 28 hasn’t been part of that flip. Donald Trump won in the district while losing the county to Hillary Clinton in 2016. Ted Cruz won in the district while losing the county to Beto O’Rourke in 2018.

When Zerwas resigned before his term ended, it set up a test for both parties — an early look at whether a Republican district in a Democratic county had become more competitive.

It hasn’t, but amid the increase in expectations, with Democrats in Texas and beyond calling it a bellwether and a sign of the future, the result is more important than it might have been.

Democrats turned what should have been an expected loss — look at the recent history — into an embarrassing loss. Republicans turned a predictable result — history, again — into a cause for celebration.

Texas Democrats and Republicans won’t face off again in a big way until November, when Markowitz will have another shot at either Gates or Schell Hammel, his Republican primary opponent. Both parties have been preparing for the general election — with voter registration drives, engagement efforts and fundraising — as you would in a competitive political state. That’s new in Texas, where Republicans have been dominant for the last two decades.

Both parties were looking for good news along the way, and this special election — with help from the Democrats — gave the Republicans something to crow about.