While many Americans were focused on Washington this week, I was paying special attention to Fort Bend County, Texas. What took place in that Houston suburb may reveal more about the 2020 election than the impeachment trial in the Senate does.
Fort Bend held a special runoff election to fill a vacant state House seat left open by the resignation of the Republican incumbent, who took a job with the University of Texas. Sensing an opening, state and national Democrats decided a win in House District 28 would give them a head start on flipping the nine seats they’d need to control the Texas House and boost their efforts to overturn GOP state legislative majorities from Arizona to Florida, Wisconsin to Pennsylvania and a dozen states in between.
The reason for this intense Democratic interest in state politics is redistricting. Democrats saw how Republican state legislative majorities affected the composition of the U.S. House after the 2010 census. Democrats want to do in more states what they did back then in drawing congressional lines favorable to their party in California, Illinois, Maryland and other blue bastions. The 2020 census gives them the opportunity, but only if they control at least one chamber of a state’s legislature.
Democrats, eager to set the tone for 2020, piled into the race with money, endorsements, technology, lists and volunteers to help Elizabeth Markowitz defeat her Republican opponent. Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren and Mike Bloomberg all endorsed Ms. Markowitz. Mr. Bloomberg even carved out time from his presidential campaign to go door-to-door with her. Former presidential candidates Julián Castro and Robert Francis O’Rourke also canvassed neighborhoods, Mr. O’Rourke so frequently that it looked as if he was trying to establish residency.
Calling the race “the most important election (yet) in 2020,” the former El Paso congressman said a victory could help turn Texas blue and “build momentum” in the state for the eventual Democratic presidential nominee.
The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee echoed Mr. O’Rourke’s enthusiasm, saying that flipping the district would be “earth-shattering.” The Texas House Democratic Campaign Committee called the race “a dead heat” in the campaign’s final week.
Former Attorney General Eric Holder, chairman of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, said if Ms. Markowitz was elected, she’d be “a key voice in fixing our broken political system.” His praise was accompanied by $50,000 in contributions, part of the nearly $1.3 million from national and state Democratic groups. More than 70% of Ms. Markowitz’s contributors were from outside Texas, and more than 94% from outside her district, according to Texas Ethics Commission campaign reports.
All these hopes of a Democratic victory were shattered Tuesday. In the biggest turnout in history for a Texas House special runoff, Republican Gary Gates walloped Ms. Markowitz 58% to 42%. His 16-point margin of victory was more than twice the Republican incumbent’s in 2018 and larger than the district margins for President Trump in 2016 (10 points) and Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018 (three).
A wealthy real-estate investor, Mr. Gates matched the flood of Democratic money with his own, but his victory came from his campaign’s grass-roots efforts. He personally knocked on 17,843 doors while volunteers knocked on 82,157 more and made 41,864 calls, all in a district with 160,000 people.
While Mr. Gates ran on issues important to his suburban neighbors—property-tax relief, public education and school safety, combating human trafficking and, in an area hit hard by Hurricane Harvey in 2017, emergency preparedness—Tuesday’s results also show how toxic the Democratic presidential candidates are making their party in suburbs of states like Texas. Ms. Markowitz was hurt by campaigning with current and past Democratic presidential candidates with views like Ms. Warren’s (an immediate ban on fracking), Mr. Bloomberg’s (comprehensive gun control), Mr. Biden’s (an end to drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, which would wreck the Houston-area economy), Mr. Castro’s (universal health care for illegal aliens) and Mr. O’Rourke’s (gun confiscation and an end to tax exemptions for many churches).
If this district is a bellwether, as Democrats said before the election, and if GOP margins improve similarly statewide this fall, then Texas Republicans won’t lose any more state House seats—instead, they’d win back nine of the 12 they lost in 2018.
Having been trounced, Democrats will quickly memory-hole their proclamations of imminent victory in Texas. Yet every down-ballot Republican candidate in America should heed the election’s lesson: A grass-roots campaign with a strong message can overcome many of the GOP’s suburban challenges.