Fort Bend County election could go to runoff

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People wait to vote at Tompkins High School in Katy in Fort Bend County on Nov. 6, 2018.
Michael Stravato for The Texas Tribune

BY PATRICK SVITEK

Six figures of outside money, warnings of socialism, Donald Trump and Nancy Pelosi — and it likely will not end Tuesday.

Both sides in the Fort Bend County election to replace state Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, are preparing for the race to go to a runoff — and at that point, the partisan choice will crystallize and the race will draw even more attention and drama with it. Most expect the overtime round to feature the sole Democratic candidate, Eliz Markowitz, and one of three serious GOP contenders out of six total.

Blessed with a single candidate, state and national Democrats have rushed to Markowitz’s aid, pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into the race as a parade of surrogates has descended on the suburban Houston district. At stake is an enticing prize: control of a traditionally red seat as Democrats charge into 2020 with their sights set on the House majority.

“It’s definitely a changing landscape, and I don’t think they’re gonna turn it blue, but they are certainly giving us a run for our money,” Republican hopeful Anna Allred said in an interview Friday.

Democrats acknowledge a runoff is likely but are not giving up hope on an outright win Tuesday. Cynthia Ginyard, chairwoman of the Fort Bend County Democratic Party, said she anticipates a runoff, but we want more — we want to avoid a runoff, and we’re working feverishly.”

Twelve days of early voting ended Friday, and Republicans closed out the period feeling good about turnout. One GOP analysis found that 54% of early voters were Republicans, 23% were Democrats and 23% were Independents.

Still, the GOP vote remains significantly split, and it is unclear which of the three Republican candidates will end up in the anticipated runoff with Markowitz, a Katy educator who unsuccessfully ran last year for the State Board of Education. In addition to Allred, an anesthesiologist from Katy, the viable Republicans in the race are Gary Gates, a self-funding perennial candidate, and Tricia Krenek, a former member of the Fulshear City Council.

While Krenek boasts more Austin-based support than Gates or Allred — she has the backing of the Associated Republicans of Texas, for example — the likelihood of a runoff has kept other statewide Republican groups and figures on the sidelines for now.

Rather than duke it out for what is expected to be a single GOP slot in the runoff, the Republicans have mostly played nice in the homestretch, pressing their core messages from the start — for Gates, his business experience; for Allred, her political outsider status; and for Krenek, her local ties. Without criticizing Allred or Gates, Krenek has made a push to coalesce Republicans behind her, emailing supporters Wednesday that “now is the time to unite behind a candidate who can in November.”

Intra-party consolidation has not been a problem for Markowitz, who raised an impressive $294,000 on her latest campaign finance report, covering Sept. 27 through Oct. 26, with close to half coming from Texas and national groups focused on state legislative elections. Markowitz’s haul was more than all of the Republican candidates combined, though Gates continued to almost exclusively self-fund, outspending everyone while loaning himself another $445,000.

Markowitz is also being helped by significant outside spending. The Democratic super PAC Forward Majority has disclosed well over $200,000 of expenditures on her behalf, including polling, phone calls, mail, and digital and TV ads.

Markowitz’s campaign has also gone on TV, as have Gates and Krenek.

On the ground, Markowitz has been getting near-daily visits from prominent Democrats from across the state who are eager to pitch in. On Saturday, she launched a canvass with state Rep. Celia Israel of Austin, the new head of the Texas House Democratic Campaign Committee, four other state representatives and two U.S. Senate candidates, Chris Bell and Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez. On Sunday, Markowitz was joined for a block walk by Wendy Davis, the 2014 gubernatorial nominee who is now running for Congress in Austin.

At the Saturday event, Markowitz summed up the stakes of the race. A win by Democrats could put them within eight seats of the majority, assuming they hold on to two safely blue seats where special elections are also happening Tuesday.

“If we can flip this seat,” she said, quickly correcting herself at the urging of assembled supporters. “When we flip this seat, a vast amount of resources will flood into the state of Texas to help us flip the other eight seats we need in order to take a Democratic majority, which means that when we face redistricting in 2021, we can call for an independent redistricting committee that will enable voters to choose their politicians instead of politicians choosing their voters.”

Even if they have not unified behind a single candidate yet, top Texas Republicans are also cognizant of the stakes. Gov. Greg Abbott’s campaign has done work to turn out Republican voters in the district, running digital ads during the second half of early voting that warned that “Democrats are trying to turn Fort Bend blue” and urged viewers to “Vote Republican!”

Last week, a mailer surfaced from a shadowy political action committee, United for Texas, that sought to tie Markowitz to U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and freshman U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. The piece warned that the “socialist agenda is coming to Texas.”

Markowitz has also found a galvanizing force for her voters: President Donald Trump. Her campaign is seeking to jolt Democrats to the polls with a digital spot that features a split-screen of Trump and Markowitz surrounded by supporters, reading: “Trump doesn’t want you to vote. We do.”

The specter of out-of-district boogeymen will likely only a grow in a runoff, which would likely happen in December or January.

“Democrats are pulling out all the stops to take a Republican seat — even calling in far-left candidates like Beto O’Rourke and Wendy Davis, leftists with extreme stances on the Second Amendment and abortion,” Texas GOP Chairman James Dickey said in a statement. The party, he added, is working to turn out GOP voters Tuesday and then “will bring all our resources to bear in the runoff to ensure House District 28 continues to be represented by a Republican.”

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