KATY, Texas -- Beto O'Rourke is livestreaming again. Joe Biden and Julián Castro are making their presence felt. Mike Bloomberg has knocked on doors and outside groups are running TV attack ads. On the brink of 2020's first big contest, it all screams high stakes.
Not in Iowa. This is just for a single Texas House seat.
"This is one of the most important elections taking place in the country right now,” said O'Rourke, who since ending his own presidential run in November has campaigned for the Democrat in the race, Eliz Markowitz, including again Saturday with Castro.
The outcome of the Jan. 28 special election runoff near Houston — a week before the Iowa caucuses — in an ethnically diverse district of 220,000 people won't change the balance of power in the GOP-controlled Texas Capitol. But like other special elections since President Donald Trump took office, this one is seen as brimming with broader significance: the year's first bellwether that could signal bigger trends to come in November.
That's a stretch, say Republicans, but it's also easy to see why an obscure race for Texas House District 28 is a tempting testing ground.
Is an impeached president repelling suburbanites who are crucial to his re-election? Trump won this turf by 10 points in 2016. Can Democrats really flip the nation's biggest red state? If they win this race, they'll move within eight seats of retaking the Texas House. Is the GOP in trouble with minority voters? The surrounding county, Fort Bend, is often called the most diverse in America.
The election is a release valve for Democrats itching for November to just get here already, but it also reflects the striking level of money and national muscle that are poised to swamp legislative races. Aside from the White House, the biggest prize for Republicans and Democrats this year may be winning control of statehouses — voting maps in the U.S. will be redrawn after the 2020 census, and the party in power can carve out electoral advantages for the next decade.
That may be lost on voters, and it's also unclear how much this race says about Trump and his impact. Republican candidate Gary Gates says that when he's knocked on doors in the last two months, fewer and fewer voters have wanted to talk about the president. “All that has kind of died down. It hasn't been as strong,” he said.
Nevertheless, 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. Gates, a real estate developer, said that was not his impression from the 150 homes he hits a day.
Special elections have transformed into nationally watched battlegrounds in the Trump era, particularly among Democrats eager for signs that voters are fed-up with a combative presidency. In September, Republicans hung on in a special election for a House seat in North Carolina that included Trump personally appealing to voters, although the narrow victory still set off warning signs for the GOP about suburban revolt.
Trump hasn't chimed in on the Texas race. But on a recent Saturday, the living room of a two-story suburban mansion in Katy resembled an Iowa house party for a presidential candidate. O'Rourke climbed on the living room furniture to fire up dozens of volunteers, some of whom squeezed next to a breakfast spread that included muffins decorated with tiny “Beto for America" flags.
Biden made a splash by endorsing Markowitz, and Bloomberg paused his own presidential campaign swing through Texas to walk a neighborhood with her. A national Democratic group called Forward Majority, which is spending millions of dollars nationwide to flip GOP-controlled statehouses, says it has spent $400,000 on the race, at least four times what the group spent on any other Texas district in 2018.
The spending included a TV ad that resurfaced allegations from 2000 that Gates, who has adopted 11 children, abused some of his kids. State child welfare investigators ultimately dropped that case, and Gates put up a counter-ad pushing back on the claims.
Fort Bend County is not unaccustomed to the political spotlight — it is home to Tom DeLay, the former Republican House majority leader. Pierce Bush, the 33-year-old grandson of the late President George H.W. Bush, is making a run here for Congress. The state House seat opened up when John Zerwas, who was among the most powerful moderate Republicans in the House, stepped down for a high-ranking university post.
In November, Markowitz finished first with 39% in an open special election race, falling well short of avoiding a runoff with the rest of the vote split among Gates and other Republicans.
“Special elections are unique creatures that don't necessarily predict anything,” said James Dickey, chairman of the Texas Republican Party.
Associated Press journalist John L. Mone contributed to this report.
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