Fort Bend County voters will soon help decide who finishes out the term in a key seat in the Texas House of Representatives.
In a seat that many view as a harbinger for the future of the state’s political climate, a local political expert believes a few factors will come into play.
Democrat Eliz Markowitz, the leading vote-getter in the November special election for the District 28 seat vacated by Republican John Zerwas, will square off against Republican Gary Gates in a runoff scheduled for Jan. 28. Early voting runs Jan. 21-24.
“An essential element to the outcome of that election, not just now but in November, is not only the turnout itself but the composition of the turnout,” Rice University political science professor Bob Stein said. “The thing I’ve noticed (In District 28) and about a dozen others in the region is that the composition of likely voters is changing.”
According to Stein, there has been a slow, steady decline in base Republican voter turnout and a surprising increase and acceleration of base Democrats that began in 2018, leading to a potential political shift. Typically, Democrats don’t vote at the same rate as Republicans, and that gap only grows wider in special elections, according to Stein.
He cited Fort Bend County going Democratic in both the county commissioner and district attorney’s races in 2018 as well as Democrat Sri Preston Kulkarni’s narrow loss to U.S. Rep. Pete Olson of District 22 and Zerwas’ announcement to not seek reelection as a main reason for the recent narrowing of that gap.
That could wind up playing a significant role in the District 28 race. There are at least 17 competitive Republican statehouse seats in the 2020 cycle, and Republicans won about half of those seats in 2018, including District 28, with margins of fewer than 5 percentage points.
“Democrats have now been reassured that turnout gap – which is normally 12-15 points difference on a base that is larger for Republicans – is now narrowing with the base getting smaller,” Stein said. “If Democratic turnout holds up to the kind of differential that it saw in 2018, I think they have a good shot (to flip the seat).”
Another factor, Stein said, is that the Republican base has simply changed over the last several cycles.
“More Republicans in Fort Bend and this particular district are leaving the electorate than are being replaced. They’re just simply leaving us altogether, and the people behind them are disproportionately non-Anglo and Democratic,” he said. “In the past, those younger voters – under 35-45 – didn’t vote at the same rate as those over 65 voted, particularly in midterm and special elections, and that’s changed.”
Zerwas’ mindsets and actions have impacted the Republican base, according to Stein, leaving them in an odd position.
“What I’ve seen on the ground game from the Democrats is that they’re driving people to the polls, and their canvassing has been really strong,” Stein said. “What I find with Republicans in the district is a little dispirited. Zerwas was a spirited candidate, but he wasn’t associated with the extremes of his party. He was more of a moderate.”
According to Fort Bend County Elections Administrator John Oldham, District 28 showed about 20 percent of eligible voters casting their ballots during the special election in November. A final key element to overall turnout, according to Stein, could be the district’s South Asian population, which makes up a significant percentage of the district’s voters.
“This South Asian vote, what you’re seeing there is a group of voters who would probably fiscally agree with the Republicans,” Stein said. “But the data I’ve seen is that they’ve salted the earth for several elections. … It’ll be a long time before Asian Americans and South Asians feel comfortable voting Republican.”
Oldham said that with the abbreviated early voting period of three days, he expects 12-15 percent turnout when all is said and done. And according to Stein, the election could go either way depending on a number of factors.
However it turns out, he said, could be a sign of things to come in 2020.
“I’m expecting it to be close,” Stein said. “If it becomes a blowout for the Republicans (more than five points), that would be a harbinger for the next election in 2020 and it would probably be safe. But if it gets under that margin, I think Democrats have a chance.”