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The Battle for the Texas Legislature


Texas has experienced explosive population growth over the past decade, adding over 3 million people. Around half of that growth is attributed to births, and the other half to migration with people moving from other state and nations. This demographic shift puts Texas in the political spotlight.

The Texas Democratic Party recently issued a 10-page proposal detailing its plan to register new voters for the 2020 election. The plan seeks to register as many as 2.6 million likely Democratic voters and engage 2.4 million minority voters who are currently registered to vote but did not vote in 2018. The party seeks to hire more organizers to reach out and register voters across the state, as well as sending in more vote-by-mail applications in 2020 than ever. The Democratic Party has also made voting rights issues a central point in their plan. For instance, the Texas Democratic Party has put itself on the front lines of a recent federal case regarding Texas’ recent discarding of voters who registered using an electronic signature. The party hopes to block the State of Texas from enforcing the original signature rule, which requires a physical signature to vote. This case has significant implications for the future of on-line voter registration and voting.

Not letting any grass grow under their feet, the Texas Republican leadership has responded with their own plan to register voters. Some of the state’s biggest Republican donors have formed a Super PAC called Engage Texas. The group has opened offices in three of the state’s major metropolitan areas (Austin, DFW, and Houston) and has sent organizers across the state to reach out to potential GOP voters, and help them to engage in the political process.

The D and R strategies make it crystal clear: politically, Texas is an important state to monitor in 2020. The Democrats view 2020 as their chance to either take control of the Texas House of Representatives or at least turn Texas purple. Meanwhile, Republicans see 2020 as crucial in maintaining their dominance in the state.


Last summer, three state representatives announced their resignation from the Texas House of Representatives:

  • HD 28: Rep John Zerwas, MD (R-Richmond) resigned to become Executive Vice Chancellor for Health Affairs for the University of Texas System.

  • HD 100: Rep Eric Johnson (D-Dallas) resigned when he was elected Mayor of Dallas

  • HD 148: Rep Jessica Farrar (D-Houston) resigned to allow her successor to gain seniority over next Session’s freshman members.

Governor Greg Abbott called special elections to fill these vacancies that were held on November 5, 2019 with runoffs which took place on January 28, 2020.

HD 28: This was, by far, the most interesting and hotly contested race. HD 28 has been solidly red for years, but political pundits targeted it as a long-shot opportunity district for the Dems. During the 2018 election, Rep Zerwas was re-elected with an 8-point lead over his Democrat rival, while US Senator Cruz won the district by only 3-points over challenger Beto O’Rourke.

Six Republicans filed to run in the November special election, compared to only one Democratic candidate. All seven candidates appeared on the same ballot, and on election day the field narrowed to a runoff between the top two vote winners: educator Eliz Markowitz (D-Katy) and businessman Gary Gates (R-Rosenberg). 29,074 people voted, with Markowitz receiving 39.1% of the vote, and the balance of the votes being divided among the six Republican candidates.

Conventional wisdom would indicate that more ballots were cast for group of Republican candidates than the Democrat, giving Gates a clear advantage in the runoff. But Democrats saw this as an opportunity to eek out a win and build momentum leading into the larger election cycle. Republicans viewed this as an opportunity to flex some muscle to crush the Democrats’ dreams.

This race looked more like an Iowa Caucus contest than a suburban House race, with Presidential hopefuls parading through the district with Markowitz receiving endorsements from Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, Michael Bloomberg, Beto O’Rourke, and Julian Castro.

Republicans were quick to respond to challenge, with Gates receiving the endorsement from Governor Abbott, US Senator John Cornyn and Zerwas. Republican campaign groups sent out a plea to their rank and file members across the state offering to pay for transportation and lodging for them to come to Fort Bend County to get out the vote for Gates. Fort Bend Republican Chairwoman Linda Howell called this race their ‘Alamo’ due to its significance in the push to keep Texas red.

The mantra for both parties during the runoff was to GET OUT THE VOTE. And, boy-oh-boy were they successful. This was a highly unusual special election, where more voters turned out for the runoff than did for the November special which prompted the runoff. Exactly 1,000 additional voters turned up in the runoff over the November special election. In the end, Gates defeated Markowitz with 58% of the vote.

Despite the outcome, close examination of the results reveals that RMarkowitz received 1,262 more votes than she did in November. The Democrats seemed to have been much more mobilized, while the Republicans overall showed slightly less enthusiasm in the January runoff than in November special election (17,719 votes in November compared to 17,457 in January). It is likely that these two candidates will face off again in the November 2020 General Election for a full term in the Texas House of Representatives.

HD 100: Attorney and community activist Lorraine Birabil (D-Dallas) defeated her opponent, developer James Armstrong (D-Dallas) with by a 2 to 1 margin. Birabil now enters the Primary as their reigning State Representative against a field of six Democrat opponents – four of which she defeated in the special election. This district is a Democrat stronghold, with no Republicans filing for the General Election.

HD 148: Community activist Anna Eastman (D-Houston) defeated Luis LaRotta (R-Houston), garnering 65.47% of the vote. This is historically a Democratic district that favors minority candidates. There was a question whether voters would elect a Caucasian Democrat, over a Latino Republican. Eastman will move on to run for re-election in the 2020 Democratic primary, facing two of her former Special Election opponents -Adrian Garcia and Penny Shaw- while LaRotta will be running again as the sole candidate in the Republican primary. As the incumbent in this election, Eastman is the favored candidate for the Democratic primary. This will likely be a rematch between Eastman and LaRotta in November.


The party primaries are scheduled for March 3, 2020. This is the race that decides who which candidates will represent their respective political parties in the November general election. With the Presidential contest at the top of the ticket, a large voter turnout is all but guaranteed in 2020.

Federal Candidates.

US Senate: 17 candidates have filed to run for the US Senate seat held by Senator John Cornyn (R). Of the five Republicans in the race, Cornyn is the clear front-runner, and expected to win the party’s nomination. There is no clear leader in the 12-person Democratic Primary, and none generating the excitement that Beto O’Rourke brought to the 2018 race against Senator Ted Cruz.

Congress: All 36 Texas Congressional seats are up for election, and there is a contest in each district. The current partisan breakdown of the Texas delegation is 13 Democrats/23 Republicans. That number may shift this election cycle with six Congressmen retiring and hotly contested battles brewing in several swing districts. Retirements include: Conaway (R-Midland) in CD 11; Thornberry (R-Clarendon) in CD 13; Flores (R-Waco) in CD 17; Olson (R-Sugar Land) in CD 22; Hurd (R-Helotes) in CD 23; and Marchant (R-Coppell) in CD 24.

19 Congressional incumbents face contest opposition in the March primary and on the November general election ballot. One faces primary opposition only.

State Candidates.

Senate: Each of the 31 Texas State Senators serve four-year terms. Each election cycle, roughly half of the Senators are up for election (16 are up in the current cycle). The Senate appears to be the most stable legislative body during the election cycle. The partisan breakdown on the Senate is 12 Democrat/17 Republican.

  • Three of the 16 are unopposed on the ballot: Alvarado (D-Houston) in SD 6; Menendez (D-San Antonio) in SD 26; and Perry (R-Lubbock) in SD 28.

  • The only retirement in the Senate is Jose Rodriguez (D-El Paso) in SD 29. Current State Representative Cesar Blanco is running unopposed in the Democrat primary and Bethany Hatch is running unopposed in the Republican primary. This district is a Democrat stronghold that is unlikely to flip during this election cycle.

  • Two Democrats face both primary and general election candidates: Miles (D-Houston) in SD 13 and Lucio (D-Brownsville) in SD 27. These districts are not likely to flip to become Republican during the general election.

  • 10 incumbents face opponents in the general election only: Hughes (R-Mineola) in SD 1; Creighton (R-Conroe) in SD 4; Taylor (R-Friendswood) in SD 11; Nelson (R-Flower Mound) in SD 12; Kolkhorst (R-Brenham) in SD 18; Flores (R-Pleasanton) in SD 19; Hinojosa (D-McAllen) in SD 20; Zaffirini (D-Laredo) in SD 21; Birdwell (R-Granbury) in SD 22; and Buckingham (R-Lakeway) in SD 24. Flores is the only one that appears particularly vulnerable, as he won this seat, as a Republican, during a special election to replace a Democrat senator who resigned because he was being sent to prison for various misdeeds.

House of Representatives:

Aside from the Presidential contest, the House of Representatives is where most Texas’ political focus will be this year. House elections promise to be lively, as the Democrats launch a full court press to take control of the House in 2020. This will be no easy feat, as the 150 member House is currently comprised of 83 Republicans/67 Democrats. Much is on the line for both parties as the Speaker’s gavel will be up for grabs and redistricting will be a major issue that shapes legislative districts for the next decade.

  • 30 seats in play (could flip to other party representation)

o 12 are currently held by Democrats

o 22 are currently held by Republicans

o 9 is the number of seats that Democrats need to win (without losing any) in order to flip the House

  • 13 members of the House are not seeking re-election:

o 3 resigned and were replaced in special election.

o 2 are running for the State Senate; (Blanco (D-El Paso) in HD 76 and Gutierrez (D-San Antonio) in HD 119

o 1 is running for county commissioner; Lang (R-Granbury) in HD 60

o 7 made announced that they would not to seek re-election; Wray (R-Waxahachie) in HD 10; Speaker Bonnen (R- Angleton) in HD 25; Miller (R-Sugar Land) in HD 26; Navarez (D-Eagle Pass in HD 74; Stickland (R-Bedford) in HD 92; Bohac (R-Houston) in HD 138; and Zedler (R-Arlington) in HD 96

  • 38 members of the House are unopposed in either the primary or general election (they are effectively re-elected to another term).

  • 112 or 81% of the members running for re-election have an election challenge.

  • 14 members face primary challenges only

o 10 Republican incumbents have primary challenges (some have general election opposition too)

o 18 Democrat incumbents have primary challenges (some have general election opposition too)

Incumbents House members who face opposition in the March primary:

Dist. Member Dist. Member

2 Flynn (R-Van) 106 Patterson (R-Frisco)

9 Paddie (R-Marshall) * 108 Meyer (R-Dallas)

27 Reynolds (D-Missouri City) 109 Sherman (D-DeSoto)

30 Morrison (R-Victoria) * 116 Martinez-Fischer (D-San Antonio)

36 Munoz (D-Mission) * 127 Huberty (R-Houston) *

37 Dominguez (D-Brownsville) * 128 Cain (R-Deer Park)

38 Lucio III (D-San Benito) * 129 Paul (R-Webster)

41 Guerra (D-McAllen) 131 Allen (D-Houston) *

51 Rodriguez (D-Austin) 139 J Johnson (D-Houston) *

59 Sheffield (R-Gatesville) * 141 S Thompson (D-Houston) *

65 Beckley (D-Carrollton) 142 Dutton (D-Houston)

72 Darby (R-San Angelo) * 146 Thierry (D-Houston) *

80 T King (D-Uvalde) * 147 Coleman (D-Houston) *

85 Stephenson (R-Wharton) 149 Vo (D-Houston)

*Primary challenge only. District will not flip to other party during the current election cycle.

The party primaries are scheduled for March 3, 2020 and the general election is scheduled for November 3, 2020.

Karen Reagan is a Principal at Texas Star Alliance

Liam Mahagan is an Intern at Texas Star Alliance

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