Dave McNeely

Dave McNeely

In the recent runoff in House District 28 in Fort Bend County, Texas Democrats may have gotten out a bit in front of their skis.

The runoff was to fill the seat vacated last year when seven-term incumbent John Zerwas, R-Richmond, retired to take a job at the University of Texas. It pitted Democrat Eliz Markowitz, an ebullient educator, against Gary Gates, a self-financing apartment developer who lost several other races for political office.

The Democrats, led by former presidential candidate and former El Paso U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, turned out hundreds of door-knocking volunteers. Many were veterans of O’Rourke’s near-miss effort to unseat Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018, and his unsuccessful try for president.

But the results in the runoff — Markowitz losing to Gates by 16 points — left Democrats dismayed and Republicans elated.

The race was hyped nationally as the Democrats’ demonstration that Red-state Texas could turn blue in 2020, from the top of the ticket on down. After Republican Gov. Greg Abbott paid to bus in hundreds of volunteers to knock doors for Gates, his blowout win instead gave the GOP something to crow about.

Gates got 17,457 votes to Markowitz’s 12,617. That’s a total vote of 30,074. Gates beat Markowitz by 4,840 votes — about 16 percent.

The possible good news for Markowitz and the Democrats is that they have another opportunity to capture the District 28 seat in November.

Markowitz is unopposed in the March 3 Democratic primary for the seat. Gates has an opponent — Schell Hammel — but is presumed fairly certain to be on the ballot in November.

In 2018, incumbent Zerwas got 44,414, to Democrat Meghan Scoggins’ 37,584. That’s 54.2 percent for Zerwas to 45.8 percent for Scoggins — a margin of 8.4 points.

But the interesting figure is that the turnout, even in a non-presidential election year, was 81,998 — close to triple the total vote of 30,074 in the special election runoff.

In other words, it would be uphill for the Democrats to push Markowitz to victory in November.

But it’s not impossible.

This is a long way of pointing out that total turnout in District 28 in the Nov. 3 general election will dwarf the number of people who showed up to vote Jan. 28.

Whether the Democrats will be able to work that to their advantage, or whether the Republicans can again beat back the challenge, remains to be seen.

But there will be a hot presidential race at the top of the ballot, followed by a presumably hot race by Democrats to unseat Texas’ senior senator, Republican John Cornyn.

That should get lots of national attention, as part of a multi-state effort by national Democrats to break up the GOP’s 53-47 hold on the Senate. ‘

Texas voters should be at the polls in maximum numbers.

The question may be that, in this first year without straight-ticket voting — punching one button or checking one box to vote for all the candidates of one party — how far down the ballot voters from each party will go to mark each race.

That’s particularly true as Democrats wage a do-or-die effort to gain the nine additional seats needed to win control of the Texas House of Representatives — when the legislators elected in 2020 will in 2021 draw legislative and congressional districts for the next decade.

Guess we’ll see in November.

The DPS and voter registration ... The Texas Civil Rights Project won at least a temporary victory in its continuing legal effort to get the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Secretary of State’s office to obey federal law allowing simplified voter registration during online driver license renewal.

U. S. District Judge Orlando Garcia of San Antonio ruled last Thursday that the state is violating the 1993 National Voter Registration Act — the so-called “Motor Voter” law — designed to encourage and simplify voter registration.

The DPS website, however, requires a person wanting to register to vote to go to another website, download and print out a form, fill it out and mail it to their county voter registrar. Those extra steps, Garcia ruled, violate the law’s intention “to make voter registration easier, not more confusing and difficult.”

The state contended electronic signatures for voter registration are unacceptable. But Garcia pointed out the state accepts electronic signatures for other purposes.

Because Monday was the deadline to register to vote in March 3 primary elections, Garcia limited his temporary order, requiring the DPS to cover just the three plaintiffs, updating their voter status with information already provided to the DPS.

Several other civil rights and voting groups, plus the Democratic Party, joined in the continuing legal battle.

— Dave McNeely is an Austin-based columnist covering Texas politics. His column appears Thursday.