Candidate filing closed last week for what should be a highly competitive special election in an extremely important legislative chamber this November.
Texas Democrats, who need to pick up just nine seats in the 150-member state House next year to win a majority, are hoping to whittle that target down by one by flipping the vacant 28th District in the Houston suburbs. That seat had been held for many years by Republican John Zerwas, who will resign at the end of September to become executive vice chancellor for health affairs of the University of Texas system.
Zerwas was first elected in 2006, easily defeating Democrat Dorothy Bottos 63-37. From then on, he coasted to re-election every two years, three times facing no competition. That abruptly changed in 2018, though, when Zerwas faced the first and only close call of his career. Zerwas beat back Democrat Meghan Scoggins 54-46, while Sen. Ted Cruz was just narrowly carrying this seat 51-48 over Beto O’Rourke—factors that may have played a role in Zerwas' decision to bail on the legislature.
Now, this once reliably Republican seat is in play, and it could offer Democrats a road map for retaking the state House next year for the first time since 2002. A large group of seven candidates is seeking this seat, six Republicans and one Democrat. The GOP field features attorney Tricia Krenek, physician Anna Allred, businesswoman Sarah Laningham; and three businessmen: Gary Gates, Gary Hale, and Clinton Purnell.
On the Democratic side, educator Eliz Markowitz, who lost a race for the state Board of Education 59-41 last year, is the sole candidate running. Local Democrats have coalesced around Markowitz, which may have played a role in other contenders staying out of the race.
On the Republican side, the most credible candidates appear to be Krenek, Allred, and Gates. Krenek has a history in local politics from her time on the city council in Fulshear, a fast-growing town with a population of 12,000. Allred, meanwhile, could have an inside track: While Zerwas has not publicly expressed a preference, he and Allred are partners in an anesthesiology practice.
Gates is perhaps the best-known commodity of the candidates, though not for good reasons. He has run for office before: In 2014, he finished second in a special election for the 18th District in the state Senate. Later, in 2016, he made a run for statewide office as a candidate for the Texas Railroad Commission, losing a primary runoff just 51-49.
During that race, elements of Gates’ checkered past were brought to the surface. In 2000, Child Protective Services removed his 13 children from his home, saying they were in “immediate danger.” Soon after, a judge returned the kids and the case was dropped, but not before serious accusations were levied against Gates, including allegations that he made his children miss meals as a form of punishment.
All candidates will run together on a single ballot on Nov. 5. If no one takes a majority in that election, a likely outcome given the size of the field, the top two finishers will advance to a runoff on a date that has yet to be determined.
As the 2018 results showed, this district has followed the classic pattern of suburban areas shifting toward Democrats in the Trump era. Mitt Romney easily carried this district 64-35 in 2012, while Ted Cruz won it by a similar 64-34 margin that year. By 2016, however, this district had moved sharply toward Democrats, as Donald Trump won by a much smaller 53-43 spread, a gap that collapsed to just 3 points in Cruz's re-election bid last year.