Gary Gates, a businessman who spent nearly $2 million on his own campaign, scored 58 percent of the vote in the runoff election to outpace Eliz Markowitz, a Democrat and an education expert making her second run for office.
Democrats had spent heavily on Markowitz's behalf in a district that seemed to be trending their way. Groups like Forward Majority and the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee invested more than $600,000 in her campaign, a startling amount for an election in which the winner would not even get to serve in Austin before the next election in November.
Democrats had hoped to deliver a message that Texas is in play in the presidential election, thanks to its rapidly changing suburbs. President Trump won the suburban Fort Bend district by 10 points, and Sen. Ted Cruz (R) won there in 2018 by just 3 points. Former Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D) and several presidential candidates campaigned with Markowitz.
"Today, voters resoundingly rejected the Democrats' socialist ideology and took a major step toward keeping Texas red. As we look ahead to the 2020 election, we must be prepared to replicate this success across the state if we are to secure a more prosperous future for Texas," Gov. Greg Abbott (R) said in a statement.
Democrats privately admitted that the election became more about O'Rourke than about Markowitz or Gates. O'Rourke's presence was ubiquitous, pushing Republican voters to the polls.
Republicans ran four advertisements linking Markowitz to hot-button issues like gun control, church tax exemptions, immigration and to O'Rourke's vote against Hurricane Harvey tax relief in Congress, issues aimed at getting base voters to the polls in what would otherwise be a sleepy special election.
Once Republican House Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s power base, Fort Bend County has added more than 200,000 new residents since the 2010 Census, making it the 10th-fastest growing county in America in the past decade.
It is increasingly diverse, thanks to influxes of African-American and Asian-American residents who each make up about a fifth of the local population. About a quarter are Hispanic, and about a third are non-Hispanic whites.
Democrats made inroads in Fort Bend County, winning the county judgeship in 2018 for the first time in modern memory. And Rep. Pete Olson (R), whose district covers Fort Bend County, is one of the six Texas Republicans who have said they will not seek reelection this year.
Democrats tried to spin the results of Tuesday's vote in a positive light, pointing to trend lines they say favor their party over the long run.
"This result is an extension of the trendline of improving Democratic performance across Texas in crucial swing districts. The district also typifies the type of tough but winnable district where Democrats need to compete aggressively in order to get to legislative majorities," said David Cohen, the co-founder of Forward Majority.
Democrats need to pick up a net of nine seats to win back control of the Texas state House in November, a chamber they have not controlled since the 1990s. If they make those gains, the party would win a seat at the table for the redistricting process that will begin after the 2020 Census, when Texas is expected to grow its congressional delegation by two or three seats.