Democratic super PAC, GOP candidate to run first TV ads in key Texas House special election

With less than a week until early voting starts, the Democratic push to flip the seat previously held by state Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, is ramping up.

Vote signs outside early voting locations in Austin on Feb. 23, 2014.

The first TV ads are set to air in the special election to replace state Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, as Democrats rev up their homestretch push to flip the seat.

On Tuesday, both a Democratic super PAC and one of the Republican candidates, Gary Gates, will begin cable advertising six days before early voting starts for the Nov. 5 contest. The super PAC, Forward Majority, will air a health care-themed spot in support of the sole Democratic candidate, Eliz Markowitz, who faces Gates and five other Republicans.

It is relatively uncommon for TV ads to air in a Texas House race — less common in a special election — but state and national Democrats are making a serious effort to put Zerwas' seat in their column as they head toward 2020 with hopes of taking the House majority.

The 30-second commercial from Forward Majority touts Markowitz in contrast to Republican efforts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, invoking the lawsuit led by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton designed to strike down the entire law.

"In the state House election Nov. 5, only Democrat Eliz Markowitz has consistently supported making insurance companies cover preexisting conditions like cancer," a narrator says. "Eliz Markowitz — looking out for Texas families, not insurance company profits."

The message is a preview of what House Republicans can expect next year as Democrats work to flip the House, where they are effectively nine seats away from the majority. While state GOP leaders have vowed to act quickly if Paxton's lawsuit is ultimately successful, they have not yet offered a plan, and state lawmakers ended their biennial session earlier this year with very little to show when it came to the issue.

Gates' TV ad, meanwhile, is a biographical one that has been running online. The half-minute spot discusses how an 18-year-old Gates had to care for his family after the murder of his dad, a promising space shuttle recruit, and how Gates found success in real estate, building a company with 500 employees.

"Now, Gary wants to cut property taxes, strengthen schools, secure our border and help us achieve our dreams," a narrator says. "Gary never gives up."

Forward Majority, which is focused on state legislatives races ahead of the next round of redistricting, is spending over $200,000 on TV and digital advertising through Nov. 5, as well as on mail. Gates' ad buy is also going through Election Day, and his campaign is spending over $100,000 on it, according to records on file with the Federal Communications Commission.

This is not Forward Majority's first foray into the Texas. The group spent $2.2 million on an array of state House races here in the final days before the 2018 election, when Democrats captured 12 seats in the chamber.

With less than a week until early voting starts, the effort to consolidate Democratic support behind Markowitz is in full swing. On Friday, she received the endorsement of EMILY's List, the influential national group that helps elect Democratic women who support abortion rights. And on Tuesday, state party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa is set to hold a news conference in Richmond to formalize the party's support for her, along with other party officials and local elected officials.

Markowitz, a Katy educator who unsuccessfully ran for State Board of Education last year, is up against at least three Republican with sizable financial advantages — and outside Democratic groups are hoping to help make up the difference. Beyond the ad buy by Forward Majority, the National Democratic Redistricting Committee announced Friday it was making a $25,000 investment in the race to help Markowitz.