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Texas 2020 Elections

Rick Miller’s swift demise shines light on the shifting politics of Fort Bend County and the Texas House

The drama that unfolded served as the latest reminder that seats in one of the country’s most ethnically diverse counties are some of the most competitive in the state heading into the 2020 election cycle.

State Rep. Rick Miller, R-Sugar Land, speaks on the House floor on May 4, 2017.

As far as falls from grace in Texas politics go, state Rep. Rick Miller’s was about as fast as they come.

On Monday night, the Sugar Land Republican was quoted in a story published by The Houston Chronicle saying his two primary challengers likely joined the race because they are Asian in a district with a considerable Asian population.

“And that’s kind of racist in my mind,” he told the newspaper.

Gov. Greg Abbott yanked his endorsement of Miller the following morning. A rebuke from the Fort Bend County GOP chair followed. By 5 p.m. Tuesday, Miller had announced he would not seek reelection to his House seat and apologized for his “insensitive and inexcusable” comments.

The drama that unfolded — and its remarkably rapid conclusion — served as the latest reminder that seats in one of the country’s most ethnically diverse counties are some of the most competitive in the state heading into the 2020 election cycle, and that neither of the two major parties are taking the area for granted.

The events also reiterated the challenge that the Texas GOP has acknowledged 2020 has thrust upon its ranks: How can it connect with voters of color in suburban parts of the state?

“I think it surprised everyone — things did happen very quickly,” Fort Bend County GOP Chair Linda Howell told The Texas Tribune on Wednesday. “I think people thought they needed to deal with it quickly. It’s such a critical time in our state that it’s important to deal with the issues and that the facts are out there.”

To be clear, the race for Miller’s seat was already shaping up to be competitive. Democrats, bright-eyed and bullish amid demographic shifts, viewed Miller’s seat as a top target in 2020 after the Republican incumbent narrowly won reelection in 2018 and Beto O’Rourke, their party’s nominee for U.S. Senate, carried the district by 2 percentage points. Four Democrats had already lined up to challenge Miller, assuming the incumbent made it out of his own four-way GOP primary.

But Miller’s downfall comes as GOP leaders in the state make public their hopes to make inroads with voters of color. A 2020 strategy document leaked from the state party laid bare how serious it is about recruiting Republicans of color.

Republicans’ worries come as both parties make a play for the Texas House majority. Handling Miller’s remarks in a timely manner, GOP leaders said, was key to moving on and fielding a strong candidate to represent the district.

“From my position,” Howell said, “it was just very important to say this is not at all who we are.”

Texas GOP Chairman James Dickey echoed Howell’s remarks in a similar statement, saying that the party “does not play identity politics and does not tolerate racist or discriminatory remarks or actions.” He added that the party looked forward to helping the GOP candidate who wins in the March primary to “keep House District 26 in Republican hands.”

For Democrats, Republicans’ quick reaction not only confirmed the GOP is worried about losing the seat, but gave them another example of what they described as chaos and unrest in the party.

“Texas Republicans are panicking and sounding the alarm,” Manny Garcia, the state party’s executive director, said in a statement trying to capitalize on the Miller drama.

Still, most Democrats acknowledge they’ll need more ammo than Miller’s blunder to swing the district in their favor.

“The Democrats are still the underdogs here,” said Rish Oberoi, one of the four Democrats running. “But let’s be honest, I think any Democrat running in Fort Bend is going to make sure people know what [Miller] said and the casual nature of how he said it.”

Of course, state House races will, to a large extent, be determined by who in those districts comes out to cast ballots for candidates at the top of the ticket, namely the presidential and U.S. Senate races. But the stakes for Republicans are particularly high in the state House, where Democrats are nine seats away from the majority. If Democrats hold onto the 12 seats they picked up in 2018 and flip another nine, the party would gain control of the 150-member lower chamber for the first time in years — and ahead of a redistricting cycle.

And this wasn’t the first time the GOP has blundered when it comes to strategizing on attracting voting of color in the community.

To appeal to Indian-American voters in 2018, the county GOP put an ad in the local India Herald newspaper with an image of Ganesha, the elephant-headed Hindu deity. “Would you worship a donkey or an elephant? The choice is yours,” the ad, which received a fierce backlash, read. Last year, outgoing U.S. Rep. Pete Olson called his Democratic opponent Sri Kulkarni an “Indo-American carpetbagger.”

Miller’s and Olson’s districts include parts of Fort Bend County, one of America’s most ethnically diverse counties: 20% of its residents are Asian, 20% are black, 24% are Hispanic and 34% are white. Hillary Clinton won the county decisively in 2016. According to the latest census estimates, Asian residents’ share of the citizen voting-age population in Miller’s district grew from 22% in 2010 to 24% in 2015.

One of the targets of Miller’s ire, primary opponent Leonard Chan, said he thinks there would’ve been a backlash to the representative’s comments even if the seat wasn’t competitive. (The other target of his remarks, Jacey Jetton, did not respond to a request for comment.) But others said the unique demographics of the district also played a role in the response.

“Had he said that somewhere where the Asian population was 2%, would it have mattered the same? I don’t think so,” Cynthia Ginyard, the chair of the Fort Bend County Democratic Party, told the Tribune. Still, if Republicans saw the district “as a light risk, [Miller’s] comment made it a high risk.”

Republicans aside, Democrats are still trying to maneuver their own party’s heightened excitement and capitalize on it accordingly.

In the nearby House District 28, a special election has been underway for months to replace former state Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond. The district, which is also located in Fort Bend County, went to Zerwas in 2018 by 8 percentage points, while Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz carried it by only 3 points. The seat has been cast by Democrats as a prime pick-up opportunity to help set the tone ahead of 2020 — and the party worked hard to coalesce behind a single candidate as Republicans were undecided on which of their several contenders to back heading up to Election Day.

Eliz Markowitz, the Democrat, finished first with roughly 40% of the vote, while Republican Gary Gates finished at 28%. The runoff for the seat is scheduled for late January.

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