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The first vote of 2020 ends Tuesday, in Texas

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By Lauren Egan with NBC News Politics
Image: Beto O'Rourke campaigns with Texas State Representative candidate Dr
Beto O'Rourke, fresh off his failed presidential bid, has spent days at a time in the district, energizing the Democratic base and personally going door to door urging people turn out for Markowitz.   -   Copyright  Annie Mulligan for NBC News
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WASHINGTON — Voters in Texas will vote in a closely-watched special election for a state house seat on Tuesday, offering an early glimpse into just how competitive delegate-rich Texas might be in the 2020 presidential election — and foreshadowing which way critical suburban voters might trend in November.

Democrat Eliz Markowitz, an education specialist, faces Republican Gary Gates, a self-funded businessman, in Tuesday's runoff to replace Rep. John Zerwas, a moderate Republican who stepped down to take a university job. Markowitz, the only Democrat in the race, won 39.1 percent of the vote in the November 2019 general election. Gates received 28.4 percent, while the other three Republicans in the race split the remainder of the vote.

The legislative stakes of Tuesday's election in House District 28, a rapidly-diversifying suburb of Houston, are relatively low. Whoever wins likely will not even cast a single vote before they have to face re-election in November, as the Legislature does not meet this year. And even if Markowitz wins, Texas Republicans would still control the House by eight seats.

But Democrats are itching to demonstrate on Tuesday that Texas is a competitive state that will be up for grabs in 2020. Texas has 38 votes in the Electoral College; only California has more, with 55. Many say that the district, which is part of the ethnically diverse Fort Bend County, is representative of the demographic changes happening in suburbs around the Lone Star state — trends that could shift electoral resultsin Democrats' favor.

"Fort Bend County is representative of what is happening in Texas writ large. There are a lot of immigrants," said Brendan Steinhauser, a Texas-based Republican strategist who ran GOP Sen. John Cornyn's 2014 campaign. "Republicans want to hold this and need to hold this to say: 'Look, we can stem the tide of the Blue Wave that everyone is talking about.'"

House District 28 has long been considered reliably Republican, voting for President Donald Trump by 10 percentage points in 2016 and backing Republican Sen. Ted Cruz over Democratic challenger Rep. Beto O'Rourke by 3 points in the 2018 U.S. Senate race.

"The fundamentals in the district right now favor the Republicans," said Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas, Austin.

But the greater Fort Bend area tells a different story: Hillary Clinton won the county in 2016 by almost 7 percentage points, and O'Rourke beat Cruz in 2018 by 12 points. Texas Democrats point to census datasuggesting an electorate more diverse than ever before — residents of Fort Bend County are now roughly 32 percent white, 25 percent Latino, 21 percent Asian and 20 percent African American — to suggest the rest of the county will soon be trending blue, too.

"The question about a district like this is, how are the changes of the composition of the electorate changing what our expectations should be," said Henson.

Democrats have poured resources into the race, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in support of Markowitz. Forward Majority, a Democratic super PAC focused on flipping state houses, says it alone spent $400,000 on the race, including airing an ad that resurfaces allegations from 2000 that Gates abused his children. Child Protective Services ultimately dropped the case against him.

Even Democratic presidential candidates, otherwise preoccupied with their own primary race, have chimed in.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, have all endorsed Markowitz. Former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro, a native of San Antonio and a former 2020 candidate, has campaigned for her in the district. And O'Rourke, fresh off his failed presidential bid, has spent days at a time in the district, energizing the Democratic base and personally going door to door urging people turn out for Markowitz.

But despite the Democratic hype around the contest, early voting results from last week did not look good for the party. By Monday, many were were quietly throwing cold water on the idea that Tuesday's outcome served as a bellwether for 2020, downplaying expectations.

"This isn't easy terrain for us in the first place," said Abhi Rahman, a spokesperson for the Texas Democratic Party. "The fact that it's so close is a win for us already....the fact that Republicans had to spend here already shows how diverse and changing Texas is."

Texas Democrats gained 12 seats in the State House in 2018 and need to flip only nine more seats in order to gain control of the chamber and take the majority. With redistricting just around the corner in 2021, control of the Texas House is paramount to both parties. Texas is expected to gain multiple U.S. House seats in addition to the 36 it already holds due to its population growth.

"They're all worried about redistricting. We have to hold the House," said Steinhauser, who said he has heard from members of Congress concerned that Democrats could take the Texas House, giving them the ability to redraw congressional district to be more competitive.

"That's first and foremost on their minds: am I going to lose my seat?" Steinhauser continued. "The donors are talking about it. The state party leadership are talking about it. The county parties are talking about it. The candidates are talking about it. It's on the front of their minds, in some ways more than congressional races."