AUSTIN (AP) — Texas Democrats suffered staggering losses in the state Legislature, losing their House leader and several longtime incumbents who weren't even considered vulnerable.
Twenty-one Democrats lost Tuesday night, including 14-year veteran Rep. Jim Dunnam of Waco, the longtime Democratic House leader, who was defeated by rancher Marva Beck.
Dunnam had been considered a safe bet for re-election, but Republicans put a target on his back and the conservative Texans for Lawsuit Reform group gave Beck's campaign thousands of dollars.
"Clearly independent voters swung heavily to the Republicans tonight, leaving Democrats with only their base to depend on," Democratic consultant Jeff Crosby said. "In that environment, they were just easy pickings."
Republican House Speaker Joe Straus of San Antonio, considered a moderate in the now staunchly conservative chamber, could face a stiff race for a second term as leader of the chamber. But Straus claimed in a news release distributed early Wednesday that he had gotten enough pledges from incoming members to prevail in the internal speaker election, which will be held in January.
Corpus Christi Democratic Reps. Solomon Ortiz Jr. and Abel Herrero, along with Rep. Paula Pierson of Arlington, all fell in Election Night upsets. Other Democratic incumbents who lost Tuesday included Reps. Patrick Rose of Dripping Springs and Valinda Bolton of Austin.
Democrat Rep. Kirk England of Grand Prairie was defeated by Rodney Anderson by fewer than 200 votes and Democrat Ellen Cohen of Houston lost to Republican Sarah Davis by 725 votes.
Democrat Donna Howard of Austin held off Republican Dan Neil by 15 votes.
The legislative seats mirrored statewide trends favoring Republicans, but the number of seats that could swing to the GOP in the Texas House was among the most dramatic results of the night.
Republicans have a majority in the chamber now — but barely. The 150-member chamber is split 75-73 with two vacancies. The GOP was clearly going to strengthen their majority during Tuesday's elections, but no credible analyst predicted the tsunami that engulfed Democrats in the state House.
The Republicans could wind up with a historic 99-51 House majority when members are sworn in next January.
Several incumbents, mostly Democrats, had been considered vulnerable in their districts, as hostility over Wall Street bailouts, the national debt and government spending was expected to guide the decisions of many voters. They included Rep. Joe Heflin and East Texas Reps. Mark Homer, Stephen Frost, and Jim McReynolds, all of whom lost.
"This was not about me. People saw this as a referendum on Washington and that's how they voted," Frost said. "This was a massacre of the first degree."
In Round Rock, first-term Democrat Rep. Diana Maldonado lost her seat to Republican graphic designer Larry Gonzales. The suburban district has long been considered a Republican stronghold, but Maldonado saw an opening in 2008 when the longtime GOP incumbent decided not to seek re-election after he barely broke 50 percent in 2006.
A couple of Republicans embroiled in ethics scandals were considered vulnerable but held on to their seats.
Republican Rep. Linda Harper Brown in Irving won re-election. She was the subject of an ethics complaint involving her use of a Mercedes-Benz owned by a company that makes millions through state transportation contracts.
Republican Rep. Joe Driver of Garland, whose double billings to the state and his campaign for travel expenses have come under criminal review, also retained his seat.
Changes in the Texas House could have a big effect the upcoming legislative session. Straus, the speaker, faces a challenge from a more conservative GOP candidate. Straus said early Wednesday he has 122 pledges of support from lawmakers, which would be enough to hold on to his leadership position.
The House members also will help decide how the state deals with a massive budget shortfall. The Legislature also is expected to redraw congressional district lines using new Census data — a highly partisan task that in the past has been marked by quorum-busting shenanigans.