By APRIL CASTRO and JAY ROOT
AUSTIN -- Texas Democrats were suffering staggering losses in the Texas Legislature Tuesday night, losing their House leader and several longtime incumbents who weren?t even considered vulnerable.
Fourteen had lost before the night ended and another nine were trailing. All told, the Republicans were poised to pick up a total of two dozen seats, though some were still too close to call and results from Houston lagged behind the rest of the state.
The biggest confirmed loss for the Democrats came when 14-year veteran Rep. Jim Dunnam of Waco, the longtime Democratic House leader, fell to retired 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 pickins.?
Corpus Christi Democratic Reps. Solomon Ortiz Jr. and Abel Herrero were also unexpected incumbent defeats. Other Democratic incumbents who lost Tuesday included Reps. Patrick Rose of Dripping Springs and Valinda Bolton of Austin.
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 appeared to be engulfing Democrats in the state House.
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.
Rep. Joe Heflin, a Panhandle Democrat considered vulnerable, lost his re-election bid. Others who had been on the endangered list and lost were East Texas Reps. Mark Homer and Jim McReynolds.
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 they 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. A Republican sweep would threaten moderate Republican Speaker Joe Straus, who is being challenged by a more conservative GOP candidate. Straus said early Wednesday he has 122 pledges of support from lawmakers, 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.