Democrats aim to change makeup of TX House

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Republicans acknowledge it's not a good year for them in Texas or the nation, but they aren't backing down and have been pouring money into the tightest races.

Democrats, staying unusually competitive in the money game, have been running strong in areas that seemed unimaginable even a few months ago. That's endangered incumbents like Craddick lieutenant and 19-year House veteran Rep. Tony Goolsby of Dallas, who was trailing Democrat Carol Kent in the early vote. Arlington Rep. Bill Zedler and Fort Worth Sen. Kim Brimer were struggling to hang on, too.

Both sides said the large turnout, particularly in urban areas, made predicting an outcome more difficult than usual. Candidates in several House races were separated by extremely slim percentages.

"I'm hopeful but nervous as hell. It's just incredibly difficult to know what this huge turnout means," said Democratic consultant Jeff Crosby. "If the early vote patterns hold, this could be a very good night for the Democrats."

In rapidly growing Round Rock, long considered a Republican stronghold, GOP Rep. Mike Krusee barely broke 50 percent two years ago and has decided not to seek re-election. Now, Democrats are predicting an upset victory by Democrat Diana Maldonado over Republican Bryan Daniel.

Similar scenarios are playing out in enough districts to make Republicans nervous, though GOP consultant Eric Bearse predicts Republicans will actually gain seats when the dust settles.

In North Texas, Democrats are waging well-funded campaigns. Zedler, another Craddick ally, was made to answer for several pocketbook votes, including a failed property tax relief proposal that Democratic challenger Chris Turner is now using against him. Zedler trailed Turner by 54 percent to 44 percent in early voting.

Another potential surprise for Republicans lies in a Houston-area district, where popular incumbent Rep. Robert Talton, R-Pasadena, has retired, leaving a possible opening for Democrat Joel Redmond. Even Talton has said a Democrat like Redmond, the son of a well-known Baptist minister, is just moderate enough to win the district. But the race was a nailbiter Tuesday night, as Legler led with 51 percent of the early vote.

Republicans now have a 79-71 majority in the House, so Democrats would need a net gain of five seats to take over. They see Maldonado, Kent, Turner and Redmond as their best pick up opportunities.

A four-seat gain would leave the House at a 75-75 tie, potentially sparking leadership fights and policy gridlock in the Legislature. In the Senate, where Republicans hold a 20-11 edge, a partisan shift is not in the works.

Craddick, who easily won re-election against Midland Democrat Bill Dingus, has set his sights on winning a fourth term as speaker. Tuesday night's results will play a significant role in his chances of doing that. Even a slight change in the House makeup could give an edge to a different Republican, or even a Democrat.

But for any gains to be substantial for the current minority party, Democrats still must hang on to the handful of blue seats that are close to turning red.

A largely rural House district outside Austin, for instance, is being vacated by a well-known Democrat who eked out successive victories despite its conservative makeup. Now, Democrat Donnie Dippel is counting on a big turnout in Democratic-leaning Bastrop to keep the seat in the D column. But Republican Tim Kleinschmidt snagged the coveted Farm Bureau endorsement -- important in a district that is still defined by its agricultural base and small town persona. With less than a tenth of precincts reporting, Kleinschmidt led with 52 percent of the vote.

In Corpus Christi, Democratic Rep. Juan Garcia, an old college friend of Barack Obama, was trailing Republican challenger Todd Hunter, a former lawmaker.

In one of the biggest surprises of the evening, five-year House veteran Rep. Linda Harper-Brown, R-Irving, was trailing Democrat Bob Romano.

Similarly, in Fort Worth, Republican Mark Shelton took an early lead over Democratic Rep. Dan Barrett.

And in the Dallas suburb of Mesquite, Democrat Robert Miklos was ahead of Republican Mike Anderson in a seat left open when the Republican incumbent was ousted in the primary.

Republicans are all but certain to keep the Senate, even if they lose their first seat in a decade. Brimer, who launched a bitter battle to knock former Democratic challenger Wendy Davis off the ballot, was behind 51 percent to 46.6 percent in early voting.

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