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Texas House majority in limbo as election results come in

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Texas State Capitol. Jan. 8, 2019 Credit: Miguel Gutierrez Jr. / The Texas Tribune

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Democrats and Republicans fighting for control of the Texas House appeared to be holding their numbers as early vote returns came in Tuesday.

With the GOP’s majority in the Texas House on the line and Democrats within striking distance of flipping the chamber for the first time in nearly two decades, the stakes of this general election are huge. The balance of power set in Tuesday’s election will define an upcoming legislative session that lawmakers say will be their toughest in years. The issues before them will include a budget strained by recession, state responses to the pandemic and a once-in-a-decade redistricting process — always a divisive and partisan affair.

Early voting makes up the bulk of the votes, though a portion of mail-in ballots will not be counted until after Election Day due to later deadlines for them to arrive in the mail.

Even with a presidential race at the top of the ticket, the fight for the state House has been a major rallying cry for both Democrats and Republicans since the election cycle began, with tens of millions of dollars flowing in from state and national groups.

Democrats, after flipping a dozen seats in 2018, are nine seats away from leading the 150-member chamber. Dozens of seats are in play across the state, including nine in districts that Democrat Beto O’Rourke won in 2018 that Republicans represent.

In those dozen races where a freshman Democrat incumbent was defending, most seemed to be edging out their Republican opponents, with the exception of state Rep. Gina Calanni, D-Katy. In that rematch, her GOP challenger, former state Rep. Mike Schofield, was leading in early voting returns.

Meanwhile, most Republican incumbents in races targeted by Democrats were leading in early vote returns. In Tarrant County, three GOP incumbents — Matt Krause of Fort Worth, Craig Goldman of Fort Worth and Tony Tinderholt of Arlington — were leading their opponents. In Collin County, Matt Shaheen and Jeff Leach, both of Plano, had narrow leads over their challengers. In one Houston-area race, state Rep. Sarah Davis, R-Houston, was behind her Democratic challenger Ann Johnson by nearly 7 percentage points, according to early vote returns.

In the Texas Senate, most incumbents appeared to be coasting to reelection, with the exception of Sen. Pete Flores, R-Pleasanton, who was losing in early returns against state Rep. Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio, after winning the seat in a 2018 special election in a historically Democratic district.

Flores, the first Hispanic Republican to serve in the Texas Senate, was down by a margin of roughly 22 percentage points.

Before the election, Republicans had 19 seats to the Democrats’ 12. If Flores loses the seat, Republicans will have just 18 votes in the Senate, losing the supermajority they need to bring bills up for debate under current Senate rules. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who in 2015 oversaw lowering the long-standing 21-vote threshold down to 19, said in January the Senate may further reduce that threshold down to 16.

It takes a simple majority to change the rule, which has allowed Patrick's Senate to steamroll Democrats while bringing up a host of conservative priorities for consideration.

"All I'm saying is that if we were to be a vote short — and I don't think we will, but if we were to be — then we would have to look at that because otherwise we would be right back to where we were in history as the majority party ... of having to have a Democrat sign off on every bill," Patrick said in January. "That doesn't feel right to me."