State Democrats celebrate the still-unofficial pickup in the House.
Seeking victory wherever they could find it, Democrats Wednesday were claiming their first net increase a gain of one in the Texas House in more than 30 years and the toppling of a key Republican statehouse figure.
But they were keeping their fingers crossed as state Rep. Talmadge Heflin, R-Houston, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, refused to concede an unofficial, 52-vote loss to Democratic challenger Hubert Vo in District 149, pending the counting of mail-in and provisional votes.
Elsewhere, Republicans, seeking to preserve the 88-62 House majority they won two years ago, apparently broke even with Democrats.
Republican challengers unseated Democratic state Reps. Dan Ellis of Livingston and John Mabry of Waco, while Democratic challengers defeated first-term Republicans Jack Stick of Austin and Ken Mercer of San Antonio. Stick and Mercer each lost by fewer than 600 votes, and recounts were possible after mail-in and provisional votes were counted, a process that could take several more days.
In another close race, state Rep. Todd Baxter, R-Austin, edged Democratic challenger Kelly White by 171 votes. It was uncertain what impact mail-in or provisional ballots could have on that outcome.
Most of the statehouse attention Wednesday, however, was focused on Heflin, a 22-year legislative veteran who was instrumental in the controversial spending cuts that enabled Republican leaders to balance a state budget last year without raising state taxes.
That role made him a Democratic target, and it probably cost him votes, said Craddick spokesman Bob Richter.
Heflin declined interviews Wednesday. Spokesman Craig Murphy said the campaign is awaiting the counting of 189 provisional ballots cast by voters who could not prove their eligibility and 193 absentee ballots. Absentee ballots historically lean toward Republican candidates and a large percentage of provisional ballots are disqualified, election officials said, which could give Heflin the advantage. The ballots will be counted this afternoon.
Vo remained upbeat, saying voters chose him to represent them and their interests in the House.
"My faith in the fundamental fairness of our democratic process is profound," Vo said. "And I look forward to working within that process to make a positive difference in the lives of everyone who has, in turn, put their faith in me."
In a race like this, this close, there will be a recount, Heflin said. A Heflin aide said officials were still looking at returns Wednesday morning.
Vo, a refugee from Saigon, could become the first Vietnamese member of the Texas House.
But election officials say it could be weeks before the winner is known.
"Not in our imagination, did we expect it to be this close," said David Beirne, with the Harris County Clerk's Office.
The clerk's office said there are still 193 absentee ballots to count and 189 provisional ballots to review. The military votes are also expected to come in by mail in the next few days.
They plan to count the votes currently sitting inside a vault on Friday.
"What we'll probably do is issue the official results for the canvass on Monday, November 15 unless it's determined to go ahead and give notice to the candidates of the results themselves so they could plan accordingly," said Beirne.
"We haven't made a decision yet. We're still reviewing our options," Mercer said. "It would be wrong to concede without knowing everything was done 100 percent right."
Leibowitz received 19,653 votes in Tuesday's election, while Mercer got 19,126 a margin of 527 votes.
"There is a question about a box that came in late and why they came in so late and why they were separated," Mercer said. "That's one of many, many things we're looking at."
Cliff Borofsky, Bexar County elections' administrator, said there's nothing unusual about having "boxes," a term still used for computer voting units, to come in individually and separate from the rest.
In some cases, "the judges have a hard time closing it, or there's some other problem with it," he said.
A few more votes could go to Mercer or Leibowitz after some 2,000 provisional ballots are looked at, Borofsky said. He declined to speculate on how many of those ballots would actually count.
"For instance, there were a number of people who voted in this election who hadn't voted in 10 years," Borofsky said. "They had long since been dropped from the rolls and perhaps neglected to re-register."
Leibowitz said whatever Mercer decides to do is his own business, but he doesn't consider the margin to be too close.
"I think that if you ask 100 people in town, with that size of a margin, 99.9 of them are going to tell you that (a recount) is somewhat pointless," said Leibowitz, who spent the day trying to recover from a long campaign.
"I would like to think that if I were in his shoes that I would be able to deal with defeat more graciously."
Final results won't be known until overseas and provisional ballots are counted next week, but there was a feeling among political professionals Wednesday that Baxter's 171-vote margin over Democrat Kelly White would probably hold up. Democrat Mark Strama's 556 vote lead over Stick is probably insurmountable.
Baxter and Stick, both Austin Republicans running for re-election for the first time, sustained intense, expensive TV assaults of guilt-by-association with U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, whose aides were indicted in September on money-laundering charges from the 2002 election and who urged the Republican-led Legislature to split Travis County into three congressional districts to diminish Democratic chances this year.
Baxter and Stick both got cash from DeLay's political committee in 2002 and voted for his redistricting plan last year. Prosecutors never implicated either Austin Republican in the grand jury investigation, although White and Strama spent a lot of money doing just that.
That Baxter appeared to weather the Democratic storm while Stick didn't might say more about the mechanics of campaigning, the differences in their districts and sheer luck more than anything else.
"Baxter is a better candidate," said Austin consultant Bill Miller. "And Jack (Stick) was the unluckiest."
Miller said Baxter was more aggressive in responding to White's attacks and paid more attention to detail.
Strama's 1,200-vote lead in early voting is an example of the Democrats' out-organizing the Stick campaign, Miller said. By comparison, Baxter secured his victory margin over White in the early vote.
Meanwhile, Stick, who had to deal with a primary challenger in the spring, also drew a Libertarian opponent in his showdown with Strama. Baxter had the luxury of facing only White. The 2,389 votes cast for Libertarian Greg Knowles could have provided a margin of victory for Stick.
David Butts, a longtime Democratic consultant who helped White, said Strama's District 50 in northeast Travis County is a fast-changing district compared with the Baxter-White battleground in District 48 that includes western Travis County.
Butts said Republicans in 2001 divided Travis County into six legislative districts, making sure three of them would be Republican. But he said Democratic areas in Stick's district continue to grow in population, particularly as more minorities leave Austin for northeast Travis County.
"For Republicans, it's a demographic time bomb," Butts said of District 50. He predicted District 50 would be a swing district that both parties would fight over in the future.