SUGAR LAND, Texas—Charity is rare in partisan politics, and nobody ever accused Republican powerhouse Tom DeLay of cutting Democrats any slack. But the former House majority leader's resignation could hand Democrats the gift he seemed to cherish most: his own seat in Congress.
In any other year, it might be a minor embarrassment. But Democrats are close enough to retaking the U.S. House of Representatives that Texas' 22nd Congressional District, where DeLay has withdrawn from the election and left Republicans with no candidate on the ballot, could be the race that puts liberal Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., in the speaker's chair.
"Absolutely atrocious" is how Eric Thode, who got his start in politics putting up yard signs for DeLay in 1978, describes that scenario.
"No question it's possible," said Thode, who was the Republican Party chairman in DeLay's home county until a few months ago. "I would hope that any logical-thinking Republican will realize where the blame lies. The blame lies with Tom DeLay."
DeLay's voluntary withdrawal from the ballot last week, the product of an attempt to have the party handpick his successor, has left Republicans with no choice but to try a long-shot write-in campaign. Yet they're in such disarray that the hope of backing a single write-in candidate became possible only Monday, when Sugar Land's popular mayor bowed out of the race. One top state Republican, Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, had urged Republicans to consider voting for the Libertarian candidate, who has a spot on the ballot.
Citing the divisions and the $3 million that Democratic nominee Nick Lampson has raised, two leading political analysts—Charlie Cook and Larry Sabato—changed their ratings of the seat this week to "leans Democrat."
It had been "leans Republican" only a few days ago.
"This is extremely strange," said Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. "No one could have predicted this. No one did predict it. It's a comedy of errors, but the joke is on the Republicans."
Even many Republicans say the race is all but lost.
"Theoretically, a write-in candidate can be victorious," Thode said. "And, theoretically, someone could swim from Manhattan to the U.K. The odds are very long."
Democrats need a gain of 15 seats to regain control of the House for the first time since 1994.
The specter of a Democrat from DeLay's former congressional seat helping to push Republicans out of power marks the final chapter of an epic unraveling. Three years ago, DeLay, nicknamed "The Hammer" for his hard-charging partisanship, pushed a redistricting plan through the Texas Legislature that produced six new Republican seats in Congress, solidifying the majority for which he'd fought tooth and nail.
Indicted by a Texas grand jury last September on campaign finance-abuse charges, DeLay—who says the charges are bogus and politically motivated—was forced under party rules to give up his powerful job as majority leader.
Convinced that he'd dismiss the indictments quickly, DeLay filed for re-election and easily won the primary in March. But by that time his popularity began to dim amid questions about his ties to disgraced Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff, even as DeLay denied any wrongdoing in the affair.
A few days after a second former aide pleaded guilty to corruption charges in that scandal, DeLay announced April 3 that he'd resign from Congress—precisely so that his district wouldn't fall into enemy hands. He said the Texas Republican Party could pick his replacement.
"If I step aside, whoever replaces me on the ballot will be guaranteed a seat in Congress," DeLay said in a videotaped statement. "It's too important for me, and I've worked too hard to have a Republican majority to give this seat up to a Democrat."
DeLay's confidence that he could walk off the ballot and have another Republican replace him proved to be a monumental miscalculation.
Democrats sued to block the maneuver. State laws allow a replacement only in extraordinary circumstances—such as death or serious illness—once a candidate wins a primary. DeLay said he was ineligible because he no longer met the constitutional test of being an "inhabitant" of Texas since he'd moved to Virginia.
Democrats said the only case law on the subject involved politicians who wanted to be on the ballot, not off it, and federal courts generally have established that inhabitancy is attained as long as a candidate is in the state on Election Day.
The Perry Mason moment in the trial came when DeLay—who still owned a house in Sugar Land and was found there when he was served with legal papers—said under cross-examination by Democratic Party lawyer Chris Feldman that he might be in Texas when elections are held in November.
The court ruled, and the U.S. Supreme Court agreed, that DeLay was eligible to be on the ballot. The denouement came Aug. 15, when the Texas secretary of state removed DeLay's name from the ballot at the former congressman's request.
DeLay's undoing is ironic for Lampson, a former Democratic congressman: He lost his Beaumont-area seat under DeLay's redistricting plan. When he announced his run against DeLay in January, "a lot of folks didn't think I had a snowball's chance in hell of winning," Lampson said.
Now, that's what folks are saying about the Republicans' chance of holding the seat this year.
No candidate has ever won a congressional race in Texas with a write-in campaign, in which voters have to write—or on electronic machines, type—the names of their preferred candidates onto the ballots. It's happened only four times elsewhere since 1950, the last one in 1982, according to Congressional Quarterly.
On Monday, Republican Sugar Land Mayor David Wallace withdrew as a write-in candidate, leaving the Texas Republican Party united behind Houston City Council member Shelley Sekula-Gibbs, who'd won the party's endorsement last week.
Lampson says he's a better fit than some might think. He cites his pro-gun credentials, including past endorsements from the National Rifle Association. He also says the "fiscal irresponsibility" of the Republican-led Congress has soured many voters on the Republican Party.
But Sabato said Lampson probably would be a "one-term wonder" when the district—which President Bush won in 2004 with 64 percent of the vote—returned to its Republican inclinations in 2008, a presidential election year.
"The Republican who finishes second will be in line to get the nomination next time or at least the heavy favorite," Sabato said. "A Republican is going to be favored in this district."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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