California Rep. Mike Thompson (D) was on the lookout for Texas Rep. Charlie Stenholm (D) at a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee event Tuesday evening at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
Earlier in the day, a constituent had handed Thompson a check for Stenholm, who faces Republican Rep. Randy Neugebauer this fall. Thompson had similar checks in his pocket for Texas Reps. Max Sandlin and Chet Edwards — both of whom face tough re-election fights come November.
“Everyone understands the importance of the Texas elections,” said Thompson, the head of the Business Advisory Council for the DCCC.
Although the five Texas Democratic Members imperiled by the Republican-led redistricting plan have barely any physical presence at the Democratic National Convention — only Stenholm was in Boston and then only for a single day, to be feted by the agriculture industry — they are much on the minds of their colleagues and many others in the Democratic community gathered here.
“They are the closest thing to a cause célèbre on our side of the aisle,” said Rep. Joseph Crowley (N.Y.).
The redistricting plan approved by the Republican-controlled Texas Legislature and signed into law by GOP Gov. Rick Perry in late 2003 jeopardized the political careers of seven Democratic incumbents — two of whom have already fallen to defeat in primaries.
In addition to Stenholm, Sandlin and Edwards, Reps. Martin Frost and Nick Lampson also face tough races this fall in districts that tilt toward Republicans.
Final approval of the plan came after three special sessions of the state Legislature and two escapes to neighboring states by Democratic lawmakers attempting to thwart GOP plans.
For Democrats gathered at the convention, the “Texas 5,” as they are now known, symbolize House Republicans’ wanton disregard for the traditional rules of conduct.
Democrats are hoping to make what they call this GOP “corruption” a centerpiece of their campaign message this fall, although it remains unclear whether voters can be energized by talk of arcane House procedure and the behind-the-scenes redrawing of Congressional lines.
“What was done to them was done viciously and maliciously,” Crowley said.
Rep. Marion Berry (Ark.), a member of the conservative Blue Dog Coalition, said that his group took the redistricting effort very hard given that four of its Members have been targeted for defeat.
“It was almost to the point where we took it personally,” said Berry. Referring to Stenholm, he added, “Unless it’s just about being in power, you can’t go after that man.”
Stenholm made a brief appearance at the end of the DCCC event honoring Chairman Robert Matsui (Calif.) on Tuesday night at the museum, but downplayed the import of the Texans’ fortunes to the overall House picture.
“Everyone’s seat is going to be critically important,” said Stenholm. “Mine is no more important than those other 217.”
Republicans currently hold an 11-seat majority following Democrats’ special election wins this year in Kentucky and South Dakota, both of which were GOP-held seats. The two-seat pickup marked the first time in more than three decades that Democrats had made such gains prior to Election Day.
While each contested seat is vitally important in House Democrats’ long-shot effort to reclaim the majority they lost a decade ago, Members are clearly looking to Texas to send a message to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Texas), who orchestrated the re-redistricting in the Lone Star State.
“There is no better way to make sure this kind of redistricting effort is never repeated than by having it backfire on Republicans,” said Rep. Chris Bell (D-Texas).
Bell, along with Rep. Ciro Rodriguez (D-Texas), lost primary fights in districts drastically altered by the GOP redistricting plan.
Evidence of the single-minded dedication Democrats are devoting to the “Texas Five” can be seen in the July quarterly reports filed by the Lone Star State incumbents.
Sandlin, Lampson and Edwards ended the period with huge cash advantages over their Republican challengers.
“Everyone in the Caucus knows about them, and, if they can, have contributed to them,” Crowley said of his Texas colleagues.