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GOP Confident of Texas Gains

Less than two weeks before the 2004 election, House Republicans remain confident that the Texas firewall they built to ensure a GOP majority next Congress will hold — even though they acknowledge that several of the targeted Democrats have put up surprisingly strong fights.

With Democrats now holding only the narrowest chances of winning back the 12 seats they need take back the majority they lost a decade ago, many in the party paint Texas as their best chance to send a message to the Republican leadership — especially to Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Texas), who engineered the Lone Star State re-redistricting effort in 2003.

“DeLay stiffened our backs,” said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Robert Matsui (Calif.). The redistricting process “was a significant factor in having the Caucus really come to the plate and put money in and help out.”

DeLay’s recent ethics problems — he has been rebuked twice by the House panel charged with monitoring Member conduct — has added further fuel to Democrats’ desire to get back at him on Nov. 2.

Republicans, for their part, insist that the five contested races in Texas are no more or less important than any other competitive races elsewhere.

“When you have a 12-seat majority every seat becomes vital,” said National Republican Congressional Committee Communications Director Carl Forti. “Every race is important and we try to win as many races as we can.”

But despite Forti’s somewhat blasé attitude, empirical evidence suggests that the Texas races hold a large amount of meaning for the Republican Conference.

The NRCC is on track to spend upwards of $8 million on the five Texas races, primarily through independent-expenditure television campaigns.

The committee also helped set up “Team Texas” — a joint-fundraising committee designed to benefit the five Republican candidates. Democrats have a similar organization called the “Texas Fund” through which they have raised money in such far-flung locales as Los Angeles, Miami and New York City.

Republican Members have also been giving generously to their Texas colleagues.

Reps. Pete Sessions (R-Texas) and Randy Neugebauer (R-Texas) rank 3rd and 6th, respectively, in total contributions from their House colleagues, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

In addition, a cavalcade of Republican elected officials have paraded through the five targeted districts over the past few months.

That list includes such national figures as Vice President Cheney and Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), as well as numerous members of the Texas delegation and even other GOP Congressman with committee assignments considered vital to the various districts.

State Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth (R), who is challenging Rep. Chet Edwards in the 17th district, noted that three weeks ago she got to fly aboard Air Force One with President Bush — a major boost to her campaign.

“This is his home district and he is very interested in who represents him in Congress,” said Wohlgemuth. “The fact the president is voting for me and supporting me is a very big deal.”

While the two sides continue to publicly predict victory in all five of the contested districts, strategists on both sides acknowledge that neither side is likely to pull such an inside straight.

Republicans are quick to note that the remap has already forced the retirement of Rep. Jim Turner (D) and played a role in the primary defeats of Reps. Chris Bell (D) and Ciro Rodriguez (D).

Three new Republican Members — in the 10th, 11th and 24th districts — are also virtually assured of winning newly drawn seats on Nov. 2.

The following are capsules on the five remaining competitive races.

1st District

In this east Texas district, Rep. Max Sandlin (D) appears to be in extreme jeopardy in his race against former state district judge Louie Gohmert (R).

Sandlin has represented less than half of the new district’s population during his time in Congress — a situation made even worse by the fact that the new 1st adds Smith and Gregg counties, both of which are heavily Republican.

Pressing their financial advantage, the NRCC has been up with ads pounding Sandlin since mid-September.

In their latest spot, a narrator questions Sandlin’s professed “family values” by alleging that he has voted for “taxpayer-funded abortions … against the Unborn Victims of Violence Act [and] to allow the sale of violent and sexually explicit video games and movies to our children.”

The DCCC tried to answer back over the weekend with an independent-expenditure ad of their own, attacking Gohmert for an allegedly lenient sentence he passed on a murderer.

Sandlin, who had pledged to run a positive campaign, immediately protested and demanded the DCCC take down the ad.

Now, the DCCC is now up with a commercial that touts Sandlin’s support for prayer in school and a balanced budget amendment.

Democratic strategists agree that Sandlin’s decision not to attack Gohmert — or let the DCCC do so — has sealed his fate.

2nd District

The fate of Rep. Nick Lampson (D) is a major bone of contention between the parties, with Republicans believing he is all but defeated while Democrats insist he’s still a potential victor.

Lampson faces well-known former judge Ted Poe in a district that includes both Lampson’s base of Jefferson County, which includes Beaumont and Port Arthur, and Poe’s base in Harris County, which includes Houston.

More than half of the district’s vote is expected to come from Harris County, while roughly 40 percent will come from Jefferson. The remaining vote is in Liberty County.

After contemplating bids against DeLay or Rep. Ron Paul (R) in the immediate aftermath of redistricting, Lampson chose the 2nd district because “the smartest thing to do was to stay with the people who started me in politics in the first place.”

Lampson served as Jefferson County Assessor from 1977 to 1995.

Both the NRCC and the DCCC are on the air with negative spots.

The NRCC ad says that Lampson “does not share our values” due to his votes against the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security and against using military personnel to “protect us from illegal aliens and terrorists crossing our borders.”

The DCCC is hitting back, alleging that Poe “is not the guy he says he is” according to a woman whose son’s murderer Poe sentenced.

17th District

The 17th was always considered the most difficult of the five districts for Republicans to pick up. Now, partisans on both sides acknowledge that Rep. Chet Edwards (D) is the most likely of the Texas Five to survive.

Edwards is seen as the strongest campaigner in the Texas Democratic delegation and was thought to catch a break when Wohlgemuth won an April runoff.

Wohlgemuth was viewed as the more conservative of the two runoff candidates, and, unlike her opponent in the GOP runoff, does not share a base with Edwards in McClennan County, which includes Waco.

Wohlgemuth said she knew how difficult the race would be when she decided to run. She asserted that the race is going according to her blueprint.

“We had a campaign plan that we have stuck to,” said Wohlgemuth in an interview Wednesday. “I believe that is one of the marks of a successful race.”

Both party committees are on television with attack ads. The DCCC is hitting Wohlgemuth on her alleged support of a 23 percent national sales tax. The NRCC ad says Edwards voted for taxpayer-funded abortions as well as against a ban of so-called “partial-birth” abortions.

19th District

In one of two Member-vs.-Member contests created by the 2003 Congressional re-map, Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R) appears to have a lead over Rep. Charlie Stenholm.

The race in this West Texas seat, which stretches from Lubbock in the west to Abilene in the east, seems to be breaking along party lines, which hurts Stenholm.

Neugebauer, who was elected in a June 2003 special election, has centered his campaign around his support for Bush — a sound strategy in a district where Republicans running statewide won an average of 69 percent of the vote in 2002.

Stenholm, as he has done for much of his 26-year Congressional career, has tried to paint the race as a battle over who can better deliver for the district. Stenholm has focused on his position as the ranking member on the House Agriculture Committee — a key post in this farm-heavy district.

Republicans, and privately some Democrats, consider this race all but over.

32nd District

Reps. Martin Frost (D) and Pete Sessions (R) are pitted in this North Texas district that is likely to be the most expensive — and among the most nasty — House campaigns this cycle.

Despite the decided Republican tilt of the seat, which is centered in the Dallas suburbs, Frost has somehow kept himself in the race through a combination of massive fundraising and street-fighter campaign tactics.

Sessions campaign manager Chris Homan said that his boss “always expected it to be a very work-intensive campaign.”

Homan disagreed, however, with the picture painted by a recent Dallas Morning-News survey that showed Sessions with a narrow 50 percent to 44 percent edge over Frost.

“Our polling is somewhat different from theirs,” he added.

Frost has clearly been the aggressor in the campaign to this point, taking several calculated risks — especially in his campaign advertising.

In one spot, an image of a burning World Trade Center is shown while “Amazing Grace” plays in the background.

A narrator says that Sessions opposed allowing federal marshals on airplanes in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“Protect America. Say no to Sessions,” is the ad’s tagline.

Homan said that Frost’s tactics are not surprising because “Martin has always run very negative, very nasty campaigns.”

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