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For Republicans, There Isn’t Much Time to DeLay

Last year, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and some Democratic House candidates tried to interject House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) into competitive races around the country. It didn’t work. [IMGCAP(1)]

But with DeLay piling up negative press almost daily, Republican insiders now have reason to worry. And some allies of the Texas Republican are starting to do just that.

DeLay is still not a household name in Taftville, Conn., Norristown, Pa., or Waterloo, Iowa — communities where some of the most competitive House races are likely to take place next year. But for the first time, he could become a liability for House Republicans in 2006.

Of course, not all politically attuned Republican political operatives are fretting about DeLay just yet.

“I don’t see how they tie DeLay to the entire House of Representatives, or to individual House Members,” one Republican insider told me recently, adding, “Six months from now, we will be talking about something else.”

A veteran Capitol Hill strategist agreed. “Thus far, he isn’t in trouble with his” Republican colleagues in Congress, the strategist said. However, “there is a problem back home, where [DeLay’s negative media coverage] is eroding his support to some degree.”

DeLay doesn’t yet have the national visibility that Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) did prior to the 1980 elections, when Republicans used the Speaker as a symbol for four decades of Democratic control of Capitol Hill. And until the Texan is known nationwide, he won’t be as useful to Democratic strategists as they would like.

But the House Majority Leader has been receiving more and more bad ink, and it’s hard not to wonder if more bad news isn’t yet to come.

Two of DeLay’s top aides were indicted in Texas in September for illegally raising political funds from corporations, and front-page stories last week in The New York Times, about payments to DeLay’s wife and daughter, and The Washington Post, about a trip to Russia, guarantee that more people around the country will read about the GOP leader.

Of course, most people don’t read the Times or the Post, and those stories broke in the middle of the media frenzy over the death of the pope. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the television networks and regional newspapers start to pick up the DeLay drumbeat.

And more revelations and accusations force DeLay to defend himself on more fronts. The controversies offer Democrats more avenues for attack and more ways to paint a picture of a House GOP that doesn’t play by the rules and is abusing its power.

“There’s simply more stuff,” one always-astute Democrat said when asked why DeLay could be a factor in House races in 2006 despite flopping as a Democratic poster boy last cycle. “We are the challengers. To make a change, we have to prove that there is rot at the top [of the Republican Party]. And DeLay’s problems make that easier.”

So far, House Republicans remain supportive of DeLay. None of them has called for his resignation or publicly wavered about his future. But even Republican operatives and conservative activists who enthusiastically back the House Majority Leader show signs of concern.

“We’ve always laughed at the idea that [Democrats] could make him an issue nationally,” one GOP strategist commented. “They’ve tried before and failed. But we aren’t laughing anymore. There is some increased chatter, worrying and concern” about the possible fallout from the attacks.

But that same strategist expressed uncertainty about whether the critical newspaper reports about DeLay actually increased the likelihood that the Democrats will gain House seats by attacking him. “Where is the tipping point?” the strategist asked.

Conservative allies of DeLay have decided that they must rally to the Congressman’s defense. They see the attacks on him as nothing more than politics, with Democrats and liberals in the media trying to destroy the Congressman, whom they view as the most effective Majority Leader the Republicans have ever had in the House.

But whatever the motivation for the negative stories, conservatives wouldn’t be rushing to his defense if they weren’t at all worried about his fate.

Like other politicians who have suffered from the drip, drip, drip of negative news reports only to find the drip turning into a more substantial flow, DeLay’s political future may well have arrived at a tipping point — a tipping point that Republicans and the House Majority Leader won’t like.

When I asked one longtime Republican activist recently about the fight to defend DeLay from media and Democratic criticism, he answered, “I’m cautiously optimistic. But it’s not over yet.”

It’s that last part — the “it’s not over yet” — that ought to have Republicans worried about ’06.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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