Never mind the indictments; Democrats believe Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) is vulnerable with his constituents on local issues and point to the fact that he lagged 9 points behind President Bush last year as proof that his re-election bid is in trouble.
DeLay, until last week House Majority Leader, beat his severely underfunded Democratic opponent in 2004 by 14 percent. But he captured only 55 percent of the vote in the Houston-area 22nd district, compared to the president’s 64 percent.
That fact is comforting to former Rep. Nick Lampson (D-Texas) — voted out last year courtesy of the mid-decade redistricting spearheaded by DeLay, and now seeking his revenge by challenging DeLay in 2006.
“I think people are [upset] with how [DeLay] has been focused on securing personal power and raising money for people that have nothing to do with the district. He is more concerned with the national party,” said Lampson campaign manager Mike Malaise. “You can hear people here saying, ‘I’ve never even seen the guy.’”
The DeLay camp said Wednesday that nothing could be further from the truth, adding the Congressman plans to file for re-election once he is able to do so in December.
“When it comes to the 22nd district, nobody delivers like Tom DeLay,” said his campaign spokeswoman Shannon Flaherty in a telephone interview. “Nick Lampson couldn’t deliver for his own district, let alone the 22nd.”
DeLay was indicted Sept. 28 of conspiring to evade Texas election law, a charge adjusted to money laundering with a second indictment days later when the district attorney who brought the charge — Democrat Ronnie Earle — realized the law DeLay originally was accused of violating wasn’t on the books when he was alleged to have skirted it.
Republicans say this further proves the flimsiness and partisan basis of the charges, adding that the indictments will in no way affect DeLay’s electoral strength.
“I think it has no impact whatsoever,” said Eric Thode, chairman of the Fort Bend County Republican Party. Fort Bend County, which includes DeLay’s hometown of Sugar Land, makes up the majority of the 22nd district.
Republicans also dispute the significance of DeLay trailing Bush in his own district last year by 9 points in a race where he outspent his Democratic opponent $3.1 million to $686,000.
When money spent by outside Democratic groups is accounted for, DeLay’s fundraising advantage was less dramatic, Flaherty said. Meanwhile, Bush naturally outpolled DeLay because of the significant number of Democrats who voted for him, both in Texas and nationally, Thode said.
DeLay supporters note that Bush’s 2004 numbers outperformed by 8 percent those of Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas), who defeated Lampson in the 2nd district, and by 6 percent those of Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas), who ousted Rep. Martin Frost (D) in the 32nd district.
DeLay’s backers also note that a third of his district was new to him last year, courtesy of the mid-decade redistricting he engineered that resulted in a gain of five Republican seats in the House but cost him and other incumbent Texas Republicans GOP voters.
This helps explain, DeLay supporters say, why the 55 percent he received was his lowest ever, and 5 points below his previous low of 60 percent in 2000.
Democrats, however, continue to see an opening.
“This has always been a high priority race, with DeLay getting only 55 percent,” said Sarah Feinberg, spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “Indicted or not, he’s increasingly unpopular at home.”
Lampson’s campaign strategy, according to Malaise, will pay little attention to DeLay’s legal troubles, focusing on local issues and the former Democratic Congressman’s positive agenda rather than on what DeLay is accused of doing.
Malaise said Lampson has had no trouble raising money, receiving well over the $250,000 goal he set for this quarter. Malaise said he was unaware of how much Lampson has raised to date, but said he has a target of $5 million, which he envisions will be enough to “ensure we run the race we want and not have to cut any corners.”
Malaise said Lampson anticipates and welcomes the help, financially and otherwise, of national Democrats and the party apparatus.
“At one point we were concerned because we had two hurricanes and Nick didn’t make any calls for a few weeks,” he said. “But one result of the indictment is an uptick in Internet [fundraising] and unsolicited calls.”
One former House Democratic aide who believes DeLay is vulnerable said Lampson will not be able to run as a national Democrat if he hopes to win.
Though the region is more economically conservative than culturally so, Lampson is going to have to mitigate being tainted as a liberal Democrat by focusing the campaign on what he would do for the district.
“Clearly it’s going to be a tough run as a national Democrat here,” said this individual, who once worked for a Texas Democrat. “Lampson has to be acceptable.”
The DeLay re-election operation already is in full swing.
Two Web sites, www.tomdelay.com and www.defenddelay.com, are up and running, while grass-roots supporters already have collected twice the number of signatures needed for DeLay to file for re-election absent paying the filing fee.
Flaherty said phone calls offering help and donations have been pouring in since the first indictment was announced, both from within and outside the district.
“Plenty of new donors are coming out of the woodwork because they want to support the Congressman,” she said.