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Lone Star State Struggle

Local GOP Leaders Fight to Nominate Lampson Challenger

With the GOP relishing the opportunity to boot Rep. Nick Lampson (D-Texas) from office next year, Republican leaders from the two largest counties in the conservative 22nd district are jockeying to position their preferred candidates as the best choice for the party’s nomination.

Activists in the Fort Bend County and Harris County Republican parties agree that any Republican is better than Lampson and pledge to actively support whomever wins the GOP nomination next year. But Republicans from both counties are aggressively touting candidates from their home turf, hoping to maximize the influence their county has on district politics, making a competitive primary all but inevitable.

“We’d like to take the seat back and have a Republican representing us again — and we’d like that Republican to come from Fort Bend County,” said Gary Gillen, chairman of the Fort Bend County GOP. “Having said that, given the choice of any Republican or Mr. Lampson, certainly we’re going to work very hard to make sure a Republican wins that seat.”

Shelley Sekula-Gibbs (R), a former Houston city councilwoman who won a special election in November to fill the remainder of former Rep. Tom DeLay’s (R) term, spent three weeks in Congress toward the end of the 109th Congress representing the 22nd district. Although she already has announced plans to run for the Republican nomination next year, she is not necessarily a favorite of party insiders, particularly after her short, controversial tenure on Capitol Hill.

In Harris County, where Sekula-Gibbs is based, county Tax Assessor-Collector Paul Bettencourt (R) is considered the most popular of the potential candidates. Because Texas law requires Bettencourt to resign his current position if he officially enters a race for another office, he was measured Wednesday when asked about his 2008 plans.

But Bettencourt indicated he is giving serious consideration to running. He said polling has shown that his name identification is in excess of 80 percent in Harris County and noted that he received 24,000 more votes in the county in 2004 than President Bush did.

“One of the things [Republicans] did not do well while in charge of the House and Senate is take a look at spending controls,” Bettencourt said, touting his conservative credentials, both economically and socially.

State Republican Reps. Charlie Howard and Robert Talton, who have eyed the 22nd district seat for quite a while, are expected to look at a 2008 bid with increased interest should Bettencourt ultimately decide against running.

In Fort Bend County, the name most often mentioned as a possible candidate is Sugar Land Mayor David Wallace.

Wallace began raising money for a prospective 22nd district bid soon after DeLay resigned from Congress this past June and dropped his re-election bid. Wallace hoped to win the appointment of local party leaders to replace DeLay — who had won the GOP nomination in a four-way primary in March — on the general election ballot.

When Republicans’ plans to replace DeLay with an appointed candidate were disrupted in August by a Texas Democratic Party lawsuit, and the former Majority Leader pulled his name off of the ballot, Wallace nearly ran for the seat as a write-in candidate. But he kept his powder dry when 22nd district Republicans decided to support Sekula-Gibbs as the party’s choice to challenge Lampson as a write-in.

In a possible preview of the nomination fight to come next year between Republicans in Fort Bend and Harris counties, many Fort Bend County GOP activists boycotted the meeting where party leaders decided that Sekula-Gibbs was the best candidate to run against Lampson as a write-in.

But Wallace honored the decision and stayed out of the race, positioning himself for a run next year. Sekula-Gibbs failed to beat Lampson as a write-in this past November, even as she won the race to serve out DeLay’s term. Sekula-Gibbs was on the special election ballot, while Lampson — by choice — was not.

Wallace could not be reached for comment on Wednesday, but Republicans in the 22nd district fully expect him to run for the GOP nomination next year. Under Texas law, if no candidate gets 50 percent of the vote in a party primary, the top two vote-getters advance to a runoff one month later.

Among the Republican-leaning seats Democrats swiped from the GOP last year, the 22nd district is projected to be one of the most heavily targeted at the local, state and national levels. Republicans are convinced Lampson never would have won the seat had they been able to replace DeLay on the Nov. 7 ballot.

Lampson’s team disagrees.

The Congressman is not a typical freshman, having served three terms in the House before being redistricted out of his seat prior to the 2004 elections, when he lost in a newly drawn Republican-leaning district created courtesy of a DeLay-engineered remap of Texas House seats.

An aggressive politician, Lampson raised more than $3 million in anticipation of facing DeLay in November, and already is active on the fundraising front and laying the political foundation for 2008. Lampson aides dispute the notion that the Democrat is too liberal for the district, pointing to his endorsement by the National Rifle Association last year and the fact that he was recently named co-chairman of the House Caucus on Missing and Exploited Children.

Additionally, said Lampson campaign strategist Mustafa Tameez, the demographics of the 22nd district are changing. He suggested that it is no longer the bastion of conservative Republicans that preferred President Bush by a 28-point margin over Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in the 2004 presidential election.

“People who walk around saying this is a conservative district … haven’t done their homework yet,” Tameez said. “It’s an emerging suburban hub and is a changing district.”

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