Girding for a brawl next year in his GOP-leaning district, Rep. Nick Lampson (D-Texas) is about to get a glimpse of several prospective opponents, with several Republicans now weighing bids to challenge him in 2008.
Chief among those poised to enter the GOP primary — and considered by Republicans as their most attractive potential candidates — are Pete Olson, until recently Sen. John Cornyn’s (R-Texas) chief of staff; state Rep. Robert Talton; and District Judge Jim Squier.
Republicans have made it a top priority to reclaim Lampson’s suburban Houston 22nd district — held by former Rep. Tom DeLay (R) for almost 22 years before he resigned in June 2006 under allegations of ethical misconduct. Republicans believe the only reason Lampson won the seat in the previous cycle is because his GOP opponent was forced to run as a write-in, a situation that materialized partly as a result of DeLay’s resignation.
“Lampson cannot hold the district,” said Eric Thode, the former chairman of the Fort Bend County Republican Party. “His victory was a fluke.”
Recruiting a top-tier candidate to challenge Lampson has been somewhat slow-going for the Republicans. Popular Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Paul Bettencourt considered running but opted against it, as did Sugar Land Mayor David Wallace and state Rep. John Zerwas.
However, the process now appears to be accelerating, with Republicans claiming that the only thing holding things up was that the rest of the field was waiting to see what Bettencourt was going to do.
Nearly 10 individuals are examining a run, with Republicans particularly high on Olson, Squier and Talton, but also optimistic that the others contemplating a bid would make good Lampson foils.
Those Republicans expressing interest in running include former Sugar Land Mayor Dean Hrbacek, who already has formed an exploratory committee; Pasadena Mayor John Manlove; Americans For Fair Taxation Chief Operating Officer David Polyansky; attorney Brent Perry; and cardiothoracic surgeon Brad Allen.
The Republicans do have a candidate that actually officially has announced for the race and has been campaigning since early this year — former Rep. Shelley Sekula Gibbs. But Republican officials leading the candidate recruiting effort, as well as a significant portion of GOP activists in the 22nd district, are unenthusiastic about her candidacy.
“Every day that Nick Lampson casts a vote on the floor of the House, the target on his back gets bigger,” National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Ken Spain said. “His atrocious record has helped us immensely in the recruitment process, and we are now confident that he will face a very tough challenge.”
Naturally, Democrats disagree.
They cite what they describe as Lampson’s independent streak, while noting that the Congressman has supported tax cuts for small businesses and helped deliver federal funds to NASA, which functions as a crucial part of the Houston region’s economy.
“Nick Lampson is an independent voice for the people of Texas’ 22nd district and is a champion on the issues that matter most to his constituents,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokeswoman Kyra Jennings said. “It’s no wonder national Republicans lost their top two recruits in this district and have yet to find a quality candidate to run against him.”
Republicans active in 22nd district GOP politics say each of Lampson’s potential challengers brings strengths and weaknesses to the table — although they contend that their positive qualities far outweigh their negatives.
Olson, a veteran of the Capitol Hill staffs of both Cornyn and former Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas), is thought of as among the most attractive potential candidates. He’s a Navy veteran familiar with the inner workings of both politics and government and is said to possess the kind of personal magnetism that appeals to voters.
His one negative is that while he is a native of the district, he hasn’t lived there for quite a while, having just moved back. However, Republicans note that Lampson moved into the district only after he decided to run for the seat.
Talton is described as having solid conservative credentials on both fiscal and social issues and has a long history of public service in the region. What could cause him a problem, according to one knowledgeable source, is that he was part of a group of Texas legislators who made an unsuccessful attempt to oust the GOP Speaker of the Texas House.
Squier’s biggest strength is that he is not viewed as a career politician, a potentially major asset in an environment that is shaping up to be anti-Washington and anti-incumbent. To win a crowded primary, however, Squier would have to create a political machine from scratch that could compete with opponents who have the existing support of GOP activists, high-profile elected Republicans, or both.
If Squier won the early March primary and went on to beat Lampson in the general election, he would join Rep. Ted Poe (R) as another Texas District Court judge who advanced to Congress at Lampson’s expense.
Poe beat Lampson in 2004 to end the Democrat’s first stint as a Congressman. That year, Lampson was forced to run against Poe in the new 2nd district because the Democratic-leaning 9th district he had represented since 1996 was eliminated courtesy of the mid-decade redistricting of Texas House seats partly engineered by DeLay.
Republicans say the GOP base in the 22nd district is itching to take on Lampson, and they expect the party to unify behind whoever the nominee is, regardless of how contentious the primary contest is.
“Clearly, this is a great opportunity to pick up a seat,” Harris County Republican Party Chairman Jared Woodfill said.
Sekula Gibbs, the GOP’s only announced candidate thus far, garnered a solid 42 percent of the vote against Lampson as a write-in candidate last year — and served for three weeks toward the end of 2006 after winning a November special election to fill out the remainder of DeLay’s term.
Nevertheless, she has little support among Republicans.
Sekula Gibbs has raised an uninspiring $184,000 since entering the race, and Republican officials in Texas and Washington, D.C., who are recruiting candidates for this race remain wary of her electability.
Sekula Gibbs’ short tenure in Congress was marked by controversy, leaving Republicans concerned that her reputation for erratic behavior could hinder her against the folksy, even-tempered Lampson, his voting record notwithstanding.
“Shelley Sekula Gibbs is a nightmare,” said one Republican operative based in the district. “We need somebody stronger to go up against Nick Lampson. That’s a pretty mainstream thought.”
The 22nd district is solid Republican territory and was held by DeLay until June 2006, when he resigned under a cloud of ethical misconduct that is still playing itself out in the Texas courts.
Per state law, Republicans were moving to appoint a replacement to DeLay on the November 2006 ballot — he had won the nomination in a four-way GOP primary held in March of that year — but were blocked in that effort by an ultimately successful lawsuit brought by the Texas Democratic Party.
DeLay eventually withdrew his name from the ballot, and Sekula Gibbs, then a Houston city councilwoman, ran as a write-in. Although Sekula Gibbs lost to Lampson, she did win a special election held the same day as the November 2006 general election to fill out the remainder of DeLay’s term.
Lampson declined to run in the special contest to replace DeLay.