Running Scared

Four congressional races will test the Democratic resurgence in Texas.

District Map

It’s not a good year to be a Republican. The mood of the electorate is soured on high gas prices, a shaky economy, and war without end. You know the litany. Dissatisfaction with the Republican administrations in Washington and Austin is palpable, and campaign strategists for both parties expect Democrats to make large gains in Congress for the second consecutive election. The early returns foretell just that. Democrats have won special elections for three open congressional seats in the past 18 months, including, most recently, Mississippi’s conservative 1st District. The district was thought to be more than 60 percent Republican; yet in May, the Democrat won by a comfortable 7 points. U.S. Sen. John Ensign, a Nevada Republican, might have said it best when he recently told the Los Angeles Times, “If you have an ‘R’ in front of your name, you better run scared.”

In Texas, Democrats are thinking big. They’re taking a serious run at winning congressional districts that, just a few years ago, were unquestionably Republican. Houston Congressman John Culberson, an avowed conservative in a previously safe district, faces an energized and well-funded Democratic opponent. So too does Austin Republican Mike McCaul, whose district was drawn so overwhelmingly Republican by the Tom DeLay redistricting plan that, four years ago, no Democrat even bothered to run.

Although DeLay resigned from Congress more than two years ago, his legacy is still very much a factor in this year’s congressional races. The GOP’s best chance to knock off a Democratic incumbent-perhaps its only chance-is in DeLay’s old district outside Houston. Republicans are also targeting San Antonio’s Ciro Rodriguez, who lost his seat to DeLay’s 2004 redistricting plan, only to regain it two years later.

The unknown factor for congressional candidates in Texas is Barack Obama. His campaign won’t seriously contest Texas in the presidential election, but it has sent a handful of staffers to help usher voters to the polls to aid down-ballot candidates. Nearly three million Texans voted in the Democratic primary-a record. If most of them return for the general election-and that’s a big if-Democrats could sweep the state’s four most closely contested congressional races.

Running With the Wind Congressional District 7

Less than three months from Election Day, the big unanswered question in Texas politics is how big a wave will wash over Lone Star Republicans? Previously solid Republican districts, particularly in the suburbs, will be places to judge the high water mark, but it will take more than just an electorate hungry for change to win in these places. Democrats will need candidates well-positioned to ride the wave. Michael Skelly could be such a candidate.

Skelly is challenging Houston Republican Congressman John Culberson in a district once held by President Bush’s father. It’s been solidly Republican for years: In 2004, the district voted for President Bush by a margin of 18 points. But recently Democrats have been making inroads. The district stretches from the Texas Medical Center to parts of the far west side of Harris County. One of its state representatives is Ellen Cohen, a Democrat who unseated Republican Martha Wong in 2006. Cohen had two attributes that served her well in that race: She appealed to nonideological Republicans with pragmatic policy prescriptions, and she was skilled at raising money. Skelly shares these characteristics.

Until recently Skelly was the chief development officer for Horizon Wind Energy, an alternative energy company bought last year by a European firm for about $2.2 billion. His work in energy made him wealthy. He is a graduate of the Harvard Business School and worked in the Peace Corps in Costa Rica.

The challenger says that self-financing his campaign is an option. Yet if his blistering fundraising pace continues, that may not be necessary. He surprised many political observers by raising more than $400,000 in the latest reporting period. At the end of June, Skelly reported more than $1 million in his campaign account. That’s nearly double Culberson’s $550,000 on hand.

Skelly trumpets his experience in the energy field. So many issues that face the country, from trade to the economy to the environment, come back to energy, he says. “I understand energy challenges inside and out,” he says. “I understand the promise and limitations of various energy sources.”

Culberson has already tried to brand Skelly as a wind subsidy-sucking utopian, but that approach may prove a hard sell. Skelly favors more drilling, and Culberson has not been shy about dishing out earmarks and subsidies. (Culberson did not respond to a request for an interview.)

For his part, Culberson hasn’t made things easy on himself. In mid-July, he told an online forum that NASA, the space agency that employs 20,000 Houstonians, has “failed us miserably,” and “wastes a vast amount of money.” Moreover, Culberson has an ultraconservative record to defend. An avowed social conservative, he receives 100-percent voting scores from the National Right to Life Committee and voted against a 2007 bill banning job discrimination based on sexual orientation.

The challenger says that voters he meets have responded to his background. “People like that I’m a business guy, that I’m not in politics,” he says. “We need to take a fresh look at who we are sending to Washington. People understand that partisan politics is not doing any of us much good.”

With a big push from the wave, it may prove to be a winning message. -Jake Bernstein

The GOP's Top Target Congressional District 22 Nick Lampson vs. Pete Olson

Nick Lampson might be the most politically vulnerable Democratic congressman in the country this year. Republicans have little to no chance of unseating most Democratic incumbents this election cycle, but they like their chances against Nick Lampson for two reasons. First, he hails from a conservative area that votes largely Republican. And he came to represent the district mostly because of happenstance. In this case, happenstance was Tom DeLay.

Lampson holds DeLay’s old seat, which runs along Houston’s southern edge, from Pearland through Sugarland, and out toward Galveston. When DeLay’s career imploded two years ago, Lampson was a beneficiary. The former U.S. House majority leader, the man they used to call the Hammer, resigned from Congress in the summer of 2006, having already won the primary in his re-election bid that year. He couldn’t-after a Democratic court challenge-pry his name off the November ballot. That left Lampson to run effectively unopposed, though the GOP did stage a lost-cause write-in candidate.

Because of the unusual circumstances, the district-unlike other swing seats in 2006-never actually turned Democratic in a contested election. It voted 64 percent for George W. Bush in 2004. Although more Democratic voters have moved to the area in recent years, the district remains majority Republican.

To aid his re-election prospects, Lampson has positioned himself as a moderate Democrat. During the past two years, he’s compiled a more conservative record than he did during his first stint in Congress, when he represented Beaumont from 1997 to 2005. (He lost re-election in 2004 after DeLay’s redistricting plan mangled Lampson’s district. Of course, Lampson had the last laugh on that one.) He’s taken the middle road in the debate over gas prices, advocating alternative energy, but also supporting increased drilling (the front page of Lampson’s Web site asks visitors to “Sign My Petition to Drill.”) A gun-rights supporter, he hailed the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down the Washington, D.C., ban on handguns. Lampson recently received a “Spirit of Enterprise” award from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He voted with the business group 84 percent of the time last year.

Lampson also has funneled a lot of federal dollars back to the district, which never hurts your election prospects. He passed $42 million in earmarks, according to the Houston Chronicle-one of the top figures among the Texas delegation (the district houses NASA).

Lampson faces a tough race, regardless. Republicans did themselves a favor by nominating Pete Olson. A former Navy pilot and former chief of staff for U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, Olson was the most polished among a motley 10-candidate primary field (see “Party of Ten,” January 25, 2008). Among Olson’s top issues are winning the war on terror and stopping illegal immigration. He also wants to set up a “home parent GI Bill, where stay-at-home parents earn credits to be used for continuing education once their children are grown or enrolled in school,” according to Olson’s Web site. (Olson declined an interview request from the Observer.)

Lampson will have more money to spend. As of June 30, he had $1.1 million in his campaign account. Olson-who had to spend hundreds of thousands to win the primary and runoff-had $261,203 on hand. In addition, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has pledged $1 million to support perhaps the nation’s most endangered incumbent Democrat. He may need every penny. -Dave Mann

Undoing DeLay Congressional District 10 Michael McCaul vs. Larry Joe Doherty

To some eyes, congressional District 10 resembles a dragon. Others see a bow tie or a barbell. Whatever folks see, the district’s strange shape is undeniably the handiwork of Tom DeLay. The former U.S. House majority leader sought to gerrymander an ultrasafe seat for Republicans by yoking liberal North Austin with solidly Republican areas of northwestern Harris County and the rural counties in between. For four years, it worked beautifully. In 2004, not a single Democrat filed to run against Republican Michael McCaul. In 2006, McCaul won re-election against a fatally underfunded opponent.

Now McCaul has his first serious challenger. Larry Joe Doherty-a prodigious fundraiser and minor TV celebrity who oozes folksy charm (he played Judge Larry Joe on the courtroom drama “Texas Justice”)-is giving McCaul a run for his money. (And money is one thing McCaul knows something about; his wife is the daughter of Clear Channel Communications Inc. Chairman Lowry Mays.)

Doherty says he doesn’t buy the “Tom DeLay mythology” that the district will elect only a Republican. “It ain’t true,” he says. “If it ever was true, it ain’t true anymore.” He points to internal polling of likely registered voters: 41 percent preferred a Democrat to represent them in Congress; 45 percent wanted a Republican. In 2006, 61 percent of voters in District 10 said they would be interested in an alternative to McCaul. That same year, McCaul won just 55 percent of the vote against a weak Democratic opponent, which signaled to some that the congressman is vulnerable.

Doherty argues that McCaul has been little more than a yes-man for the Bush administration. “He knuckles under and marches to the party line 94 percent of the time rather than vote as an independent voice for the people,” Doherty told the Observer. McCaul’s voting record does reflect a bent pretty far to the right. In 2007, he voted against an expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, a position that has damaged other Republican congressmen in re-election bids. In 2005, he voted against federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. (McCaul declined an interview request from the Observer.)

However, McCaul has staked out more independent positions on the Iraq war and the environment. He has sponsored a few bills promoting renewable energy (though the League of Conservation Voters gave McCaul a decidedly ungreen 7 percent voting score for the last session). McCaul also served as one of 10 advisers to the Iraq Study Group, the bipartisan commission that recommended a “diplomatic offensive” involving Iran and Syria and a drawdown of troops beginning in 2008. Although McCaul endorsed the report, his criticism of the White House has been mild, and he has repeatedly voted against a time line for withdrawal.

“Translation: He doesn’t have the courage to stand up for his own convictions, to stand up about what he knows is right,” Doherty says.

Doherty still faces a difficult race. McCaul has more cash on hand, and the district has reliable Republican voting blocs in northern Harris County and the rural areas between Austin and Houston. But the Doherty campaign insists that high Democratic turnout in Travis County, fueled by Obama’s candidacy, could put their guy over the top and undo one of DeLay’s most extreme gerrymanders. -Forrest Wilder

Ciro's Second Chance Congressional District 23 Ciro Rodriguez vs. Lyle Larson

It wasn’t long ago that Democratic Congressman Ciro Rodriguez’s political career appeared finished. In 2004, Tom DeLay’s redistricting plan sliced Rodriguez’s district into the shape of a fajita strip and siphoned off his San Antonio voting base. Rodriguez was promptly bounced from office.

Two years later, the U.S. Supreme Court gave Rodriguez a reprieve, ruling that DeLay’s tinkering violated the rights of Latino voters. The 23rd District was redrawn to merge South San Antonio, Rodriguez’s home base, with a large swath of West Texas then represented by Republican Henry Bonilla. In 2006, Rodriguez completed his remarkably quick political turnabout by handily defeating Bonilla to reclaim a seat in Congress.

Now Republicans believe they can defeat Rodriguez once again. The district leans slightly Republican-it voted 54 percent for George W. Bush in 2004. Moreover, Republican challenger Lyle Larson, a county commissioner in San Antonio, could prove a tougher opponent for Rodriguez. Two years ago, Rodriguez routed Bonilla in San Antonio, the district’s major population center. The district, one of the largest and most rural in the nation, stretches from San Antonio all the way to the outskirts of El Paso. Larson has political roots in San Antonio, particularly on the city’s north side. He hopes that limiting Rodriguez’s advantage in the city-combined with votes from the district’s more conservative areas in West Texas-will boost him to victory.

To win, Larson will have to overcome the incumbent’s 4-1 fundraising advantage. To date, Larson has raised $535,000, but spent half of it to win an expensive Republican primary. Rodriguez, with help from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, has raised $1.9 million. He has $1.2 million on hand. “Sure, it’s going to be a tough race, taking on an incumbent that has raised a million dollars,” Larson says. “But people are pretty frustrated with Congress right now. Rodriguez has to explain what’s going on in Washington.”

Larson is portraying himself as a Washington outsider. In a July press release, he accused Rodriguez of raising the majority of his $1.9 million from Washington-based political action committees. Fifty-six percent of Rodriguez’s contributions come from labor union, business, and leadership PACs, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Larson has taken some PAC funding as well, though far less than Rodriguez. As of June 30, PAC money accounted for 13 percent of Larson’s haul.

While Larson is behind in the fundraising game, he has a long public service resume and an independent streak that may win over GOP and independent voters. As former chairman of San Antonio’s Metropolitan Planning Organization, he was an early and vocal opponent of toll roads in the region, which endeared him to the numerous anti-toll voters in the district. It also put him at odds with some of Texas’ top elected officials, including Gov. Rick Perry.

Lately, his romance with anti-toll advocates has started to sour. Larson was criticized for appointing a pro-to
l road member to take his place on the planning board. He also took more th
n $4,000 in campaign contributions from the Zachry family, which owns Zachry Construction Corp., a prominent toll road builder in Texas.

Rodriguez didn’t respond to calls seeking comment from the Observer. In an e-mail, the congressman said he is focused on changing the failed policies of the Bush administration. “Since 2007, when we took back Congress, we’ve been working five-day work weeks, we’ve funded veterans at the highest level we’ve ever funded them,” he wrote, “and we’ve worked hard to change the failed policies of Congress and the administration. But it takes time to change so much failure.”

Some pundits believe voter frustration with the Republican Party may carry endangered Democratic incumbents like Rodriguez to victory-simply because they have a “D” behind their name. Rodriguez better hope so. There are rarely second comebacks in political life. -Melissa del Bosque

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Published at 12:00 am CST