As Texodus Continues, Tom DeLay’s Tall Political Shadow Fades

Some of the biggest beneficiaries of the Hammer’s infamous gerrymandering in 2003 are bowing out of office—or facing huge reelection fights in 2020.

U.S. Representative Bill Flores
U.S. Representative Bill Flores 112th Congress/Sunny Sone for the Texas Observer

Some of the biggest beneficiaries of the Hammer’s infamous gerrymandering in 2003 are bowing out of office—or facing huge reelection fights in 2020.

U.S. Representative Bill Flores
U.S. Representative Bill Flores 112th Congress/Sunny Sone for the Texas Observer

The so-called Texodus continues. On Wednesday morning, GOP Congressman Bill Flores announced he will not run for reelection in the 17th Congressional District in 2020. He is now the fifth member of the withering Texas GOP congressional delegation to call it quits, joining Will Hurd, Kenny Marchant, Pete Olson, and Mike Conaway.

So what gives? There are a lot of reasons for the Texit, but they can be mostly boiled down to two categories: politics and power. A few of the members—like Hurd, Marchant, and Olson—made the political decision to bow out rather than face off against strong Democratic challengers. For Conaway, who represents a safely Republican district and could have been easily reelected, maybe it wasn’t much fun serving in the minority party in the U.S. House (he lost his powerful chairmanship of the Agriculture Committee).

Flores’ situation was likely more of the latter. After riding in on the tea party wave in 2010, he spent his tenure climbing up the ranks of the GOP majority. Still, he wasn’t on anybody’s retirement watchlist, and his announcement caught many Republicans off-guard.

There’s not an easy through-line narrative that can be attached to this Texodus trend. But there is an interesting connective tissue: the Tom DeLay era.

Flores was a delayed beneficiary of former GOP House Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s radical redrawing of the state’s congressional map in 2003.

Chet Edwards, the previous seatholder of the 17th, was a longtime Democratic congressman who managed to hold on to power in a rural and increasingly conservative district—one of a rare species known as WD-40s, or White Democrats over 40.

But he became one of DeLay’s top targets during the 2003 redistricting, part of the so-called Texas Five, a band of well-regarded moderate Democrats in rural and suburban districts. DeLay’s map drawers took away his base in places like Killeen, Temple, and Fort Hood, and replaced them with staunchly conservative areas like Johnson County and College Station. As one DeLay lieutenant gleefully put it in an email at the time, they were taking away Edward’s base “in exchange for conservative Johnson County. They will not like the fact he kills babies, prevents kids from praying, and wants to take their guns.”

Despite it now being one of the reddest districts in the country, Edwards miraculously managed to hold the seat (which George W. Bush won by 70 percent in 2004) for three more terms. It was an impressive feat that earned him a spot on Barack Obama’s vice presidential shortlist in 2008.

But Edwards’ luck finally turned in 2010. Flores, an oil and gas executive, wiped him out of office with 63 percent of the vote. The GOP’s newly secured seat turned even redder during the next round of redistricting, and Flores won his 2012 reelection with 80 percent of the vote.

Flores isn’t the only future Republican retiree who benefited from DeLay’s political ruthlessness. Kenny Marchant first won his seat in 2004 after a long career in the state Legislature because he was drawn into a new, considerably more conservative district as part of an effort to defeat Democratic incumbent Martin Frost—one of the Texas Five. DeLay created the 11th Congressional District out of whole cloth in order to fulfill President George W. Bush’s pal and oil bidness partner Mike Conaway’s dream of serving in Congress. Pete Olson is abandoning the very same seat that Tom DeLay occupied in Sugar Land after he saw the electoral writing on the wall after a reelection scare in 2018.

DeLay’s heavily gerrymandered 10th Congressional District—which stretches from Austin to Houston—was drawn in an attempt to oust Democratic incumbent Lloyd Doggett and give Republican up-and-comer Michael McCaul a fast-track to party leadership in Washington, D.C. Today, McCaul is a big target for Democrats and is at the top of the Texas retirement watchlist.

Nearly 15 years after he was forced to resign while under indictment, DeLay’s influence on Texas politics is still being felt. But with each addition to the Texodus, it seems that the long shadow he cast over the state fades just a little more.

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Justin Miller is the politics reporter for the Observer. He previously covered politics and policy for The American Prospect in Washington, D.C., and has also written for The Intercept, The New Republic and In These Times. Follow him on Twitter or email him at [email protected].


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