The first race for office made by George W. Bush–and the only one he would lose in his political career–was a bid for Congress from West Texas. Whenever he speaks of Lubbock, Bush ruefully recalls that this was the site of his maiden political voyage–which ended in defeat, but, as he then quickly adds, “everything worked out all right in the end.”
Since Bush ran back in 1978, redistricting has three times changed the size and scope of the 19th District. When he ran, it was a sprawling district that included Lubbock, Midland, and parts of Odessa. Today, its hubs are Lubbock and Abilene. While Bush narrowly missed becoming the district’s first Republican congressman since Reconstruction, the present 19th District has a Republican congressman: Randy Neugebauer, land developer and former Lubbock city councilman, who overcame 16 opponents to win a special election and run-off last year.
And now, with the latest changes from the redistricting knife, the 19th District is one of only two districts in the country in which the major-party candidates are sitting House members. After barely a year in Congress, the 54-year-old Neugebauer must square off against Democrat Charles Stenholm, who has served in Congress since 1978 and whose former Abilene-area district has been merged into the new 19th.
In his heyday, Stenholm was a Texas conservative to his toes. Rated 81% by the American Conservative Union in his first year in Congress (when he proudly voted with then-Rep. Dick Cheney and other Republicans against creating the Department of Education) and 93% in 1981 (when he supported the Reagan tax and budget cuts), Stenholm followed the sad sojourn to port of so many conservative Democrats in Congress. In ’02, his ACU rating was a mediocre 50% and last year, it was 56%.
Neugebauer (lifetime ACU rating: 83%) hits that hard. In his words, “My opponent still talks about limiting debt but he co-sponsored 64 bills in the 108th Congress to increase spending. He says he’s for repeal of the marriage penalty, but he voted five times in recent years to keep it in place. He hasn’t supported the President’s tax cuts and voted twice against his faith-based initiatives. And he’s opposed to repeal of the estate tax, something I’m for–the sooner, the better.”
Although cultural conservatism should be an easy stand for a Democrat or Republican to adopt in family-oriented West Texas, Neugebauer points out that Stenholm sports a 75% rating from the liberal Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The GOP congressman has a “zero” rating from the same group.
What Stenholm loves to talk about is his quarter-century plus in Congress and how if Democrats were ever to regain a majority, he would be chairman of the House Agriculture Committee. But, as Randy Neugebauer reminds voters, “That says it all when all he can do is talk about the past. This race isn’t about the past–it’s about who can best represent the district. Just check our records and you’ll find that’s an easy one.”