Although the new Republican nominee for Congress in Texas’s 22nd District will not be determined until Rep. Tom DeLay actually resigns from office in June, party operatives nationally and in the Houston-area district are already voicing confidence about retaining a House seat that had been considered one of the most vulnerable in the nation to a Democratic takeover this year.
With DeLay under indictment for alleged violations of state campaign finance laws, Democrats from Washington to Houston had helped their nominee Nick Lampson raise more than $1.4 million against the embattled incumbent. In addition, the renegade candidacy of former Republican Congressman Steve Stockman, running as an independent, was taking its toll on DeLay. A Houston Chronicle poll in February showed Lampson leading DeLay by 30% to 22% districtwide, with 11% for Stockman. (Both Stockman and Lampson had represented the district neighboring DeLay’s now held by Republican Rep. Ted Poe).
"The Democrats’ strategy had been to run against someone, rather than on what their candidate actually stood for," Harris County (Houston) GOP Chairman Jared Woodfill told me. "When Lampson last ran for Congress in ’04 against Ted Poe, he ran on a decidedly liberal Democratic message. Now, with Tom DeLay gone, he has to run on that same message." Woodfill also said that DeLay’s decision to leave the political stage would have a national impact by forcing "[Democratic National Chairman] Howard Dean and his liberal cronies to say what they are for instead of just running against Tom DeLay."
DeLay told reporters two weeks ago that he would formally resign from Congress in mid-June, triggering a Byzantine method of replacing him as the Republican nominee. Once his congressional seat is vacant, the GOP chairmen of the four counties in the 22nd District — Harris, Fort Bend, Brazoria and Galveston — will call caucuses of all their precinct chairmen. Each caucus will select one elector for that county and the four electors, in turn, will select a nominee to replace DeLay. Woodfill expected that the entire process would take nearly two weeks. (Texas Republican Gov. Rick Perry could call a special election to fill the remainder of DeLay’s term, but Woodfill and other party leaders have asked him not to do so because of the estimated half-million-dollar cost for such an election, after which the winner will serve for only a few months, when Congress is not in session.)
The early favorite for the GOP nod was Harris County Judge Rob Eckels, a former state legislator and longtime friend of the outgoing congressman. However, he announced last week he wasn’t running. Several other Republicans have also signaled they are interested in succeeding DeLay, among them Sugar Land Mayor David Wallace, State Representatives Charlie Howard and Robert Talton, former Houston City Councilwoman Shelly Sekula-Gibbs, and Harris County Assessor Paul Bettencourt. All are considered conservatives in the mold of DeLay (lifetime American Conservative Union: 95%). Stockman has hinted he might be interested in running as a Republican, but there are doubts he can successfully return to the GOP after his insurgent campaign against DeLay.
Attorney Tom Campbell, one of the three candidates who challenged DeLay in the March primary (which the incumbent won with 62% of the vote), has said he wants to run for the open seat, but many party activists have not forgiven him for trying to take down someone they still consider a hero.