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Freshman Rep. Chris Bell (D) suffered a resounding defeat at the hands of former Houston Justice of the Peace Al Green (D) in Tuesday’s Texas primary, becoming the first incumbent to be defeated for re-election in the 2004 cycle.
Green won a 35-point victory over Bell in the redrawn 9th district, benefiting from the support of several Congressional Black Caucus members, including Reps. Maxine Waters (Calif.) and Sheila Jackson Lee (Texas).
Several Democratic Members voiced their disapproval with their colleagues for supporting a nonincumbent.
“These feelings aren’t going to heal easily or quickly,” said Rep. John Tanner (Tenn.). “Individual Members are upset, and they are angry at the situation with regard to incumbent protection.”
Bell carried the united support of the Democratic leadership.
“Most of us would urge Members to support the incumbent they know,” said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Bob Matsui (Calif.), who refused to condemn those who had thrown their backing to Green.
CBC officials were careful to note that neither the CBC chairman, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), nor the Caucus as a whole offered a formal endorsement of Green.
In other contested Democratic primaries in the Lone Star State, Rep. Ciro Rodriguez eked out a 121-vote victory over former Texas Secretary of State Henry Cuellar in the 28th district, while Rep. Lloyd Doggett cruised to a win over former state District Judge Leticia Hinojosa in the 25th district.
On the Republican side, accountant Mike Conaway and state Rep. Kenny Marchant easily won their primaries and are the de facto new Members in the heavily Republican 11th and 24th districts.
Elsewhere, most of the heated Republican battles were headed to April 13 runoffs, with the notable exception of the 2nd district, where former Judge Ted Poe won 61 percent in a six-person field. He heads to a November showdown with Rep. Nick Lampson (D).
Test of DeLay’s Muscle
Tuesday’s primaries were the first test of the new Republican-backed Congressional map pushed by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and signed into law by Gov. Rick Perry (R) late last year.
Even before Tuesday’s voting, the new lines had driven Rep. Jim Turner (D) to retire and led Rep. Ralph Hall (R) to switch parties just prior to the January filing deadline.
The redrawn map claimed Bell, placing him in a district that included a 37 percent voting age black population as well as a 30 percent Hispanic voting age population.
Most knowledgeable observers attributed Bell’s loss primarily to his fundraising, which kept him from getting on Houston television to introduce himself to voters who were unfamiliar with him. Roughly 50 percent of the district’s territory was new to Bell.
Bell raised roughly $850,000 for the race.
Because of Bell’s lack of a television presence and the fact he did not live in the district, he was seen as a newcomer by many voters, an image that stood in stark contrast to the well-known Green.
In addition to serving as a justice of the peace for 26 years, Green was the head of the Houston chapter of the NAACP for a decade.
Green’s challenge was also significantly bolstered by the support of CBC members such as Waters and Lee, and Reps. Bennie Thompson (Miss.) and Albert Wynn (Md.).
Waters appeared on behalf of Green in the district in the days leading up to the primary, and the CBC political action committee cut Green a $5,000 check. Wynn, Reps. Mel Watt (N.C.), Donald Payne (N.J.) and Sanford Bishop (N.C.) — all CBC members — also contributed to Green’s campaign. Green also funneled more than $300,000 of his own money to the race.
Waters was seen high-fiving Wynn and Thompson on the House floor Wednesday morning.
Some Leaders Mad at CBC
The decision by CBC members to weigh in financially against a fellow incumbent disappointed a number of Democratic Members, who noted that embattled black former Reps. Earl Hilliard (Ala.) and Cynthia McKinney (Ga.) had both been supported by the Democratic Caucus in their ultimately unsuccessful primary challenges in 2002.
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) offered a measured response when asked about the impact of the CBC’s backing of Green over Bell.
“I don’t think there is any doubt there are discussions within the Caucus” about the race, he said. When pressed to elaborate on the details of the Caucus discussions, Hoyer said: “I could, but I’m not going to.”
One senior Democratic leadership aide was less charitable.
“There’s unhappiness on all sides,” said the aide. “But many are unhappy that some of the CBC members would do that and that there should be a policy to support incumbents.”
Several other Democratic aides said leaders are likely to hold private talks with some of the Members who backed Green, stressing the unwritten rule that — regardless of race or personal friendships — the Caucus will support incumbents.
One CBC member, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said a lot of the hard feelings could have been avoided if the Democratic leaders engaged in “discussions with the CBC when the demographics became evident.”
This Member, who supported Al Green, said the situation was unique given that the district’s lines had been redrawn, and the minority population there.
“The situation is unfortunate, but I don’t think it represents a schism,” in the Caucus, the Member added.
Caucus politics aside, Green dominated Bell in Harris County — the district’s population center — nearly doubling the incumbent’s vote totals.
While Bell’s political fate is sealed, Rodriguez appears to have escaped an unwanted end to his political career.
With all of the votes counted, he defeated Cuellar by 126 votes.
“We knew it was going to be a tough and close race,” said Rodriguez spokesman John Puder. “Even a one-vote margin is enough for me.”
As expected, the race came down to a geographic battle between Cuellar’s base in Laredo (Webb County) and Rodriguez’s base in San Antonio (Bexar County).
Cuellar beat Rodriguez by 10,284 votes in Webb; he lost Bexar by 8,070.
Rodriguez coupled his margin in Bexar with victories in five of the nine other counties in the district to put him over the top.
In the new 25th district, Doggett, the only other Democrat incumbent seen as vulnerable, rolled to a 61 percent victory.
Doggett used his huge campaign war chest to overwhelm Hinojosa despite the district’s 64 percent Hispanic voting-age population.
Three Big Runoffs on Tap
Runoffs were the order of the day in several Democratic-held seats that will be heavily targeted by national Republicans.
In the East Texas 1st district, former state District Judge Louie Gohmert led the field with 42 percent, while 2002 4th district GOP nominee John Graves received 30 percent. State Rep. Wayne Christian took 15 percent, while free-spending ophthalmologist Lyle Thorstenson garnered just 10 percent.
Gohmert and Graves will face off April 13 for the right to face Rep. Max Sandlin (D) in this Republican-leaning district.
The race for the Republican nomination in the Waco-based 17th district is also headed for a runoff between state Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth and former Waco school board member Dot Snyder.
Wohlgemuth took 41 percent of the primary vote to Snyder’s 31 percent.
Retired Army Col. Dave McIntyre (R), who was not expected to seriously compete for a runoff spot, lost out to Snyder by just 889 votes despite spending nearly $400,000 less on the contest.
Wohlgemuth and Snyder are fighting for the right to take on Rep. Chet Edwards (D) in the general election.
The Austin-to-Houston 10th district will also select its Republican nominee on April 13, though the winner that day will be a heavy favorite in November due to the seat’s strong GOP lean.
Wealthy businessman Ben Streusand (R) led the field with 28 percent, followed closely by former federal prosecutor Mike McCaul with 24 percent.
Streusand has already donated $2.4 million from his own pocket to the campaign, while McCaul dumped in nearly $650,000. Both are expected to continue to spend freely of their own money in the coming month.
The runoff will pit Streusand’s Harris County base against McCaul’s Travis County (Austin) stronghold.
Mississippi: No Surprises
Meanwhile in Mississippi, Republicans nominated challengers who face uphill battles against entrenched Democrats in the state’s 2nd and 4th districts.
In the majority-black 2nd district, primarily comprised of the state’s Delta region, Clinton LeSueur coasted to win the GOP nomination setting up a rematch with Rep. Bennie Thompson (D) this fall.
He defeated minister James Broadwater and businesswoman Stephanie Summers-O’Neal, taking 85 percent of the vote.
LeSueur, a former legislative aide to the District of Columbia City Council, held Thompson to just 55 percent of the vote last cycle, and in winning the primary he vowed to improve on that performance this year.
“The people haven’t seen anything yet,” LeSueur said after declaring victory, according to the Jackson Clarion-Ledger. “You’re going to see a real campaign this round and we’re definitely going to do double, if not more than what we did in 2002.”
Last cycle LeSueur, 35, spent roughly $100,000 compared to Thompson’s $650,000.
“This time we’re going to have the resources to get our message out,” LeSueur vowed in a statement.
Meanwhile, in the southeastern Gulf coast 4th district, Rep. Gene Taylor (D) will face state Rep. Mike Lott (R) in November after Lott trounced two primary opponents.
Lott, who is no relation to Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), garnered 85 percent of the vote against Karl Mertz and Steven McCaleb.
Lott, 47, is a small business owner who has served in the state House since 2000.
“We’re going to work hard to help South Mississippi voters realize that I’m the candidate who represents their conservative values,” Lott said, according to the Biloxi Sun Herald.
Although the 4th district heavily favors national Republicans — President Bush won the district with 65 percent in the 2000 presidential race — Taylor has been re-elected easily, taking no less than 75 percent of the vote in the last three election cycles.
Two other Magnolia State Members, GOP Reps. Roger Wicker and Chip Pickering, faced no primary opposition. Both men are expected to cruise to re-election in November, when they will face only nominal third-party opponents.
Lauren W. Whittington contributed to this report.