SOUTHWEST: DeLay’s Plan Works, Knocks Off Four Democrats

Posted November 3, 2004 at 3:40pm

The Southwest ended up being a region of huge victories for Republicans. Their pickup of two seats in the House is largely due to the machinations of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) in his home state.

Republican redistricting plans in Texas paid off handsomely. After a protracted battle over the decennial redrawing of districts that resulted in a 17-15 Democratic edge in the Lone Star State delegation before the 2002 election, the plan Republicans rammed through the Legislature in 2003 changed things radically. When the dust settled, the Texas delegation added eight Republican Members — including four who defeated Democratic incumbents Tuesday.

Former District Judge Louie Gohmert (R) defeated incumbent Rep. Max Sandlin (D) 68 percent to 31 percent in the radically redrawn 1st district. As it is now constituted, the 1st district has fewer than half of the residents it held before the re-redistricting, and includes two new heavily Republican counties. Although he outraised the challenger, Sandlin faced an uphill battle simply due to the demographics of the district.

Rep. Nick Lampson (D) also was swamped by the Republican juggernaut, 55 percent to 43 percent. Ted Poe, another former judge, defeated Lampson with the aid of a solidly GOP 2nd district. Poe was a judge for 22 years in Harris County before announcing his candidacy, and Harris County proved to be his stronghold in the contest with Lampson.

Two districts were rearranged to pit incumbents against each other, and in both cases the GOP was victorious. In the West Texas 19th district, rookie Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R) defeated veteran Rep. Charlie Stenholm (D) by 18 points. In the Dallas-area 32nd district Rep. Pete Sessions (R) defeated Rep. Martin Frost (D) by 10 points.

Neugebauer had almost $400,000 more left in the bank in the last months of the race, which was a key factor in his victory. He also picked up a huge endorsement from the Texas Farm Bureau, even though Stenholm was the ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee.

Frost’s demise will be sweet for Republicans. He and DeLay have feuded for years, especially over the topic of redistricting. The GOP plan approved by the Texas Legislature last year cut Frost’s district into five pieces, forcing him to choose from several unappealing options.

Sessions used a huge advantage in his bankroll to secure victory on Tuesday. Both candidates spent about $8 million collectively in what became the most expensive House race in the country. The solidly upper middle-class district, as it is now set up, supported Republican statewide candidates by an average of 64 percent in 2002.

Rep. Chet Edwards is the only Democrat targeted for defeat in the redistricting who survived on Tuesday. He ran an incredibly strong campaign in the final months against his challenger, state Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth (R), and ended up squeaking out a 51 percent to 48 percent victory.

Other Texas races went mostly according to plan. Newly created districts, the 10th, 11th and 24th, all elected Republicans, as they were designed to do (Mike McCaul, Mike Conaway and Kenny Merchant, respectively). The eighth GOP pickup in Texas came at the beginning of the year, when veteran Rep. Ralph Hall (R) switched parties.

The two Democratic districts in Texas whose Representatives were defeated in primaries remained in Democratic hands; Al Green (D) easily won the 9th district seat and Henry Cuellar (D) took the 28th district. Those outcomes were also influenced by the re-redistricting of 2003.

Other states in the region were just as solid for Republicans. In a somewhat surprising result, Rep. Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.) handily defeated former Flagstaff Mayor Paul Babbitt (D) by a wide margin. Once thought to be a tossup race, the freshman incumbent took 59 percent to Babbitt’s 36 percent.

In the weeks leading up to Election Day, Renzi had been targeted by Democrats for defeat. He won only 49 percent of the district in 2002 against a flawed opponent, and Babbitt is a familiar political name in the state; his brother had served as governor and Interior secretary.

In the end, however, Babbitt ran a very ineffectual campaign. He had trouble raising money, and his ground team had a tough time getting the vote out due to the size of the district, which is almost as large as Pennsylvania.

In New Mexico’s closest House race, Rep. Heather Wilson (R), a constant Democratic target, had another solid win in a rematch against state Senate President Pro Tem Richard Romero (D).

Although a poll in early October showed Wilson leading by just 1 point, Romero ended up with the same percentage of the vote that he won two years ago. In a nearly identical result to the midterm election of 2002, Wilson won 55 percent to 45 percent.

Another Democratic target, freshman Rep. Steve Pearce (R) also held onto his seat on Tuesday. He defeated challenger Gary King (D) by a wide margin, 63 percent to 37 percent. King, a former state Representative who moved to the district to run for Congress, is the son of former three-term New Mexico Gov. Bruce King (D).

The often nasty race to fill the seat of retiring Sen. Don Nickles (R) in Oklahoma turned out to be one of the biggest shocks of the evening. Former Rep. Tom Coburn (R) made a series of gaffes which Rep. Brad Carson (D) had capitalized on to bring the race in this very conservative state within striking distance.

Although Coburn was pulling away in the polls just before Election Day, few observers expected the size of his 53 percent to 41 percent victory. He probably owes part of that margin of victory to President Bush, who carried the state with 66 percent of the vote.

Carson, a moderate Democrat, was considered by far the Democrats’ strongest potential Senate candidate in Oklahoma, but still was wiped out.

Carson’s vacated House seat remained in the hands of the Democrats. Dan Boren, son of former Oklahoma Sen. David Boren (D), defeated Wayland Smalley (R) 65 percent to 35 percent.

The Oklahoma GOP also took control of the previously Democratic state House.