Deep in the Heart of Texas GOP

Posted January 18, 2008 at 6:18pm

The Republican primary in Texas’ 22nd district is a crowded and muddy swamp of uncertainty, and if there’s any consensus at all, it’s that former Rep. Shelley Sekula Gibbs will finish first and that the GOP establishment will then fall in line behind whomever joins her in a runoff.

Sekula Gibbs served as the 22nd district’s Congresswoman for three weeks at the end of 2006, and during that time she earned the enmity of many Republican insiders back home and most of the Texas GOP House delegation. But with her name recognition near 100 percent districtwide and facing nine other relatively unknown candidates, Sekula Gibbs is projected to finish on top in the March 4 primary.

However, she is expected to garner far less than the 50 percent of the vote required to avoid the April 8 runoff. According to most Lone Star State Republican insiders who have some knowledge of the district, the candidates with the best chance of joining Sekula Gibbs in the runoff are former Sugar Land Mayor Dean Hrbacek, former Pasadena Mayor John Manlove, former Senate aide Pete Olson and state Rep. Robert Talton.

“The word on the ground right now is, Shelley takes first, and whomever takes second kills her in the runoff a month later,” said one Texas Republican strategist. “Texas has a tradition of doing things like that.”

Republicans, both in Texas and in Washington, D.C., have placed a high priority on ousting Rep. Nick Lampson (D) in November. Lampson won the solidly conservative 22nd district in large part because Sekula Gibbs — his 2006 general election opponent — was forced to run that year as a write-in candidate.

Most Republican candidates currently are focused on securing the crucial support of suburban Houston grass-roots GOP activists and voting precinct chairmen — although Olson, formerly an aide to Texas GOP Sen. John Cornyn and former Sen. Phil Gramm, is on the air with two rotating radio spots featuring Gramm.

There is a significant Republican donor community to draw on in Houston. But according to Republican strategists and GOP insiders in Texas, most of the usual political players, as well as a majority of the Lone Star State Republican House delegation, are staying out of the primary but preparing to back Sekula Gibbs’ runoff opponent.

One Republican Member of the Texas House delegation said simply: “She is not wanted.”

“The [GOP] delegation is unenthusiastic about Shelley Sekula Gibbs,” added a Republican strategist based in Texas.

Sekula Gibbs’ campaign spokesman, C.B. Currier, referred to this speculation as the “D.C. game” and said it wouldn’t affect her campaign nor exert any particular influence on voters in the district.

“As far as we’re concerned, [the campaign] is going good,” Currier said. “Shelley has very strong loyalty and very strong name ID — both of which are obviously important. [Political] insiders are what they are.”

In 2006, Sekula Gibbs was selected by 22nd district GOP leaders to run against Lampson after the Texas Democratic Party filed suit in federal court and successfully prevented Republicans from utilizing a provision of state law that would have allowed them to appoint a replacement to former Rep. Tom DeLay (R) on the 2006 general election ballot.

DeLay resigned his seat in June 2006, three months after winning the 22nd district GOP primary.

Although Sekula Gibbs lost her write-in bid for the 110th Congress, she won a special election that was held on the same day to serve out the remainder of DeLay’s term. However, her relationship with DeLay’s old staff and the Texas GOP delegation turned rancorous during her brief stint on Capitol Hill.

Consequently, a majority of the Texas GOP House delegation — as well as many 22nd district GOP insiders — prefer that one of her opponents win the primary and advance to the November general election against Lampson. Although internal Republican polls have shown Sekula Gibbs to have wide name recognition, those same surveys show her leading the field with slim support, as low as just above 20 percent.

Sekula Gibbs’ personal negatives also are high, according to Republican strategists who are unaffiliated with any of her opponents but are familiar with the surveys in question.

“She’s going to make the runoff,” said one Republican strategist based in Washington, D.C. “But the fact that in preliminary polls she’s polling so low — that says something.”

None of the candidates considered a contender for second place in the March 4 contest come to the table without flaws. But each is seen as having enough strengths to carry them to victory in the April 8 runoff, which is almost inevitable because the field of Republican candidates is 10 deep.

Hrbacek made some enemies as mayor of Sugar Land — DeLay’s old hometown — and was ousted in his bid for a second term by current Mayor David Wallace (R). But Sugar Land sits in Fort Bend County, and the county’s Republicans tend to feel that the 22nd district seat should be held by one of their own.

Hrbacek has done a good job exploiting this dynamic, and according to one Republican insider may have locked up the support of as much as 65 percent of the Fort Bend County GOP precinct chairmen.

Olson grew up in the district has been endorsed by Cornyn, whom he was serving as chief of staff on Capitol Hill before he moved back home to run for Congress, and he already has the tacit support of some Members of the Texas GOP House delegation.

Olson is living in Fort Bend County and has knocked on roughly 13,500 doors since October in a bid to boost his name recognition and garner support. Olson’s campaign claims that its candidate is the only one to walk precincts in all four of the counties in the district.

But while Olson’s name identification is on the rise, he hasn’t lived in the district in almost two decades. He is basically an unknown who risks being branded a carpetbagger. And having most recently worked on Capitol Hill, he could be labeled a Washington insider in an election year that is shaping up to be anti-Washington.

Manlove and Talton both hail from Pasadena, in Harris County, whose local GOP is the other big player among the four counties that are partially included in the 22nd district (Sekula Gibbs also is based in Harris County). Manlove resigned as Pasadena mayor to run for Congress.

Both Manlove and Talton have the opportunity to ride the strength of Harris County GOP voters who may be looking for an alternative to Sekula Gibbs into the primary, although the fact that they at least partly share the same base of support in Pasadena could mean they divide that vote and allow Hrbacek or Olson to sneak into the runoff.

Talton’s advantage over Manlove, however, is that his current state legislative district is wholly contained in the 22nd district. He has irritated some of the state GOP’s stalwart conservatives of late by some of his actions in the Legislature, but other than that is described as having a solid conservative record with few blemishes.

Although Republicans following the 22nd district primary are reasonably confident that Sekula Gibbs will finish first on March 4 and that either Hrbacek, Olson, Manlove or Talton will join her in the April runoff, they say the race remains hard to gauge, and they caution that the unexpected could easily occur.

“I think it will be a classic, late-decision campaign about who has the best chance of defeating Nick [Lampson],” said one GOP insider. “I don’t think it will be one where he or she who has the best message or most money will win. It will be a confluence of events.”