In the Nick of Time?

Lampson Readies His Defense Against GOP

Posted April 9, 2008 at 6:52pm

Rep. Nick Lampson might be the most endangered Democrat in Texas.

That statement might not mean what it did when the Republicans were riding high in the late 1990s and early part of this decade. But with a November matchup against newly minted Republican nominee Pete Olson looming in the solidly conservative, suburban Houston 22nd district, it still means something.

Unlike the previous cycle, Lampson will not have the luxury of running against a Republican write-in candidate. With an alternative on the ballot, there’s a real question as to whether Lampson can convince a majority of voters to look past his left-of-center views on many issues and return him to Washington, D.C.

Democrats believe he will.

“This is a competitive district, but no one knows that better than Congressman Nick Lampson,” said Kyra Jennings, spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “That’s why he is working extremely hard to build relationships in the district and a record of bipartisan, effective leadership in Congress, putting himself in a strong position to win re-election in November.”

Republican officials concede that Lampson might outspend Olson, and they admit that the Democrat is likable. But they contend that Lampson’s politics are simply unpalatable to a majority of the district’s voters and believe that his election in 2006 was a fluke.

Republicans also are optimistic because their nominee is Olson, not former Rep. Shelley Sekula Gibbs. Olson crushed Sekula Gibbs in Tuesday’s GOP primary runoff, 69 percent to 31 percent. The Texas House Republican delegation is making Lampson’s ouster its No. 1 political priority of the cycle,

“Nick Lampson better find himself a flashlight because his re-election chances are quickly growing dim,” said Ken Spain, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “Pete Olson has proven himself to be one of the top Republican challengers in the country, and we believe he has exactly what it takes to win in November.”

Mike Malaise, who managed Lampson’s 2006 victory and is acting as an adviser to his re-election bid, acknowledged the conservative bent of the district. But he argued that the demographics have been changing since the seat was redrawn in 2003. He said independent voters now are a much larger voting bloc than in previous election cycles.

Malaise said Lampson’s plan to win this fall is built on two pillars.

Like many Democrats who have been politically successful in Republican-leaning districts, Lampson has focused on providing superior constituent services and working on legislation where he and 22nd voters are most likely to find common ground.

Lampson regularly holds public events designed to engender close, personal contact with his constituents, most notably “Congress on Your Corner,” where constituents can sit down with Lampson and personally ask him for help solving a problem that involves the federal government.

Such events were developed by House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) and are being employed by many Democratic House Members who represent Republican-leaning districts.

On the issues, Malaise said Lampson is spending the bulk of his time pushing legislation that puts him on the same page as his constituents. That includes authoring a package of middle-class tax cuts; siding with House Republicans on border security; delivering federal funds for industries that drive the local economy; and promoting an expansion of taxpayer subsidized health care for children.

Although Lampson now knows who his challenger is, he will likely continue to spend most of his time focusing on his Congressional work. But that doesn’t mean he won’t be politically active.

“We’re certainly going to be campaigning,” Malaise said. “We will be working the field side and the ground game pretty extensively.”

The 22nd district in its present form was drawn in a 2003 mid-decade redistricting plan engineered by then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), who held the seat until he resigned from Congress in June 2006.

Some Democrats argue that the demographics of the 22nd district have changed since 2004, when President Bush took 64 percent of the vote there and DeLay prevailed with 55 percent. The Republican Party’s brand is down since then, and Bush, a Texan who was still quite popular at the time, will not be leading the ticket in the election to come.

Republicans familiar with the district acknowledge that it now includes more independent voters and has seen an influx of immigrants from India and Asia over the past decade.

But Republicans rely on a different standard to determine its political leaning, and that is the 1998 contest for lieutenant governor to replace a popular Democratic incumbent who was not running for re-election. That election is significant because DeLay used the results as the benchmark for his 2003 remap.

In that election, then-state agriculture commissioner and now-Gov. Rick Perry (R) was running for lieutenant governor against popular Democrat John Sharp, who was then the state comptroller. Research showed that, had the current 22nd district existed in 1998, Perry would have won the seat, going away with 59 percent of the vote, even as he won by just 2 points statewide, 51 percent to 49 percent.

Olson campaign spokeswoman Amy Goldstein offered that Lampson is a “nice guy.” But she said the Democrat is not the moderate that he claims to be and signaled that her candidate plans to make an issue of Lampson’s ties to the House Democratic leadership.

“I think that its not about Nick Lampson the person, it’s about Nick Lampson the [Speaker] Nancy Pelosi-enabler,” Goldstein said. “He does not represent the values of the majority of this district.

“He also has never been opposed on a ballot in this district,” Goldstein continued. “So, he is completely untested.”

The 22nd district was represented by DeLay until he resigned from the seat under a cloud of ethical misconduct. But he had won the March 2006 GOP primary, and when Republicans tried to use a mechanism of state law to replace DeLay on the ballot, the Texas Democratic Party sued to block the move. A federal judge eventually ruled that DeLay could withdraw his name from the ballot, but that the GOP could not replace him.

As such, party leaders in the 22nd district convened, and though the Fort Bend County and Harris County Republican parties split on the matter, it was decided that Sekula Gibbs, then a Houston councilwoman, would carry the GOP flag against Lampson as a write-in.

Sekula Gibbs lost that bid by 10 points, with Lampson winning with 52 percent of the vote. But she was on the ballot in a special election — held the same day as the general election — to fill the remainder of DeLay’s term. Lampson did not run in the special, and Sekula Gibbs won that contest and went on to serve a rocky three weeks in Congress.