Ike’s Political Aftershocks

Two Texas House Races See Their Dynamics Altered

Posted September 22, 2008 at 6:46pm

Hurricane Ike and its aftermath have scrambled two Texas House races in suburban Houston and left unclear who stands to benefit — or suffer — politically, particularly in the highly targeted 22nd district, where Rep. Nick Lampson (D) is running against his district’s strong conservative lean.

Lampson, up against former Senate aide Pete Olson (R), was assumed to be extremely vulnerable in the upcoming November elections. But that prognosis could change, depending on whether Lampson benefits from his role in hurricane recovery efforts or suffers because his district’s hardest-hit and most evacuated neighborhoods are home to the bulk of its Democratic voters.

“It’s too soon to tell,” Lampson campaign spokesman Trevor Kincaid said when asked to discuss the political ramifications of Hurricane Ike.

Kincaid said Lampson’s campaign remains suspended — and indefinitely so, as the Congressman focuses full time on helping his constituents recover from the storm and working on Capitol Hill to appropriate money for the rebuilding. Lampson has spent much of his time working out of a federal mobile command center, with his campaign staff volunteering in cleanup efforts.

The Olson campaign had also suspended all activity, with Olson himself spending every day since the storm volunteering in recovery activities. Olson campaign spokeswoman Amy Goldstein said Monday that the Republican was set to gingerly re-initiate some political activities this week, although she was unsure just how pointed they would be.

“We are getting back to campaigning this week, where it is appropriate,” Goldstein said. “Right now we’re obviously in a transitional period.”

Rep. John Culberson (R), running for re-election in the solidly Republican 7th district, is facing a mildly competitive challenge from wealthy energy executive Michael Skelly (D).

Culberson was in considerably less trouble than Lampson before Ike hit Houston, and his constituents, while still significantly affected by the hurricane, are better off than residents of the 22nd district. Like Lampson, Culberson’s campaign remains suspended as he takes advantage of incumbency and focuses on constituent services.

On Monday, Skelly got back to the business of campaigning, and with more bite than his fellow challenger, Olson. Skelly and his campaign have spent the period since Ike struck coordinating volunteer efforts for hurricane recovery and will continue doing so as needed, according to Dylan Loewe, Skelly’s spokesman.

Skelly’s campaign jumped on a report in the Houston Chronicle in which some of Culberson’s actions after the storm were criticized by a local official, Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack (R).

“In a misguided attempt to get political attention, John Culberson misdirected resources in the midst of hurricane recovery. To that end, these events have underscored the need for competence in our elected officials,” Loewe said.

The Culberson campaign hit back, lambasting Skelly for attending a Washington, D.C., fundraiser on Friday while the 7th district is in the midst of recovering from Ike.

“While Michael Skelly is in Washington raising money from his liberal friends for his campaign, John Culberson is working as the only member of the Appropriations Committee from Southeast Texas,” Culberson campaign spokesman Tony Essalih said.

In the 22nd district, where Lampson is legitimately vulnerable, the political repercussions of Hurricane Ike are seen as cutting both ways. Lampson, who previously served four terms in Congress in a solidly Democratic district and compiled a voting record to fit, won the heavily Republican 22nd district in 2006 partly because his GOP opponent was forced to run as a write-in.

Republican operatives interviewed for this story generally gave Lampson high marks for his handling of the crisis, fearing that it could pay political dividends for the Democrat on Nov. 4. Olson was forced to stop all campaigning and remain out of sight just as the final stretch of the contest was beginning, and since then, Lampson has received only positive press — although Democrats charged that the Texas GOP dropped an attack mail piece in the district last week.

The Congressman was even able to miss a crucial House vote on Democratic- sponsored energy legislation last week, as he was at home dealing with hurricane recovery. One Republican insider familiar with the 22nd district said missing that vote was a boon for Lampson politically, as a vote for the bill would have been problematic for most Republican voters, while a vote against could have caused him trouble with Democrats.

However, portions of Lampson’s district hardest hit by the storm also tend to be home to the most moderate and Democratic-leaning voters. These communities include Clear Lake, El Lago, Nassau Bay, Seabrook and Tiki Island. The regions of the district less affected by Ike — Harris County, closer to Houston’s city center, and Fort Bend County — are Republican strongholds where Olson has made inroads.

“There are parts of the district that are traditionally Democratic that have been wiped out,” said one Republican operative. The Lampson campaign “has to find the voters. Nobody has dealt with that issue.”

Democratic operatives monitoring the district said Monday that they expect most of the residents of the evacuated neighborhoods to return by Election Day, citing information they have been given from local officials. But others are not so sure, noting that in many cases, the residents of these areas don’t necessarily have a livable home to return to.

Meanwhile, a debate that had been scheduled for Oct. 1 in Clear Lake might have to be rescheduled because the venue for the event, a Hilton hotel, endured too much storm damage. This was the only debate Lampson had agreed to. Olson this week plans on dropping a positive mail piece focused on providing hurricane recovery information.

The Olson campaign liked its position pre-Ike.

Olson’s campaign believes that the hurricane struck early enough — and that the recovery is proceeding swiftly enough — to enable it to get back on track in time to run a winning campaign. Republican operatives generally believe that the political atmospherics in the 22nd district favor Olson, although they concede Lampson could score political points for his role in the recovery from the storm.

“If incumbents handle recovery efforts well in emergency situations, it reflects well on them,” one Democratic operative said.