For years, Texas Congressman Tom DeLay has been a negative campaign ad waiting to happen. Wait no longer.
A thirty-second TV spot running in the 22nd District opened this winter with six actors using the word “integrity” six times in ten seconds. DeLay’s name was never mentioned. It didn’t have to be. A newspaper ad complemented the spot by describing DeLay’s close ties to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. That ad noted how DeLay enjoyed riding on Abramoff’s corporate jet to the world’s finest golf courses.
The coordinated ads came not from a Democrat but from the Tom Campbell campaign. Campbell challenged DeLay in the Republican primary. In a perfect world, Campbell would have retired DeLay to the golf course behind his Sugar Land home. A devout Mormon, married with children, Campbell is a partner in a corporate law firm in Houston. Ronald Reagan appointed him to the Republican National Committee in the mid-1980s. In 1989, George H. W. Bush appointed him chief counsel to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He was the lead negotiator in settlement talks when the Exxon Valdez dumped millions of gallons of crude oil into a pristine body of water in Alaska. He’s confident, agile, and good on TV. And he’s never been indicted. A near-perfect candidate for this Republican district. Campbell had some financial support, but DeLay has more money than the Exxon Valdez had oil.
If Campbell had an earlier start and $1 million to spend, rather than $250,000, the race might have turned out differently. As it was, DeLay won handily.
There is, however, a challenger with big money and Congressional credentials. Nick Lampson is a former Democratic member of Congress, a terrifically nice guy, an effective personal campaigner, and, of late, a very hot fundraiser. He’s a practicing Catholic, which softens his pro-choice position in a district dominated by evangelicals.
Lampson lost the House seat he had held for eight years after his district lines were redrawn by the Texas Legislature in 2003. It’s an understatement to say that DeLay is responsible for Lampson’s 2004 defeat. Before redistricting in 2003, DeLay set up a PAC, raised $1.5 million, and used it to put a Republican majority in the Texas House. Then he pressured the Speaker of the House and the governor to redraw Congressional district maps, which had been drawn by a three-judge federal panel in 2001 after the legislature deadlocked on redistricting. DeLay personally presided over the cartography in Austin, leaving Lampson with only 48 percent of the district in which he had won four races and packing the other 52 percent with Republicans. Four other Democrats were gerrymandered out of office in the same year. Along with Ralph Hall’s defection to the Republican Party, DeLay’s big play in Texas provided six Republican House seats in 2004, when the party’s total national net gain was five seats.
So there’s a certain poetic justice in Lampson returning to challenge DeLay. Lampson is thus far avoiding any negative message. In fact, he’s running as if his opponent were a civic exemplar embraced by the League of Women Voters. It’s a campaign style that fits the former public schoolteacher, who ran for Congress after he was elected tax assessor in a southeast Texas county dominated by Democrats. Lampson’s campaign manager, Mike Malaise, who most recently worked on the Kerry campaign, said that according to Lampson’s polling it’s not necessary to convince the public that Tom DeLay is crooked—because the public has that figured out.
“Our challenge is to get Nick Lampson out there,” Malaise said. “To reintroduce him and introduce him to the district on his own terms before the DeLay smear campaign begins.” (Lampson moved 100 miles west of his Beaumont home, into a slice of his old district that was reincorporated into DeLay’s 22nd District.) Democratic advocacy groups are, however, making negative ad buys. One DeLay corruption spot was so strong that several radio and TV outlets initially refused to run it. DeLay’s campaign had threatened to sue over the ad’s claim that Russian energy interests paid $1 million to a PAC linked to DeLay in exchange for a vote DeLay cast in the House.
Lampson is encouraged by a January poll that finds only 22 percent of constituents voting for DeLay in a general election, compared to 30 percent who indicated they would vote for Lampson. Only 28 percent of district voters give DeLay a favorable job approval rating. Even more discouraging for DeLay are the 60 percent who have an unfavorable view of him, and the fact that of the 38 percent who state that their opinion of DeLay changed over the past year, 91 percent now view him less favorably.
“That’s terrible news for an incumbent member of Congress,” says Richard Murray, whose staff at the University of Houston Public Policy Institute conducted the poll. “I’ve never heard of anyone being reelected with a job approval rating of 28 percent.”
Lampson’s fundraising has been competitive—$1.8 million to DeLay’s $3 million—as Democratic givers from around the country respond to the prospect of defeating DeLay and picking up a House seat. And this winter, DeLay was spending more on his criminal defense lawyers than his legal defense fund was taking in, an early indicator that his fundraising capacity has been diminished by the scandals, indictment, and the loss of his leadership position.
There are other promising signs for Lampson. The Republican House leadership is keeping its distance. New York Representative Tom Reynolds, who chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee, told the Associated Press that DeLay’s “difficulties” are between the Congressman and the constituents in his district. No one asked DeLay for his support in the recent race to fill the House majority leader’s position he gave up. The candidate most closely identified with DeLay, Majority Whip Roy Blunt, was handily defeated by John Boehner in the leader’s race.
An added wrinkle is that former Republican Congressman Steve Stockman, a rightwing fringe candidate even by Texas standards, is running as an independent. Stockman’s got it in for Lampson, who ended his brief and peculiar career in Congress. Yet if he stays in the race, Stockman will erode DeLay’s support among the rightwing whack jobs, always important swing voters in Texas elections.
DeLay obviously faces daunting odds. Yet he won’t roll over. In 2004 he won by a 55-45 margin, after he had redrawn his own district with a slightly more Democratic tilt so he could shift some Republican voters into adjacent districts where they were needed. He has hired the campaign manager who took down Democratic Congressman Martin Frost in 2004. (The Dallas district Frost had held for twenty-six years was also redrawn by DeLay.) He’s retained the services of the consultant who worked for Newt Gingrich when the Republicans took the House in 1994. His national fundraising is directed by a consultant who raised money for George W. Bush’s Presidential campaigns. His phone banks and direct mail will be overseen by a consultant who worked with Karl Rove on George Bush’s Presidential campaigns.
And if DeLay’s House colleagues aren’t openly embracing him, they’re doing whatever it takes to save one of the few seats in play in a year in which the Democrats might retake the House. In early February, the House leadership returned DeLay to a seat on an Appropriations subcommittee, providing him a vehicle to direct money to projects in the district, in particular NASA’s Johnson Space Center.
DeLay is perhaps the most successful fundraiser in the history of the House. So he’s raising money and laying the groundwork for what will probably be the most expensive Congressional race ever conducted.
In a bizarre twist in February, a rightwing organization produced and aired an ad praising DeLay and attacking George Soros, the New York billionaire, philanthropist, and financial backer of progressive candidates and advocacy groups. The Free Enterprise Committee produced the ads and paid for the media buys. But it turns out that all $200,000 spent on the ad was provided by Bob Perry, an elusive multimillionaire Houston businessman who put up the first $200,000 for the Swift Boat smear attack on John Kerry. The ads must have had more than a few viewers wondering if George Soros is himself running against DeLay.
The spot shows George Soros legalizing drugs, letting felons vote, and keeping the inheritance tax, while Tom DeLay is lowering taxes, standing for economic freedom, and fighting for conservative values. Soros’s cameo appearance in a Congressional race in Texas suggests how important the defense of Tom DeLay is to Republican funders.
Representative Barney Frank, Democrat from Massachusetts, describes the possibility of DeLay’s defeat.
“It means a great deal because DeLay was so powerful. He was the most powerful leader in my time here,” says Frank, who was elected to the House in 1980. “What made him more powerful than other leaders was his ability to influence local races because he was supported by Abramoff.”
According to Frank, the combination of DeLay’s organization and Abramoff’s money nullified Tip O’Neill’s dictum that “all politics is local.”
Republican members answered to the House leadership rather than their constituents because “they were afraid of what DeLay could do to them in the primary,” Frank says. With the support of Abramoff’s money, DeLay would back rightwing challengers to Republicans who did not vote as directed by the House leadership, Frank explains.
“DeLay’s beatable,” Frank says. If that happens, he says, the impact will be “transformational.”
Lou Dubose’s most recent book is “The Hammer Comes Down: The Nasty, Brutish, and Shortened Political Life of Tom DeLay,” published by PublicAffairs.