Tom DeLay Challenge Opens 2006 Primary Season Despite the ethics scandals circling around him, former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay is still capable of rallying Texas' Republican voters behind him for the March 7 primary, says Political Editor Ken Rudin.
NPR logo Tom DeLay Challenge Opens 2006 Primary Season

Tom DeLay Challenge Opens 2006 Primary Season

Ciro Rodriguez of Texas is hoping to knock off the guy who unseated him in the House two years ago. hide caption

toggle caption

Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin:

Sen. Daniel Akaka of Hawaii faces a serious challenge in the Sept. 23 primary -- check out our 2006 primary calendar. hide caption

toggle caption

Thirty-nine years ago today, the House voted to deny Adam Clayton Powell his seat in Congress. hide caption

toggle caption

Q: Last year [see April 28, 2005, column] I asked if you thought then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay was "toast." I wrote that at a time when his Republican House colleagues were getting bombarded with questions about his fitness to serve in the leadership. Now DeLay is facing a serious challenge in the [March 7] Republican primary. I repeat my question: Is he "toast?" — Edward Taylor, El Paso, Texas

A: DeLay, like Bode Miller, has not been doing especially well of late. Coming off admonishments from the House ethics committee and garnering his lowest winning percentage since he first came to Congress — 55 percent — in 2004, the Republican from Sugar Land has since found himself indicted in a money-laundering case back in Texas that automatically cost him his leadership post; seen his once-close pal Jack Abramoff plead guilty in a federal bribery case; and, finally, decided a return to the leadership was not feasible. DeLay and his allies blame the Texas indictment on a partisan Democratic prosecutor, Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle. While there is sympathy for that argument among many Republicans, DeLay's association with Abramoff is far more problematic.

Now DeLay faces a challenge on March 7, primarily from Houston attorney/first-time candidate Tom Campbell, who was the general counsel to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration under the first President Bush. Campbell, alluding to the myriad of ethics charges swirling around DeLay, and with a looming challenge in November from ex-Rep. Nick Lampson (D), argues that only he can keep the seat in GOP hands. Everyone seems to agree that DeLay is facing the toughest primary challenge of his career. But I think he wins.

Part of the reason DeLay was held to 55 percent last time out is that, when he redrew the Texas congressional map (an unusual mid-decade exercise), he pulled GOP voters out of his own 22nd District in order to make neighboring districts more Republican. And the strategy worked. Four Democratic incumbents — Lampson, Max Sandlin, Charles Stenholm and Martin Frost — were ousted in November. Another, Jim Turner, found himself in an impossible district to win and decided to retire. Veteran Democratic Rep. Ralph Hall switched to the GOP to avoid a Republican challenge. Moderate Democratic Rep. Chris Bell was beaten in the primary by a black Democrat after his district was redrawn to elect an African-American congressman.

The point of all this is to show that by orchestrating the redrawing of the state's congressional districts, DeLay has solidified the GOP hold on Congress and has given the party its first congressional majority in the history of the Lone Star State. And that has gotten him a tremendous amount of appreciation from party members back home. So while the ethics woes are certainly troubling to some Republican voters, more seem to feel that DeLay is guilty of nothing other than making life miserable for the Democrats, and they are rallying behind him. That doesn't mean he's not vulnerable in November. How well he does on Tuesday may give us an early heads up for the general election against Lampson.

Useless Trivia: The last time a former Republican House leader was defeated in a primary was on Sept. 13, 1966, when ex-House Speaker Joe Martin (R-MA) — who was 82 years old — lost to Executive Councilor Margaret Heckler. (Postscript on Heckler: She served in the House for 16 years and later became secretary of Health and Human Services under President Reagan.)

Remember the Alamo: The Texas primary ballot will be pretty crowded, though Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and Gov. Rick Perry, both Republicans, are all but assured of renomination. Two Democrats — former congressmen Chris Bell and Bob Gammage — are seeking to challenge Perry in November.

One other House primary attracting attention is the 28th District Democratic slugfest. It's a rematch between freshman Rep. Henry Cuellar and the man he unseated two years ago in the primary, Ciro Rodriguez. Cuellar won that disputed contest by just 58 votes, and this year's race is just as nasty and contentious. Rodriguez is running ads accusing Cuellar of being a Bush (and DeLay) ally who would privatize Social Security and follow the GOP agenda on the environment, tax cuts, free trade, the war in Iraq and health care. While being pro-Bush is not necessarily the worst thing you can say about someone in much of Texas, it IS in the overwhelmingly Democratic, heavily Latino 28th CD, which starts in San Antonio and heads south to the Rio Grande. Rodriguez has won the backing of many liberal groups, such as and Democracy for America, and labor is going all out on his behalf. His campaign is circulating a photograph of President Bush cupping Cuellar's face before this year's State of the Union address, a tactic that helped close the money gap he has with Cuellar. Cuellar, the only Democrat to ever win the endorsement of the conservative Club for Growth, has responded with ads of his own, calling Rodriguez a Washington lobbyist who frequently went on wasteful junkets during his four terms in the House.

Also in the primary is schoolteacher Victor Morales, the surprise Democratic nominee against then-Sen. Phil Gramm in 1996. He is not expected to be a factor. Republicans are not fielding a candidate.

Left unsaid: The Supreme Court hears arguments today (March 1) brought by Democrats and minority groups challenging the 2003 redrawing of congressional lines. They call the DeLay-sponsored plan unconstitutionally partisan and racially discriminatory. If the high court agrees, new lines will have to be drawn, though probably not until the '08 election. It's hard to make the case that excessively partisan redistricting is unconstitutional. (When redistricting was mostly in Democratic hands, like in 1982, Republicans got their clocks cleaned in states like California and Illinois. I don't recall anyone back then saying that excessive partisan redistricting was a violation of the Constitution.) But if the plaintiffs can prove racial discrimination, that's another story.

Calendar: Texas kicks off the 2006 primary season. Scroll to the bottom of this column for the official primary election calendar, who's up, and what's at stake.

Q: I find it pretty pathetic watching the Democrats pound their chests over this Dubai company taking over some U.S. ports, considering how weak they have been on homeland security since 9/11. — Adam Knight, Jacksonville, Fla.

And there was this …

Q: How in the world are we expected to protect our borders when we allow Dubai to control our ports? Didn't two of the 9/11 hijackers come from there? And why Dubai? Was the Taliban unavailable? — Bruce Kirk, Dallas, Texas

And finally …

Q: Regarding the flak that President Bush is receiving regarding an Arab company running U.S. ports, do you think that this is a case of "you reap what you sow?" This administration has, to some degree, demonized at least some of the Arab world as a way to justify invading Iraq, scaring voters into re-election and clamping down on civil liberties at home. — Erich Zehe, Cleveland, Ohio

A: There are several conflicting issues here. The first is whether U.S. security is weakened because foreign companies control American ports. Truth be told, foreign companies have controlled U.S. ports for years; the Dubai firm would take over from the Brits. But nothing changes the fact that it will remain the job of the U.S. Coast Guard and the Customs Service to control border security and inspect the containers that arrive in the country. Whether the Coast Guard does a good job, and whether containers are adequately inspected, are entirely different questions. We won't be depending on Dubai to protect our shores and security.

But this is what happens when an administration is used to using wedge issues like national security against its foes. It comes back to bite you. So when Dubai Ports World decides to buy out the British firm that has been managing the ports, and when the Bush administration goes along with the deal, it shouldn't be a surprise that Democrats (and not a few Republicans) go ballistic. Some of it is politics, pure and simple. Some of it is pure ignorance, and perhaps a bit xenophobic. But if it is indeed politics, it's certainly understandable. What's not understandable is that the Bush administration didn't see it coming.

Q: Who are the two congressional widows who failed in their bids to succeed their last husbands? I recently read that the widows were 36 for 38 in picking up seats but no mention of who the losers were. — Judith Forrester

A: The last widow to fail in her bid to succeed her husband in Congress was Marta Brown, wife of the late Rep. George Brown (D-CA). She narrowly lost to state Sen. Joe Baca in the 1999 special Democratic primary in California's 42nd District. Before that, it was Kathryn McDonald, whose husband, Rep. Larry McDonald (D-GA), was among those who perished on the Korean Air Lines Flight 007 shot down by the Soviet Union on Sept. 1, 1983. Kathryn McDonald lost in a special 1983 runoff to fellow Democrat George (Buddy) Darden.

There are at least two more. After Rep. William F. Ryan (D-NY) died of cancer on Sept. 17, 1972, his widow, Priscilla, sought the Democratic line to succeed him. That went instead to Rep. Bella Abzug, who was a victim of redistricting that year and who, in fact, had lost to Bill Ryan in the June primary. Priscilla Ryan then ran in the general election as the candidate of the Liberal Party, but she finished a distant second to Abzug. And in 1968, Mrs. Joe Pool, wife of the late Texas Democratic congressman who was chairman of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, lost to Republican Jim Collins.

Q: Who do you think was a better second baseman, Horace Clarke or Ken Boswell? And if they both ran for Congress in New York's 2nd Congressional District, which one would win? — Stu Rothenberg, Washington, D.C.

A: Okay, I know a fake question when I see one. Still, I had to run this "question" from Stu, and not because he's a widely respected political pundit who publishes the Rothenberg Political Report. The real reason: We share the same addictions — campaigns and baseball. And pitchers and catchers have already reported to spring training. Expect my annual whining about the Yankees' pitching woes in an upcoming column.

The Buckshot Stops Here: A bunch of responses to the Feb. 16 column on Dick Cheney's shooting mishap, mostly with unanswerable and rhetorical questions. Karen Davis of Marietta, Ga., wants to know that "with Cheney being a heart patient, why was he drinking beer? With him being an experienced hunter, why would he mistake a six-foot tall man wearing orange for a small quail bird? Why wasn't his license confiscated or revoked? The whole thing reeks of a cover-up." Jim Balzaretti of New York City asks, "Why was Dick Cheney using a rifle now when the draft board years ago offered it to him five times and he turned them down?" But Charles Cohen of Fresno, Calif., says that "the whole thing just reinforces how important Beltway journalists think they are. What rules did Cheney violate by going to the Corpus Christi Times instead of The New York Times? How many press conferences did Al Gore have when he was caught soliciting funds from Buddhist temples?"

This Day in Campaign History: The House votes 307-16 to exclude Rep. Adam Clayton Powell (D-NY) from membership in the 90th Congress over misuse of funds. It was only the third time in history the House had taken such an action. Civil rights groups insisted that Powell was excluded because he was black, while Rep. Mo Udall (D-AZ) argued the opposite, saying that had Powell been white, "We'd have gotten to him a long time ago" (March 1, 1967).

Primary Election Calendar

Texas kicks off the 2006 primary season. Here's the official primary election calendar, who's up, and what's at stake:

March 7 – TEXAS: Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R), Gov. Rick Perry (R), 32 House seats.

March 21 – ILLINOIS: Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D), 19 House seats.

May 2 – INDIANA: Sen. Richard Lugar (R), 9 House seats.

NORTH CAROLINA: 13 House seats.

OHIO: Sen. Mike DeWine (R), open R governorship (Bob Taft term-limited), 18 House seats.

May 9 – NEBRASKA: Sen. Ben Nelson (D), Gov. Dave Heineman (R), 3 House seats.

WEST VIRGINIA: Sen. Robert Byrd (D), 3 House seats.

May 16 – KENTUCKY: 6 House seats.

OREGON: Gov. Ted Kulongoski (D), 5 House seats.

PENNSYLVANIA: Sen. Rick Santorum (R), Gov. Ed Rendell (D), 19 House seats.

May 23– ARKANSAS: Open R governorship (Mike Huckabee term-limited), 4 House seats.

IDAHO: Open R governorship (Dirk Kempthorne term-limited), 2 House seats.

June 6 – ALABAMA: Gov. Bob Riley (R), 7 House seats.

CALIFORNIA: Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D), Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), 53 House seats.

IOWA: Open D governorship (Tom Vilsack retiring), 5 House seats.

MISSISSIPPI: Sen. Trent Lott (R), 4 House seats.

MONTANA: Sen. Conrad Burns (R), 1 House seat.

NEW JERSEY: Sen. Robert Menendez (D), 13 House seats.

NEW MEXICO: Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D), Gov. Bill Richardson (D), 3 House seats.

SOUTH DAKOTA: Gov. Mike Rounds (R), 1 House seat.

June 13 – MAINE: Sen. Olympia Snowe (R), Gov. John Baldacci (D), 2 House seats.

NORTH DAKOTA: Sen. Kent Conrad (D), 1 House seat.

SOUTH CAROLINA: Gov. Mark Sanford (R), 6 House seats.

VIRGINIA: Sen. George Allen (R), 11 House seats.

June 27 – UTAH: Sen. Orrin Hatch (R), 3 House seats.

July 18 – GEORGIA: Gov. Sonny Perdue (R), 13 House seats.

July 25 – OKLAHOMA: Gov. Brad Henry (D), 5 House seats.

August 1 – KANSAS: Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D), 4 House seats.

August 3 – TENNESSEE: Open R Senate (Bill Frist retiring), Gov. Phil Bredesen (D), 9 House seats.

August 8 – COLORADO: Open R governorship (Bill Owens term-limited), 7 House seats.

CONNECTICUT: Sen. Joe Lieberman (D), Gov. Jodi Rell (R), 5 House seats.

MICHIGAN: Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D), Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D), 15 House seats.

MISSOURI: Sen. Jim Talent (R), 9 House seats.

August 15 – NEVADA: Sen. John Ensign (R), open R governorship (Kenny Guinn term-limited), 3 House seats.

August 22 – ALASKA: Gov. Frank Murkowski (R), 1 House seat.

WYOMING: Sen. Craig Thomas (R), Gov. Dave Freudenthal (D), 1 House seat.

September 5 – FLORIDA: Sen. Bill Nelson (D), open R governorship (Jeb Bush term-limited), 25 House seats.

September 12 – ARIZONA: Sen. Jon Kyl (R), Gov. Janet Napolitano (D), 8 House seats.

DELAWARE: Sen. Tom Carper (D), 1 House seat.

MARYLAND: Open D Senate (Paul Sarbanes retiring), Gov. Robert Ehrlich (R), 8 House seats.

MINNESOTA: Open D Senate (Mark Dayton retiring), Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R), 8 House seats.

NEW HAMPSHIRE: Gov. John Lynch (D), 2 House seats.

NEW YORK: Sen. Hillary Clinton (D), open R governorship (George Pataki retiring), 29 House seats.

RHODE ISLAND: Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R), Gov. Donald Carcieri (R), 2 House seats.

VERMONT: Open I Senate (James Jeffords retiring), Gov. Jim Douglas (R), 1 House seat.

WISCONSIN: Sen. Herb Kohl (D), Gov. Jim Doyle (D), 8 House seats.

September 19 – MASSACHUSETTS: Sen. Edward Kennedy (D), open R governorship (Mitt Romney retiring), 10 House seats.

WASHINGTON: Sen. Maria Cantwell (D), 9 House seats.

September 23– HAWAII: Sen. Daniel Akaka (D), Gov. Linda Lingle (R), 2 House seats.

November 7 – ELECTION DAY

LOUISIANA: 7 House seats.