DeLay Lives to Fight Another Day

Tom Campbell

Campbell ran as the anti-DeLay candidate and got 30 percent of the vote in the GOP primary. hide caption

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Gantt

Gantt was the first black Senate nominee from the South when he took on Jesse Helms (R-NC) in 1996. hide caption

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Twenty-six years ago today, Ronald Reagan won a big victory in the South Carolina primary, making him the odds-on favorite for the 1980 GOP presidential nomination. hide caption

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I'm still not sure what we learned from Tuesday's primary, where Rep. Tom DeLay (R-TX 22) captured 62 percent of the Republican vote to easily win renomination. DeLay, the former House majority leader, is still vulnerable in his bid for a 12th term in November. He is still under indictment in Texas on a money-laundering charge. His name is still linked to the ongoing investigation of convicted D.C. lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Democrats still see him as the poster boy in their "culture of corruption" campaign to win back control of Congress.

And yet… and yet, he performed better than I expected. I certainly didn't think he would lose, though I will admit that the possibility of his getting forced into a runoff did cross my mind. But it didn't happen. Not even close. Yes, he had a gazillion times more money than his three opponents (led by Houston attorney Tom Campbell, who finished with 30 percent). Yes, he is single-handedly responsible for the rapid growth of GOP congressional representation in Texas, which has won him some political IOUs. But an e-mail that arrived a few days before the primary made me wonder about the extent of the dissatisfaction in the party. The e-mail, from Carol Townsend of Houston, reads as follows:

I just read your March 1 column about Tom DeLay. I am a Republican in a neighboring district. There was a recent poll by the Houston Chronicle showing that 50 percent of those who voted for DeLay in 2004 indicated that they will not this time. Such results, although a long time prior to November, strike me as reflecting much diminished chances for him in the general election. Frankly, I do not know a single fellow Republican here in Houston who likes/admires DeLay. The attitude seems to be "enough is enough" where he is concerned. Locals seem to view him as "arrogant" and "power-corrupted," and fail to appreciate the significance of his actual political maneuvering effectiveness on the Hill. I predict there will be a massive "stay home" component in November, which will of course serve to turn his district over to the Democrats.

Perhaps this wasn't the right test; perhaps a challenger with more money and more recognition could have performed better. And we still don't know what, if anything, will come out in the Abramoff affair. But I'm not here to make excuses. Yesterday at least, DeLay did what he needed to do. Now he has eight months to see if he can finish the job.

OTHER KEY TEXAS PRIMARY RESULTS:

Senate: Not that Democrats had much of a chance to defeat GOP Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison to begin with. But their anointed challenger, attorney Barbara Ann Radnofsky, could do no better than 44 percent in a three-candidate race, and was thus thrown into an April 11 runoff with political non-entity Gene Kelly (who got 37 percent). Kelly was the default Democratic nominee who lost to Hutchison in a landslide six years ago.

House: In addition to the DeLay primary, these contests were closely watched:

17th CD: Iraqi war veteran Van Taylor won the GOP primary and will face Rep. Chet Edwards (D) in November. Edwards was the one Democrat who survived (barely) the DeLay-inspired redistricting map in 2004 and is a prime target again this year.

28th CD: Two years ago, incumbent Ciro Rodriguez was upended in the Democratic primary by Henry Cuellar; after a disputed recount, Cuellar came out on top by 58 votes. This year's rematch was also supposed to be close, but Cuellar won going away, besting Rodriguez in a three-way contest 53 percent to 41 percent. Cuellar has backed President Bush and the Republicans on a number of issues, and Rodriguez enlisted labor and liberal groups on his behalf. The GOP is not contesting the seat.

Governor: Chris Bell, a former one-term congressman, easily won the Democratic nomination, beating another ex-House member, Bob Gammage, 64 percent to 28 percent. Bell is considered a clear underdog in the fall against GOP Gov. Rick Perry, who brushed away minor opposition to win renomination. Several other hopefuls, including GOP state Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn and outrageous musician/author Kinky Friedman, are trying to get on the November ballot as independents.

Next primary: Illinois (March 21)

On to the questions...

Q: In last week's column you wrote that the last former Republican House leader to be defeated in a primary was ex-Speaker Joe Martin (R-MA) in 1966. Do you not count Guy Vander Jagt as a Republican leader? — Chuck Todd, Editor-in-Chief, The Hotline, Washington, D.C.

A: I was thinking mostly of those who held the position of leader – as in majority leader or minority leader. But I guess a list of Republican House leaders would by definition have to include those who chaired the National Republican Congressional Committee. And that would include Vander Jagt, the Michigan congressman who headed up the NRCC from 1975 until 1992, when he was upset in the Republican primary back home by businessman Peter Hoekstra, who still serves. My all-time favorite Vander Jagt story was that at the 1980 Republican National Convention in Detroit, where he was the keynote speaker, he gave the address without notes. Memorizing the speech, he must have figured, would somehow give him a leg up on the vice-presidential nomination.

FUN FACT: Rep. Bob Michel (R-IL) was chairman of the NRCC in the Watergate year of 1974, when the GOP lost 43 House seats in the midterm elections. He was then rewarded a month later by being elected House Republican Whip.

Q: It looks as if Rep. Harold Ford Jr. will grab the Democratic nomination for the open Senate seat in Tennessee. I know an African-American has never been popularly elected to the Senate from the South, but I am wondering how many have even received a party nomination? — Lincoln Restler, Providence, R.I.

A: Ford does face an Aug. 3 primary challenge from state Sen. Rosalind Kurita, but you are correct, he is the Democrats' likely nominee for the seat that Republican Bill Frist is vacating. Still, Ford won't be the first African-American from the South to win a Senate nomination. Harvey Gantt was the Democratic nominee against Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC) in both 1990 and 1996. Troy Brown (D) ran against Sen. Trent Lott (R) in Mississippi in 2000. In 2002, former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk (D) lost to John Cornyn (R) in Texas. And in 2004, Rep. Denise Majette (D) was defeated by a fellow member of Congress from Georgia, Republican Johnny Isakson, in the race to succeed the retiring Sen. Zell Miller.

Q: Has an incumbent U.S. senator from Maine ever been denied renomination? — Lisa Tilton, Wilton, Maine

A: At least one. Sen. Ralph Brewster lost his bid for another term in the 1952 Republican primary to Gov. Frederick Payne.

Q: Why am I addicted to politics? Politicians always make something out of nothing. They talk about what they are going to do, and then don't do what they said they were going to do. Nothing seems to really ever get accomplished except hype, patting each other on the back, and throwing mud at others. I may be crazy (and Ken, you are not a doctor), but why is this common working person so fascinated by politics? There's certainly no morality in it. Maybe it's the drama? Whatever it is, I can't seem to get politics out of my head. Am I confused, or just lost? I need to understand. — Earl McGuire, Rock Falls, Ill.

A: I may not necessarily agree with your characterization of politicians, but I share your addiction. And while I don't completely understand it, either, I'm not apologetic about it at all. I'm with you, Earl. It's like we're junkies, or something.

This Day in Campaign History: Ronald Reagan wins a sweeping victory in the South Carolina Republican primary, besting former Treasury Secretary John Connally — who was backed by the state party establishment, notably Sen. Strom Thurmond — by a nearly 2-1 margin. Trailing in third place was former Texas Congressman George Bush. The results make Reagan the clear frontrunner for the presidential nomination, and it forces Connally out of the race one day later (March 8, 1980).

Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: politicaljunkie@npr.org

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