Campaign '06: Tom DeLay's Gift to the Democrats

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When former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay announced in an Austin courtroom five months ago that he was moving on to a new stage in his life and then sashayed out of the courthouse with that ever-present grin, he left voters in his district in a whirl of confusion and anger. DeLay told TIME he thought he could do more for the conservative cause outside Congress, but that still left his constituents with lots of unanswered questions.

Texas' 22nd Congressional district may be as flat as the rice fields that run to the horizons southeast of Houston, but it has been a roller-coaster ride for Republicans, in yet another of those once safe G.O.P. districts that is now a gleam in the eye of Democratic Party leaders. "If this race gets any rockier, writing about it will require a chisel," Bob Dunn, editor of the FortBendNow news blog, told his readers.

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After Democrats pleaded successfully with the court in June to block Republicans from replacing the tarnished DeLay on the ballot, he requested that his name be dropped, leaving the party with no option but to run a write-in candidate. That spot has fallen to Houston city councilwoman and dermatologist Shelley Sekula-Gibbs. And even in a district that President George W, Bush won with 64% of the vote in 2004, most experts on both sides of the aisle say winning with a write-in campaign is a long shot.

"I am not as pessimistic as I was," said Royal Masset, a longtime Texas Republican operative. "I think she has a real outside chance, maybe a one in 20 shot. I am amazed at how the party has united behind her." Some Democrats, including Andy Hernandez, a former Democratic National Committee staffer and Hispanic voting expert, are being cautious. "It's still a Republican district," he said.

But now it is a Republican district without a Republican on the ballot. The only names voters will see in the District 22 space on the general election ballot will be Democratic front-runner Nick Lampson and Libertarian Bob Smithers. If they want to vote Republican in the race for the new term beginning in January they will have to write in Sekula-Gibbs' name.

Sekula-Gibbs got a small boost when Gov. Rick Perry decided to call a special election to fill out the few months remaining in DeLay's current term, also on general election day, Nov. 7. The Texas Secretary of State then ordered that the special election ballot should go atop the general election ballot, putting Sekula-Gibbs' name in full view of the voters, along with four other Republicans and a Libertarian. Former Democratic Congressman Lampson, who was redrawn out of his old Houston-area district as part of the infamous DeLay redistricting plan, chose not to run in the special election for the two months left of DeLay's term — most likely because he would not win, Republican Masset said.

Republicans are hoping that seeing Sekula-Gibbs' name at the top of the ballot in the special election, voters will be more likely to write in her name when they get to the regular ballot. To help Republicans do so, Sekula-Gibbs sings a little ditty at her campaign spots to the tune of "Roll Out the Barrel" — "Vote twice for Shelley. Special and then write her in."

When the write-in campaign became inevitable, there was talk of a $3 million infusion from the national party, but that proved to be one of those "sure, let's get together again, I'll call you" moments. The National Republican Campaign Committee has chipped in about $100,000 and some mailers. But Sekula-Gibbs has raised a respectable half-million dollars from individual Republicans, including $150,000 at a Dick Cheney Houston fundraiser in early October. DeLay has donated his campaign voter list, and Texas Republican stars like U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison have been on the ground campaigning for Sekula-Gibbs. As an added boost, President George W. Bush plans to attend a rally for her on Oct. 30 that is sure to draw a large crowd of G.O.P. faithful.

Lampson is running a campaign focused on local issues. At an area-wide Democratic candidate forum he eschewed the antiwar/anti-Bush rhetoric of his fellow Democrats and focused on health care and transportation. Meanwhile, Republicans in this conservative district are trying to link him to Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Democratic donors like Barbra Streisand. With $3.3 million in the bank and an $850,000 television ad buy courtesy of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Lampson is stressing his early struggles in a poor, hardworking Texas family and his work for education, his support of the Johnson Space Center (it became part of the district after DeLay's redrawing of Congressional lines) and child protection issues during his eight prior years in Congress.

Of course, organization is the key and Republicans handily beat Democrats in turnout in the spring primary by some 25,000 votes. But in this flatland district, Sekula-Gibbs has an uphill battle.

"Lampson will win," said Austin Republican political consultant Bill Miller. "This is all about 2008, when the district goes back to the Republicans." And, hopefully, to a more orderly election process.