It has been a tempestuous few years for the voters of Texas' 22nd Congressional District, the once solid conservative home of the much loved/much reviled (take your pick) former Republican Majority Leader Tom DeLay. After years of bringing home the bacon for voters in bow tie-shaped district south of Houston, DeLay, under a cloud of ethics allegations and still-unresolved criminal charges, abandoned his seat mid-election in 2006, leading to a Republican succession battle that resembled a circular firing squad. Out from the smoke came Nick Lampson, a moderate Democrat who had been drawn out of his old neighboring congressional seat in DeLay's mid-decade redistricting power play. Lampson noted his family's roots in the area and his support from veterans groups and the National Rifle Association to win over voters in the 22nd. Now he is battling to hang onto his new seat after being tagged by some national pundits as one of the most vulnerable incumbent Democrats this fall.
Carrying the united Republican banner is Pete Olson, a Navy veteran, native of Houston and former chief of staff to former Texas Senator Phil Gramm and current Texas Senator John Cornyn. Republican heavyweights including President George W. Bush, Gov. Mitt Romney and popular conservative Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal have stood shoulder to shoulder with Olson at campaign appearances and fundraisers as he rails against Lampson as a closet liberal out of step with the district's conservative voters. Meanwhile, the Democrats have poured money into Lampson re-election effortsthe latest numbers from the Federal Election Commission showed him with about $900,000 on hand, roughly triple what Olson has left. A poll released this week by Zogby International gave the clear advantage to Olson by a whopping 17 point margin, but Lampson's campaign has taken issue with the geographic sampling in the poll and claims their own internal polls show the race to be a dead heat. And indeed while most national pundits say Lampson is facing an uphill battle, some observers closer to home say he shouldn't be counted out so fast.
As if all this political turmoil wasn't enough, along came Hurricane Ike in September, disrupting the campaign and leading political operatives to wander in the weedsliterally in search of displaced voters. The hunt revealed that some voters in Democratic precincts may have been displaced by the storm, but it also gave Lampson an opportunity to emphasize his responsiveness by bringing in staffers and support services, including a mobile congressional phone bank with links to government aid agencies. Both sides suspended their campaigns for much of September, but Lampson kept a high profile during the Ike recovery, his face on television side by side with a phalanx of local and state officials, both Republican and Democrat, addressing the crisis.
Thanks to DeLay's machinations, the political ironies in the district rise as high as Ike's storm surge. In the former majority leader's redrawing of the Texas map, he pulled the Johnson Space Center and NASA, a pork-rich environment, into District 22. And after winning DeLay's old seat, the Democratic leadership restored Lampson seniority based on his four terms representing his old adjacent district, which had been dismantled by DeLay. That led to Lampson serving on three committees vital to the districtagriculture, science and technology, and transportation which helped him win the endorsement of the influential Farm Bureau, whose 400,000 farmers and ranchers put high value on having a seat at the table in Washington. Lampson, who voted against the controversial $700 billion "bailout" package, has again won an endorsement from the NRA, evidence of his support for some of the socially conservative issues that resonate in Texas. Still he is no Bush defender. Though he originally voted for the Iraq war resolution, he claims Congress was misled by the Administration on the issue of Saddam Hussein's purported weapons of mass destruction and even joined congressman Dennis Kucinich's short-lived push for impeachment.
In the only debate of the campaign, Olson chided Lampson for talking conservative at home and voting like a liberal in Washington. It is a message Republicans have used with some success against blue dog Texas Democrats in the past, and it would seem likely to resonate in a district that is still around 55% Republican and voted 64% for President Bush in 2004. But DeLay sacrificed some conservatives to scoop up NASA and to boost Republican chances in other districts, leading some Texas observers to suggest those adjustments and a boom in the number of minority middle class voters in the district's fast-growing suburbs may have moved it closer to the middle.
"It ain't what it used to be," said University of Houston political scientists Richard Murray. Since 2006, when DeLay abandoned his seat, a large number of middle class African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans have moved into the 22nd's growing suburban areas southwest of Houston, around DeLay's old home base, Sugarland. Murray said. Asians, many of them professional and small businessowners with roots in India and Vietnam, are becoming an important force in local elections, particularly in Fort Bend County, the heart of the district where the sugar fields are giving way to suburban growth. Asian political participation has grown tenfold since 2006, and some 30,000 cast ballots in this year's Democratic primary, evidence of the appeal Barack Obama has among the district's ethnic minorities. Asians make up about 5% of the voting age population in the district, Hispanics 18% and African-Americans 10%. "The district has moved from tossup to leaning Democratic in my casino," Murray said.
But Olson also has some clout in South Asian circleshis old boss Senator Cornyn founded the India Caucus in the Senate and is well-regarded by the district's Indian-American voters. Olson's pitch to voters emphasizes "a new generation of conservative leadership" for the district and his platform includes conservative stands on family and faith issues, low taxes and and cuts in government spending that have some appeal to small businessowners. However, one longtime commentator and analyst of Texas politics, Harvey Kronberg, editor of the Quorum Report, an Austin-based political newsletter, said he has never seen Democrats in the Houston area as organized as they are this year. "Olson is an attractive candidate but it is still a rough year for Republicans," Kronberg said. "Conventional wisdom gives it to the R(epublican), [but] I think Lampson holds on."