The Texas Five Minus Four

Only Edwards escapes DeLay's axe

The big CD 32 showdown between Reps. Pete Sessions and Martin Frost on Tuesday turned out to be no showdown at all. Frost – the more aggressive campaigner, the better debater, the man who so desperately wanted to prove House Majority Leader Tom DeLay wrong that he called himself "the Republicans' worst nightmare" – was 17 points behind Sessions in early voting. And while the gap narrowed somewhat during the evening, it never closed.

"The fight that we put together, the campaign that we put together, in this district in this year, against all odds, I believe will set an example for future Democrats who want to run in Dallas County and who want to run in the state of Texas," said Frost in his concession speech, marking the end of his 26-year career in Congress. Frost was the godfather of the "Texas Five," the five Democratic Congressmen drawn out of their Texas districts and scrambling to retain their seats. The others were Rep. Nick Lampson of Southeast Texas (CD 2), Rep. Charles Stenholm in West Texas (CD 19), Rep. Max Sandlin of East Texas (CD 1), and Rep. Chet Edwards in Central Texas (CD 17).

While he didn't represent the liberal bastion of Austin, Frost was the one who rallied the state's Democratic troops behind the scenes during the re-redistricting fight. He was the plaintiff in the Texas redistricting lawsuit. The daily, frequently scathing, e-mails on DeLay and redistricting came from his office. He made sure the turnout at the state's redistricting hearings was big, present in spirit if not in body. One suspects that Frost, if he could have, would have used his own campaign funds to buy that big 10-foot inflatable rat that showed up at various hearings.

In the end, the Texas Democratic Party lost the man who was both its senior statesman and its senior heckler. And in the end only one of the five – Edwards – was able to overcome the structural disadvantage created by mid-decade redistricting and win his new district.

A flurry of early voting in Jefferson Co. suggested that Beaumont's Lampson, the former teacher, four-term member, and staunch supporter of the Johnson Space Center, might have a chance in CD 2 against former Harris Co. District Judge Ted Poe. Poe, known for non-traditional public punishment labeled "Poetic Justice," made his reputation by imposing sentences such as making sex offenders post signs in their yards after they were released and ordering murderers to put pictures of their victims in their cells. Like Sessions, Poe had the senior George Bush campaigning for him. When the votes were tallied, Poe had won by 13 points.

Stenholm – conservative by most measures and a staunch House Agriculture Committee member out of Abilene – was trounced by freshman Rep. Randy Neugebauer in the new CD 19. In its endorsement of Neugebauer, even the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal – in the city that is the seat of conservatism – wrote that it was "disgusted, disappointed and angry that we even have to make a choice between these two outstanding representatives." Then the paper endorsed Neugebauer, calling the 26-year veteran Stenholm the past and Neugebauer the future.

In East Texas and the new CD 1, Sandlin's impeccable Blue Dog Democratic record, and a seat on the House Ways and Means Committee, was not enough to beat a rather green Tyler judge, Louis Gohmert. Sandlin, who saw his strong base of supporters along the Texas-Oklahoma border go to elderly Democrat-turned-Republican Rep. Ralph Hall, expressed his frustration by calling his opponent "an ill-equipped, unemployed lawyer." Gohmert also was conservative, Baptist, and a Bush supporter. Sandlin described himself as an "independent voice" for East Texas and earned the endorsement of every smaller paper outside of Tyler. He still lost by 39 points.

The only one with a chance was Edwards, in a new CD 17 that was less Republican than the district drawn for Sandlin. Edwards was drawn out of his key constituency at Fort Hood (now in CD 31, GOP Rep. John Carter's district), but was popular enough in and around his hometown of Waco to continue to draw strong support in his new district, not unlike Rep. Lloyd Doggett's ability to capitalize on the near-unanimous support of Austin Democrats to carry CD 25. In the end, the voters of this Cleburne-Waco-College Station district found former state Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth too conservative and went with Edwards. That would be the only win for the Blue Dogs.

Judging from local omens, however, Frost's predictions of future Democratic challengers may be truer than Republicans would like to admit. Travis Co. became a bellwether of better times to come, and when the dust settles in the Texas House the Dems may have picked up a seat for the first time in a generation (see p.26). And while the congressional districts mostly elected the Republicans they were drawn for, Doggett and Edwards defied Tom DeLay's determination to send them into exile. Democrats also made a strong showing in Dallas County races. Dallas Co. voters, frustrated by an alleged kickback scandal with longtime Republican Sheriff Jim Bowles, first ousted Bowles in the primary, then elected Lupe Valdez, who is not only female and Hispanic, but openly gay. Many of the countywide judicial seats – which had with one exception belonged to Republicans – were also ceded to Democratic challengers.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

congressional elections, Pete Sessions, Martin Frost, Tom DeLay, Nick Lampson, Charles Stenholm, Max Sandlin, Chet Edwards, Ted Poe, Randy Neugebauer, Louis Gohmert, Lloyd Doggett, Arlene Wohlgemuth

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