Election 2006: Control of Congress

Democrats conquer Congress, and even conservative Texas helps out


In case you've been sleeping under a rock for the past 24 hours ...

… a major seismic shift occurred in the United States Congress Tuesday when the American public, sick of arrogance and corruption and scandals and war, tossed the GOP out of power from the U.S. Congress. The repercussions began the very next day when embattled Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld tendered his (presumably forced) resignation.

With 218 being the magic number for a majority, the House Dems sprang from a 202-232 (and one independent) disadvantage to a new superiority of 229-196, with 10 seats still undecided. Suddenly, a new world emerged in which Rush Limbaugh will have to choke the words "Speaker Pelosi" out of his throat in between pills.

In the Senate, if one counts independents Joe Lieberman and Bernie Sanders as Democrats, which is how they plan to caucus, then the GOP majority of 55-45 changed to a Democratic edge of 51-49, with the last piece falling into place late Wednesday night when the Associated Press declared Democrat James Webb the victor. At press time, incumbent George Allen had not officially conceded and could still request a recount, but AP's numbers sounded solid.

While dozens of seats flipped from Republican to Democrat, the reverse did not happen – not even once.

Even conservative Texas helped in the power shift, with DistDistrict 22 – previously the fiefdom of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay – falling to Democrat Nick Lampson, who took advantage of a ballot bereft of a Republican after DeLay resigned and withdrew from the race. Also, a challenge to conservative Democratic incumbent Chet Edwards in Central Texas never took flight, as he easily snagged 58% of the vote. And Texas might contribute yet another Dem in District 23, where Republican Henry Bonilla must face a run-off against Ciro Rodriguez some time next month after getting fewer votes than the five Democratic challengers in his special election.

Texas was not part of the Senate shift, as Barbara Ann Radnofsky never could broaden her appeal beyond the Democratic base, her 36% falling well short of Kay Bailey Hutchison's 62%.

The Austin-area races went about as expected, with our delegation unchanged and incumbents basically unchallenged. Because of court-ordered redistricting, two of the races were special elections requiring a majority to win, but no run-offs were necessary: In District 21, which stretches from West Austin to North San Antonio and takes in much of the Hill Country, Republican Lamar Smith fended off six challengers and captured 60% of the vote. In District 25, which includes East Austin and spreads out toward Shiner, liberal Democrat Lloyd Doggett posted a powerful 67%, even better than expected in a district that was expected to be a bit more conservative than before the redistricting.

"Democratic control of the House represents not an end in itself, but a new opportunity," Doggett said on his campaign Web site Wednesday, "an opportunity to clean up the corruption that has infected Washington, and a chance to change the agenda to concerns that make a difference in our lives."

Districts 10 and 31, stretching from North Austin to, respectively, Houston and Stephenville, featured Democrats with military backgrounds challenging incumbent supporters of Bush and his war, but the wave of anti-war anger that gripped the rest of the nation wasn't quite as strong in rural Central Texas, and John Carter and Michael McCaul kept their jobs – though the influence they were hoping to build will be severely diminished by being in the minority.

Both of the challengers were able to offset their personal disappointment against their joy that the Democrats had been victorious overall. "I'm thrilled that the Democrats will control Congress," said District 31's Mary Beth Harrell, a lawyer, longtime military wife, and mother of an Iraq soldier. "My campaign was centered around the Iraq war, and I'm delighted to see Mr. Rumsfeld resign. It's long overdue. He really harmed our military and really harmed our country." Navy veteran Ted Ankrum in District 10 expressed similar sentiments, and like Harrell, speculated that perhaps he could have won with some Democratic Party muscle and money behind him, even though the Dems' choices of whom to back clearly paid off nationally. Both he and Harrell managed around 40% in very conservative districts on miniscule budgets.

"They should have sunk money into it this time," Ankrum said. "McCaul was vulnerable this time. Look at what I did with $60,000, compared to his $600,000. He was vulnerable this time and nobody listened. He won't be vulnerable next time."

– Lee Nichols


Could Texas Send One More Dem to Congress?

The Democrats may not be done rolling up the score in Congress. Because of court-ordered redistricting, District 23, which stretches from San Antonio almost to El Paso, was a special election rather than a general election. Unlike a general election, just getting the most votes is not enough – to win a special, an actual majority is required, and if no one achieves it, a run-off is required. And an unlimited number of candidates from any party may run.

District 23 was gerrymandered by Tom DeLay in 2003 to favor Republican Henry Bonilla, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the lines violated the Voting Rights Act and ordered them redrawn again this summer; the new boundaries weren't quite as GOP-friendly.

Bonilla apparently came up just short: With 324 of 326 precincts reporting, he has just 48% of the vote. It's extremely unlikely he'll make up 2% in those last two boxes, so he'll be thrust into a run-off against Democrat Ciro Rodriguez, who's a comfortable second with 20.2%. To whip out that old cliché, turnout will be everything in a run-off: Rodriguez and five other Dems combined for 49.33%. Note to the Democratic National Committee: Pump some money into this race now. The run-off, if it happens, will likely be held in December. – L.N.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Congress, John Carter, Mary Beth Harrell, Michael McCaul, Ted Ankrum, Lloyd Doggett, Lamar Smith, Nick Lampson

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