SUGAR LAND, Tex. -- House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), struggling to protect his Washington power base as legal and ethical issues fester, also has to watch his back on the home front.
Though the change has received little notice, DeLay's strength in his suburban Houston congressional district of strip malls and housing developments has eroded considerably -- forcing him to renew his focus on protecting his seat.
DeLay garnered 55 percent of the vote in the November election against a relatively unknown Democrat, an unusually modest showing for a veteran House member who is one of the most powerful politicians in Washington. Some Republican officials and DeLay supporters worry that with President Bush absent from the top of the ticket next year, liberal interest groups might target the conservative majority leader and spend millions of dollars on campaign ads to try to defeat him.
The outspoken and hard-charging DeLay, 57, got into trouble last year when the House ethics committee admonished him three times and three of his Texas associates were indicted by a Travis County grand jury on charges of illegal fundraising related to a controversial redistricting plan that DeLay helped push through the state legislature. Testimony began this week in a civil case brought in Austin by five Democrats who allege that a political action committee begun by DeLay improperly spent about $600,000 in corporate contributions to implement the plan and unseat them.
House Republican leaders responded to DeLay's problems by changing rules and tightening their control over the ethics committee, to discourage future cases against DeLay and other GOP members. National conservative groups rallied to DeLay's side. DeLay has denied any wrongdoing.
But DeLay now has to worry about "Texas 22," the congressional district he has represented for the past 21 years in the U.S. House. Ironically, the Texas redistricting plan he engineered over strong Democratic objections drained some vital Republican support and could make it tougher for him to win reelection. In his old district, DeLay took 60 percent of the vote in 2000 and 63 percent in 2002.
In 2003, at DeLay's behest, the Texas legislature redrew the state's congressional lines without waiting for the next census (in 2010), the customary occasion for redistricting. With the new districts, which still face court challenges, Texas elected five additional Republicans to the U.S. House last November, accounting for all of the party's net gain.
DeLay's new district wound up several percentage points less Republican than his previous one, and it has a substantial and growing Asian American population.
"When you're drawing the lines, you have to set the example," DeLay explained late last week as he traveled his district during the Presidents' Day recess. "If you're going to maximize the number of Republicans that are elected, everybody can't have an 80 percent district. If you're the guy that's sort of leading the effort, you can't tell your members, 'Well, I'm going to dilute yours, but I'm going to pack mine.' "
"In doing all that, we tried to be as fair to everybody as possible," he added. "And I had to take my hit, too."
So when the House is tackling what DeLay calls the most ambitious agenda since Republicans took control a decade ago, he has to worry about getting face time with local officials and with business owners who turn out for Chamber of Commerce dinners in the 30 percent of his district that is new.
Democrats are chortling about his possible weakness. Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said he is happy that DeLay is "meeting some real people instead of just K Street lobbyists."
"Maybe he'll find out the people actually like Social Security," Emanuel said.
In January, DeLay shook up his team of political consultants. He signed on Sam Dawson, who was a top political aide to then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and helped devise the Republican strategy for taking over the House in 1994. Dawson will serve as his general consultant and media strategist.