GOP Set to Conquer Redivided Texas
Party Can Control State With One Win Over Democrats in Fall Contests
By Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 16, 2004; Page A06
CLEBURNE, Tex. -- Texas Republicans kicked up a mighty ruckus last year with their bare-knuckled congressional redistricting exercise, prompting court challenges, a grand jury investigation, and wholesale escapes to Oklahoma and New Mexico by Democratic legislators trying to derail the plan.
Now that the smoke has cleared, however, Republicans appear to have achieved exactly what they wanted: surgically redesigned districts that are jeopardizing the careers of five Democratic House members and significantly enhancing GOP hopes of keeping the House majority this fall and beyond. The Texas legislature has created districts so heavily Republican that even some of Congress's most conservative Democrats will have trouble winning reelection.
"The Democrats are putting up a very brave spin, but if the Republicans don't win every one of these races, they're guilty of malpractice," said Paul Burka, executive editor of Texas Monthly magazine and a longtime independent observer of Lone Star politics.
Two of the endangered House Democrats -- 26-year veterans Martin Frost and Charles W. Stenholm -- are among the most prominent. Frost, the top Democrat on the Rules Committee, is an avid partisan who led his party's national efforts to win House seats in 1996 and 1998. Stenholm is the top Democrat on the Agriculture Committee and one of his party's most conservative members.
Three other House Democrats -- Chet Edwards of Waco, Nick Lampson of Beaumont and Max Sandlin of Marshall -- face challenges from experienced Texas politicians in districts also redrawn to contain solid majorities of GOP voters.
Frost says that he and his Democratic colleagues relish the challenge and feel that the highly publicized redistricting battle will help their campaigns. "It has really motivated the Democrats," he said in a recent interview. "I have more people volunteering than in any campaign I've ever run."
In a mega-state where the two parties vied for supremacy a mere decade ago, the redistricting coup is the latest and most audacious step in a Republican march that has crippled the once-mighty Democratic Party in many towns and counties. If Republicans win just one of the five targeted races, which seems almost certain, they will control the governorship, both legislative chambers, both U.S. Senate seats and the U.S. House delegation for the first time since Reconstruction.
The redistricting was orchestrated primarily from Washington by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), whose aggressive fundraising on behalf of state legislators who approved the redistricting plan has attracted an Austin-based grand jury's attention.
Desperately hoping to keep the Texas legislature's Republican majority from obtaining a quorum to enact the DeLay plan last summer, Democratic state representatives fled to Ardmore, Okla., and Democratic state senators escaped to Albuquerque, where they holed up for six weeks. But Republicans in Austin eventually rammed the plan through, packing Democratic voters into 10 districts to make the state's remaining 22 districts as pro-Republican as possible for the Nov. 2 election.
The plan takes special aim at veteran campaigners Frost and Stenholm, forcing them to run against Republican incumbents. Rep. Pete Sessions is taking on Frost in Dallas, and Rep. Randy Neugebauer is running against Stenholm in a sprawling West Texas district that includes Lubbock and Abilene.
Recent voting patterns in all five of the targeted districts make Democratic victories difficult, said Bryan Eppstein, a Fort Worth-based GOP consultant who has conducted detailed analyses of the precincts involved.
If his predictions prove true, they will constitute a giant leap in a political trend that has been gradually reshaping the South since the mid-1960s: the disappearance of white, moderate-to-liberal elected Democrats in favor of black or Latino Democrats in heavily minority districts, and Republicans in mostly white districts.
"They were over in Iraq looking for WMDs, but realistically they were killing the WMDs here in Texas -- White Male Democrats," said state Sen. Royce West of Dallas, an African American and one of the 11 Democratic senators who fled from Austin to Albuquerque last summer.
DeLay's redistricting strategy has already claimed three House Democrats in one way or another. Four-term Rep. Jim Turner, his district shredded, announced his retirement. Rep. Ralph M. Hall, 80, switched to the Republican Party after 53 years as an elected Democrat, 23 of them in Congress. And freshman Rep. Chris Bell, who is white, lost the Democratic primary to Al Green, an African American, in a new, heavily minority Houston district that is virtually certain to stay in Democratic hands.
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