Not So Fast, Mr. DeLay

Saturday, August 5, 2006

AFEDERAL APPEALS court has ruled that former representative Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) must remain on the ballot as his party's congressional nominee in the 22nd District. Lawyers for the Texas Republican Party say they'll seek Supreme Court intervention, but -- given that a state court and two levels of federal courts have ruled against them -- it seems likely that Mr. DeLay will once again be the GOP standard-bearer in November. This would be a delicious irony and -- if Mr. DeLay were to lose -- a fitting coda to a career built on trying to manipulate rules to his political advantage.

Mr. DeLay, you may recall, ran for his party's nomination in March while under indictment in Texas and an ethical cloud in the capital. He fended off three challengers to win. Less than a month later, though, he announced that he was retiring from Congress and moving to Virginia -- and therefore was no longer eligible to remain on the Texas ballot. Although his wife continues to live in their Sugar Land home, Mr. DeLay produced a Virginia driver's license, a Virginia voter registration card and a tax withholding form indicating residence in Virginia as proof that he is now a proud inhabitant of the Old Dominion.

But the Texas Democratic Party wasn't eager to see Mr. DeLay go after all. Believing that its nominee, former representative Nick Lampson, would have an easier time beating a wounded Mr. DeLay than a fresh Republican face in a GOP-leaning district, it filed suit seeking to ensure that Mr. DeLay remained on the ballot. On Thursday, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit unanimously agreed: Mr. DeLay must stay.

Texas law allows a state party to replace a candidate if "facts indicating that the candidate is ineligible are conclusively established by . . . public record." Mr. DeLay, the Republican Party argued, is ineligible because he is no longer a state resident. But the appeals court found that the state law, if interpreted that way, would run afoul of the Constitution by establishing a preelection residency requirement. In addition, the court said, even under state law, the Republican Party hadn't "conclusively established" Mr. DeLay's ineligibility. That he lives in Virginia now, the court said, doesn't mean that by Election Day he won't be a Texas resident.

This seems like not only the correct result but preferable as a matter of policy. Allowing candidates who are the choice of the primary voters to drop off ballots if the going gets tough would open the system to improper manipulation. No one should discount Mr. DeLay's political survival instincts if he is, in essence, forced to make the run. But for the moment it is enough to savor the fact that this time, anyway, Mr. DeLay's efforts to game the system appear to have backfired.

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