With DeLay Out, GOP Searches for Write-In Candidate

By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 9, 2006

Former House majority leader Tom DeLay announced yesterday that he will make whatever moves are necessary to remove his name from the ballot in November, leaving the Texas Republican Party with no name on the ticket in his district but allowing GOP leaders to back a write-in candidate.

DeLay's decision leaves his party with a difficult write-in campaign, in which it will seek to hold the retired politician's Houston area district in a year when Democrats have a chance to seize control of the House.

"It's a huge uphill battle to win against the circumstances that are in place," said Shelley Sekula-Gibbs, a Republican member of the Houston City Council who has been preparing to run for DeLay's seat. "It's difficult to get voters to take a write-in candidate seriously."

Democrats need a net gain of 15 seats to take control of the House. On Monday, two Republican districts were thrown into havoc when Rep. Robert W. Ney (Ohio) announced that he will not stand for reelection and the Supreme Court refused to intervene on the GOP's behalf to allow Republicans to find a replacement for DeLay on the ballot.

"All things being equal, if current trends continue, the Democrats take the House," predicted Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. "That's a pretty strong statement for August."

For DeLay, there were no good options. Under indictment in Texas and facing a federal investigation in Washington, he resigned from the House in June after winning his party's primary three months earlier, hoping to help pick his successor. But successive federal court rulings backed Texas Democrats, who contended that the GOP could not pick a replacement once DeLay had won the primary.

That left DeLay with two choices: Ask the voters he had abandoned to elect him to represent a district he hoped to leave, or force the party to mount a write-in campaign.

DeLay said yesterday that his decision to leave the House, move to Alexandria and go into business "is irrevocable."

"As a Virginia resident, I will take the actions necessary to remove my name from the Texas ballot. To do anything else would be hypocrisy," he continued. "I strongly encourage the Republican Party to take any and all actions necessary to give Texas voters an up-or-down choice this fall between two major-party candidates."

At least two possible candidates, Sekula-Gibbs and Sugar Land Mayor David G. Wallace, had been preparing to jump in if Republicans prevailed in their efforts to replace DeLay's name on the ballot. Other possible candidates include state Reps. Charlie Howard and Robert Talton.

Besides Sekula-Gibbs, it is not clear which potential candidate could mount a write-in campaign. Such efforts have prevailed in the past. Republican Ron Packard won a California election as a write-in in 1982, as did Republican Joe Skeen in New Mexico in 1980. Arkansas Democrat Thomas Dale Alford won his seat the same way in 1958.

But a Republican successor to DeLay would have significant hurdles, said Amy Walter, a House political analyst at the Cook Political Report. With less than 100 days to go, Republicans have not even begun to coalesce around a name to write in. Most polling places in the Houston suburbs will be using touch-screen computers without keyboards, making the process of typing in a name laborious -- especially one such as Sekula-Gibbs, the councilwoman joked. And the Democrat on the ballot, Nick Lampson, is a former House member with millions of dollars to spend.

Rothenberg said he had categorized DeLay's Texas district as leaning Republican when he believed the party would choose a successor. Now it will be back to a tossup.

Republican efforts to retain Ney's Ohio seat ran into complications yesterday as well, when GOP officials said the leading party candidate may prove ineligible. House Republican leaders prevailed upon Ney to drop out rather than hobble into the contest under federal investigation for his ties to convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

But their chosen candidate, state Sen. Joy Padgett, may be barred from running by Ohio's "sore loser" law, which prohibits politicians who lose one primary from entering another in the same year. Padgett lost a primary in May to stand as her party's nominee for lieutenant governor.

"The net result of all this is more uncertainty, not more clarity," Rothenberg said.

For Democrats, the longer the uncertainty hangs over the Republican campaigns, the better their chances, analysts agreed. And the anti-incumbent, anti-Washington, antiwar atmosphere already clouding the midterm elections is showing no signs of abating.

If anything, races on no one's watch lists are suddenly heating up. Republican incumbents such as Reps. Chris Chocola (Ind.) and Thelma D. Drake (Va.), who were considered second-tier targets for the Democrats, are running behind in recent polls.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company