Bigger names are leaving Congress -- notably former Democratic leaders Tom Daschle and Dick Gephardt -- but no one will be missed more on both sides of the aisle than Charlie Stenholm, the cotton farmer from Texas who has been in the House for 26 years.

Stenholm was a victim of the controversial redistricting plan pushed through the Republican legislature in Texas in 2003 at the instigation of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. The scheme -- now being given a second look by the federal courts -- succeeded in shifting the Texas delegation from 17 Democrats and 15 Republicans to a new ratio of 21 Republicans and 11 Democrats.

Stenholm saw much of his old rural territory sliced away and his home county squeezed into a Lubbock-based district, where he had to compete against incumbent Republican Randy Neugebauer. Stenholm put up a valiant struggle, but in a district that went overwhelmingly for President Bush, he lost 58 percent to 40 percent.

Stenholm is exactly the kind of conservative Democrat whom Bush embraced when he was governor of Texas and Democrats still controlled the legislature. He agrees with the president on social issues and supported the first round of Bush tax cuts, back when the budget was in surplus. The senior Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, he helped Republicans write the last major farm bill that Bush signed -- and his name surfaces every time there is a vacancy at the top of the Agriculture Department.

But with Republicans riding high in Congress, Bush, rather than courting conservative Democrats such as Stenholm, wants to cut their legs off. He went out of his way to plug Neugebauer when he campaigned nearby, and Vice President Cheney came in twice to help sink Stenholm.

Purging conservative Democrats is part of Karl Rove's long-term strategy for making the GOP the majority party. But it entails significant costs. When Bush tries to fulfill his pledge to reform Social Security, he will, as Republican Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan remarked, "wish that Charlie Stenholm were still here."

As Upton and other policy-oriented Republicans well know, Stenholm is one of the few Democrats who agree with them on Social Security -- and has sufficient backbone to stand up to the political pressures that always engulf that issue.

When Bush was running the first time in 2000, he asked Stenholm if he could borrow from the Social Security reform bill that the Texan had drafted with Republican Rep. Jim Kolbe of Arizona. Stenholm said, "Be my guest," believing that the issue is so important it should rise above partisanship. But this is not an administration that remembers past favors.

Within the Democratic caucus, Stenholm won respect for the way he resisted pressure to switch parties, even as Texas became more Republican and his reelection margins shrank. He helped organize the "Blue Dogs," a group of Democrats, mostly from the South and the border states, who tried to hold both parties' feet to the fire on curbing runaway budget deficits.

Concern about those deficits led Stenholm and the Blue Dogs to oppose Bush's later rounds of tax cuts -- "and it cost me in this campaign," he said.

In a valedictory interview, Stenholm told me he takes solace in the fact that the Blue Dogs came through this tough election relatively unscathed. Eight of their 34 members retired or lost, but four freshmen have joined the group, and runoffs to come in Louisiana could add two more.

"These Blue Puppies are very impressive," Stenholm said, referring to the freshmen from California, Colorado, Georgia and Oklahoma. "They will carry on the fight."

What's more, he said, reality will strengthen the position opposing new tax cuts in the face of rising deficits. "The market will tell Bush and these supply-side Republicans that deficits do matter. Look what's happening with the decline of the dollar and with the Japanese backing off from buying as much of our debt. No one can ignore that."

He also believes that both parties will eventually have to come to grips with the unsustainability of Social Security in its current form. With a laugh, Stenholm recounted his amazement at hearing "my conservative Republican opponent make the same promise as the Massachusetts liberal [John Kerry] -- 'I will not cut your benefits, or raise your taxes or increase the retirement age.' "

"When both extremes are talking nonsense," said this defeated but unrepentant middle-roader, "there must be some way of getting them together that makes sense."

davidbroder@washpost.com