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.
Texas's U.S. House delegation, which Democrats controlled 17 to 15 before Hall's switch, would swing dramatically to a 22 to 10 Republican edge if the GOP redistricting strategy works as planned.
In Cleburne, south of Fort Worth, Republicans mingled recently at the local party headquarters to await returns from a runoff primary and to marvel at how rapidly their county and others have gone from Democratic control to Republican.
"There is no real Democratic Party in Johnson County anymore," said the county GOP treasurer, Roy Giddens, who wore a red, white and blue shirt for election night. What's truly remarkable, he said, is that the Democratic Party dominated local government and politics only a few years ago.
Johnson County Commissioner John W. Matthews (R) agreed, expressing amazement more than glee. "The transition was so dramatic," he said. When Republicans began winning local elections, several Democratic officeholders switched parties to save their political skins. Nowadays at election time, Matthews said, "it's amazing the Democratic turnout: It's nonexistent."
All of this is bad news for Edwards, the affable seven-term Democrat from Waco, 55 miles to the south. The GOP redistricting plan robbed him of some friendly precincts and gave him Johnson County and several other GOP-leaning communities.
Edwards, however, says that "this isn't a new experience for me. . . . I've won seven consecutive elections in a district that goes Republican at the top of the ticket," noting that Al Gore won barely a third of the vote in his district in 2000. Edwards said his moderate views on social and fiscal issues, and his strong support of the military and its private-sector contractors, will appeal to many independent voters.
Republican activists say the district, which includes President Bush's home in Crawford, was drawn especially for conservative state Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth of Johnson County, who won the primary runoff that Matthews and Giddens were monitoring. In her victory speech to about 100 supporters in a modest office building in Cleburne, Wohlgemuth outlined her main campaign themes for defeating "liberal Chet Edwards." "It's time we sent someone to Washington who is going to support our president rather than support Ted Kennedy," she said to cheers and applause. She particularly criticized Edwards for voting against a ban on a procedure that critics call partial-birth abortion.
Such talk appeals to many Texas voters who say they, or their parents, used to be Democrats. "Democrats jumped off the bandwagon when they went from pro-life to pro-choice," said John Lacey, 44, a roofing contractor who dropped by Wohlgemuth's headquarters.
Edwards won reelection in 2002 with 52 percent of the vote against a Republican who raised about one-third as much money as he did. His new district is more Republican, say insiders from both parties, and Wohlgemuth is likely to match him dollar for dollar.
Showdown in Dallas
In the sumptuous north Dallas home of lawyer Michael Gruber, a few doors from Ross Perot's mansion, Texas state Rep. Kenny Marchant (R) introduced Sessions at a recent late-afternoon fundraiser that generated $200,000 for the congressman. In doing so, he hinted why the Sessions-Frost campaign might be the state's most bitter this fall.
As the Texas legislature debated congressional redistricting last year, "Pete Sessions was on the phone day after day saying, 'We've got to get rid of Martin Frost,' " recalled Marchant, who is favored to win a new Dallas area House seat of his own.
To be sure, Frost and Sessions do not like each other, according to people who watch them on the House Rules Committee and elsewhere. Activists from both parties describe Frost, 62, as a deep-dyed Democrat who loves poring over precinct maps and election results, and who helped draw the current Texas districts that resulted in a slight Democratic edge even as Republicans were sweeping every statewide election.
"Some people say, 'I've never worked in a campaign before, but I'll do anything to beat Martin Frost,' " said Pat Cotton, a longtime Republican consultant in Dallas.
Sessions, 49, is arguably as partisan as Frost, showing little patience for liberal-leaning people, policies or places. Aiming a barb at Washington, he greeted a recent visitor from the District by saying, "You just left a work-free drug zone."
The Texas redistricting plan left Frost with some of his old stronghold, the largely minority Oak Cliff neighborhood. But the new 32nd District now runs north and then hooks sharply east, encompassing huge swaths of affluent, heavily Republican north Dallas, where Sessions lives.
Frost said his keys to victory are a high voter turnout among minorities and a willingness among some moderate Republicans "to split their ticket." He is particularly targeting Dallas's Jewish community, and his campaign brochure notes that Frost "is the only Jewish Member of Congress from Texas."
But some of those Jewish voters are loyal Republicans, said Donald Fielding, a longtime business owner and civic activist in Dallas's Jewish community.
"My son and daughter are Republicans, and they'll not vote for Frost," said Fielding, 81. "My wife is a Republican, and she'll not vote for him. I'm an independent, and I will vote for him. I've already sent him some money."
"If I had to wager," Fielding summed up gloomily, "I would have to bet Sessions will win."