ON A RECENT CAMPAIGN SWING through West Texas, Democratic congressman Charlie Stenholm was dressed in standard-issue Texas politico wear: button-down shirt, tie, slightly fraying khakis, hand-tooled black belt, and black cowboy boots. But not just any boots. These were embossed with the state of Texas, with a figure resembling an elongated inverted pyramid stamped into the area around Abilene.
“That’s the old Seventeenth Congressional District,” he explained, raising his pants leg to show a small gathering of farmers the map of the district he has represented for almost 26 years. But no more. The congressional redistricting plan devised by U.S. House majority leader Tom DeLay (see “The Man With the Plan”) and passed by the Texas Legislature last fall moves Stenholm’s old district into Central Texas and places him in the Nineteenth District, paired with incumbent Republican Randy Neugebauer, of Lubbock. “I’ve already talked with the bootmaker about a new pair with the new district on them,” Stenholm said optimistically.
Each morning when Stenholm pulls on his boots, he’s reminded that he and four other Democratic congressmen are facing the kind of insurmountable odds that inspire Hollywood heroics. The new boundary lines targeted seven white Democrats for defeat by Republican opponents in an effort to ensure continuing GOP control of the House of Representatives. Jim Turner retired and Ralph Hall switched parties, leaving veteran Democrats Stenholm, Chet Edwards, Martin Frost, Nick Lampson, and Max Sandlin to run against well-financed, well-known Republican opponents in districts with solid majorities of stalwart GOP voters. To survive, Stenholm and his band of brothers must find a way to prevail despite numerical disadvantage, as Sam Houston did at San Jacinto.
But if the elections follow the numbers—and they usually do—November 2004 will be the Democrats’ Alamo. The redrawn districts in which they must run bear so little resemblance to the old ones that the five endangered congressmen must earn support from tens of thousands of voters they have never before represented. Redistricting software is so sophisticated that the majority party can easily draw maps that all but guarantee their candidates’ elections—if they aren’t embarrassed by some of the weird shapes necessary to produce the desired outcome. Stenholm’s new district, for example, looks like an H next to a J, which could stand for what happened to his old district: “hijacked” and moved to Central Texas. If any one of the Democrats should pull off an upset, it means that DeLay and his henchmen in the Legislature were guilty of malpractice by computer.
“The numbers are striking,” says Gary Jacobson, a political science professor at the University of California at San Diego and an authority on congressional elections. He notes that voters in the five districts produced huge majorities for George W. Bush in 2000, ranging from 61 percent to 75 percent. The five Democrats, he said, “are all in trouble. They could all be gone.”
Republicans evaluated each district by what political operatives call the “Dewhurst number”: the percentage of the vote garnered in the area by current lieutenant governor David Dewhurst, who had the closest race of all statewide Republican candidates in 2002. GOP strategists believe that figure accurately predicts the worst-case scenario for a Republican candidate in each new district. In all of the new districts, the base Republican vote figures to range from 55 percent to 60 percent.
The Democrats are left with the slender hope that not all elections are decided in advance by numbers. What about experience and accomplishment? What about personalities and loyalties? What about issues? Stenholm’s race provides a good testing ground for those questions. For almost 26 years, he’s hewed to a unique label he describes as “Blue Dog Democrat.” While a Yellow Dog Democrat would vote for a yellow dog over a Republican, he explains, a Blue Dog Democrat has been “choked nigh on till he turns blue, from the right and from the left. We occupy the rational center.” He earned the wrath of his own party by voting for President Clinton’s impeachment; a photograph of the congressman shaking hands with Ronald Reagan prominently adorns his Washington, D.C., office. His message in this rural, agricultural district is that his name is “synonymous with agriculture nationally.” As the ranking member on the House Agriculture Committee, he has faithfully delivered federal farm subsidies—winning support far beyond the boundaries of his old district. His seniority earns him appointment to every conference committee on agriculture legislation.
In the not-too-distant past, when bring-home-the-bacon politics was more important than party labels, this record would have been all Stenholm needed to guarantee reelection. But in the Republican era, with a Texan in the White House, delivering for his constituents may not be enough to win over voters in thirteen new counties he has never represented before and whose voters may not know him. The new district includes the city of Lubbock, where Neugebauer served as a city councilman from 1992 to 1998. (He was elected in a special election in June 2003 to replace retiring congressman Larry Combest, also of Lubbock.) Stenholm believes he’ll have to get at least 40 percent of the vote in Lubbock to win the district. The new Nineteenth District has the worst Dewhurst number for Democrats—60.1 percent.
Like Stenholm, Neugebauer promises to protect farm subsidies. Where they differ is that Neugebauer wants to control federal spending with corresponding cuts in other programs, like food stamps. This exasperates Stenholm, who gives a Politics 101 lecture on the campaign stump to expose the flaws in this have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too thinking: If a rural congressman votes to cut food stamps, he will lose the support of urban lawmakers on farm subsidies.
“I hope everybody understands that when you talk about cutting spending, we’re the target. We’re the front line. Get ready to lose your farm program,” Stenholm told a group of farmers who had taken a break from cotton planting to meet with him.
Neugebauer, a Lubbock land developer, is an affable, hardworking incumbent who estimates he will spend close to $2 million—Stenholm plans to spend almost as much—to get