IT WAS EARLY IN January when Eric Thode got the phone call from a member of Tom DeLay’s staff. Thode was a little surprised to hear from DeLay. As the chairman of the Fort Bend County Republican party, Thode was responsible for running the March 7 primary election, but that was two months away, and he expected DeLay to win easily against three opponents. Surely DeLay wasn’t concerned about it. So what could the eleven-term congressman from Sugar Land, the majority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives, want to know?
As Thode remembers the conversation, the staffer said DeLay was “contemplating his possibilities.” What if he were to win the primary with a less-than-solid showing? What if Ronnie Earle, the Travis County district attorney who had secured two felony indictments against DeLay involving the misuse of corporate funds to help Republican state legislative candidates in the 2002 election cycle, was able to win a conviction before the 2006 election? What if something happened in the federal corruption investigation of lobbyist Jack Abramoff, whom DeLay had once described as one of his closest friends? If any of these circumstances came to pass, the Democrats could win the seat. His seat.
Where was this leading? The answer wasn’t long in revealing itself. At what date, asked the staffer, could DeLay withdraw as a candidate? Was there a way for the GOP to replace him on the ballot after the primary? Thode explained the complicated procedure that allows the Republican county chairmen from the four counties in DeLay’s district (Fort Bend, Harris, Brazoria, and Galveston) to pick a replacement for a seat that becomes vacant due to death, resignation, or ineligibility. When he hung up, Thode knew what no one else in America would know for three months: The end of Tom DeLay’s political career was at hand.
DELAY UNDERSTOOD ALMOST everything about power in Washington except the insidious power of scandal. He had plenty of precedents to learn from; in his career, he had seen two Speakers brought down by ethics violations, Democrat Jim Wright, of Texas, and Republican Newt Gingrich, of Georgia, as well as his own handpicked successor to Gingrich, Bob Livingston, of Louisiana, who confessed to an extramarital affair and quit the House. Three lessons were to be drawn from the dethroning of Wright and Gingrich. The most obvious was that they were intense partisans whose political style—Wright’s stretching of parliamentary rules to run roughshod over the opposition, Gingrich’s (and the entire Republican leadership’s, including DeLay’s) loathing of Bill Clinton—made the minority party hate them and look for ways to bring them down. The second lesson was that if you’re going to make yourself a target, you’d better not give the opposition a reason to shoot—and in today’s Washington, that reason is usually ethical transgressions. The third was that scandal, once contracted, is a virus with no known cure. The only safe course is to stay within the