Signs of Trouble

Can the embattled Democratic congressmen targeted by Tom DeLay's congressional redistricting plan save their seats? Well, what are their "Dewhurst numbers"?

August 2004By Comments

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 out his traditional Republican message: limited government, family values, support for business. “My platform is just focused on my values,” he told two early-morning talk show hosts on community radio in Cisco in mid-June. “The larger government gets, the less power the individual has.” The host commented that his unusual name was hard to pronounce. “Yeah, a lot of people stumble on that, so let me help you. It’s Ran-dee,” he said to guffaws all around the control room.

Yes, and his last name is pronounced “Nog-ga-bow-er,” a fact driven home in five weeks of humorous TV spots in the Abilene media market this spring to boost his name identification in Stenholm’s home territory. They clearly worked. In early June, as Neugebauer worked the crowd at the Cross Plains “Conan the Barbarian” festival, half a dozen residents alluded to the television commercials with the greeting: “So, is it Nog-ga-hide?”

Neugebauer happily cloaks himself in the GOP label, hoping to persuade Abilene-area Republicans, many of whom objected to having their hometown put in a district with Lubbock, to choose party loyalty over geographic loyalty. Vice president Dick Cheney has visited once and has promised another campaign stop. “I am on the team making policy today,” Neugebauer says. In contrast, Stenholm’s campaign runs against the national trend of partisan polarization. “One major difference between me and my opponent is, I don’t mind bucking my party’s leadership,” he said. His campaign slogan is “An Independent Voice for West Texas.”

Many of the same issues will arise in the other districts. In the new Seventeenth District, where thirteen-year Democratic incumbent Chet Edwards, of Waco, faces state representative Arlene Wohlgemuth, of Burleson, the geographic loyalty issue is in play. Will Waco Republicans prefer a hometown Democrat to a Republican from the Fort Worth suburbs? The good news for Edwards is that his new district is no more Republican than his old one was; the bad news is the new district includes only 35 percent of the old district’s electorate. Gone are the Fort Hood counties, where Edwards, who sits on the House Appropriations Committee, always ran well. The swing area in the district may be Brazos County, a conservative stronghold and the home of Texas A&M. Edwards, an Aggie, kicked off his campaign in College Station surrounded by military might—four generals endorsed him because of his prodigious work on behalf of Fort Hood—and unveiled a television spot touting his A&M ties.

But the Aggie strategy may not work. The Wohlgemuth campaign responds that their candidate is a “two-time Aggie mom,” and campaign manager Scott Pool vows, “We will not be out-Aggied in this race.” Precedent is in Wohlgemuth’s favor: Brazos County delivered for Dewhurst in 2002 even though his opponent, John Sharp, was an Aggie. Roll Call, the newspaper based in Washington, D.C., that covers Congress, calls the race “leans Democratic,” mostly because at the end of March, Edwards had a huge fundraising advantage over Wohlgemuth—$816,000 on hand to her $52,000. In the end, however, DeLay and Republican fundraisers will make sure that Wohlgemuth’s campaign budget is sufficient.

The Texas race with the highest national profile pits Dallas congressman Martin Frost—whom Republicans love to hate for his partisan leadership in past redistricting fights—against GOP incumbent Pete Sessions in the Thirty-second District after redistricting shredded his old Twenty-fourth District. One indication that the race is close is that neither side will make its polling results public. Frost’s new district is 50 percent minority and 10 percent Jewish. (He is the only Jewish member of Congress from Texas.) He’ll benefit from close ties to the Dallas business community: Philanthropist Raymond Nasher hosted a fundraiser, and Frost’s mailings tout his success in mediating the American Airlines labor dispute. Because Dewhurst drew 58 percent of the vote in this district in 2002, Frost will have to increase historically poor Hispanic turnout and draw the ticket-splitters from this area, who have voted previously for Ann Richards and Dallas mayor Laura Miller, to succeed. Furthermore, the district includes the zip code—75205, primarily Highland Park—that is the second-biggest contributor in the country to the Bush-Cheney campaign.

In the Second District, which used to be in the Piney Woods but now runs from the east side of Houston to Beaumont­Port Arthur, incumbent Democrat Nick Lampson faces former Harris County district judge Ted Poe, locally famous for meting out “Poetic justice”—requiring a drunk driver to lay flowers at the grave sites of his victims, for instance. Dewhurst won 57 percent of the vote in the district in 2002.

The final endangered Democratic incumbent is Max Sandlin, in deep East Texas. The eight-year veteran faces Louie Gohmert, a former Smith County (Tyler) judge who is now chief justice of the Twelfth Court of Appeals. The new district voted 55.1 percent for Dewhurst, but Sandlin does have 40 percent of his old district. Still, with 35 percent of the district’s population centered in bedrock Republican Tyler and Longview, Democrats regard this race, along with Lampson’s, as the least likely of the five to produce a victory.

Is there any reason for Democrats to hope that one or more of the band of brothers might survive? All five Democrats have a track record of winning Republic-leaning districts; in some cases, the new districts include voters the incumbents do not currently represent but have represented in the past. For instance, party operatives have calculated that Edwards has represented 87 percent of his new district either in Congress or in the Texas Senate. Oddly, the Democrats’ best asset may be Bush’s strength in Texas. “If there was a hard-fought presidential race, I would have a harder time,” says Lampson. “Kerry and Bush are not going to spend a great deal of effort on Texas.” Presidential races drive turnout, so maybe Republicans will be so confident of victory that they won’t bother to go to the polls, and a Democrat or two might eke out a win. But don’t bet on it.

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