No Time to DeLay: Now What for the Democrats?

April 11, 2006 · 12:05 AM EDT

In announcing that he was ending his Congressional career and would resign his seat in the United States House of Representatives, Representative Tom DeLay (R) gave Democrats just what they wished for: His head.

DeLay’s exit won’t deprive Democrats of their “culture of corruption” argument. DeLay and discredited lobbyist Jack Abramoff will still make the headlines, and Democrats have enough ammunition stored up to allow them to run on ethics and scandal from now until November. No, Tom DeLay won’t be erased from photographs and past news stories, so Democratic candidates can still use him as an example of alleged Republican abuses.

But for former congressman Nick Lampson (D), who has been running for months to oust DeLay from his seat in Texas’s 22nd Congressional District, DeLay’s announcement is a political disaster.

Make no mistake about it. Lampson’s real chance of winning this House contest was in making DeLay the issue in the race. Lampson probably can’t win because of his own record or his views. He could only win if voters were so repulsed by DeLay that they were willing to vote for anyone, even a Democrat, to get rid of him.

Lampson’s problem is that he is a Democrat running in a very conservative, very Republican district. Sure, there are Democratic voters in the district, and Lampson will get their votes. But he’ll need to attract GOP voters if he has any chance of winning. And without DeLay on the ballot, that will be much, much harder to do.

Lampson has called for a quick special election to fill the vacant House seat once DeLay exits Congress. No wonder, he has loads of money in the bank and has been running for months. A quick election would benefit him, which is why he is screaming for a quick one.

Republicans now seem inclined not to hold a special election at all, leaving the seat vacant until November. That’s a better scenario for them, since it will give the GOP time to select a strong standard-bearer for the fall and build the resources it needs to overwhelm Lampson. (A number of potentially strong GOP officeholders have been mentioned as possible Congressional candidates, so Lampson is almost certain to face a well-tested, politically appealing Republican on the November ballot).

George W. Bush carried the 22nd District overwhelmingly in 2004 (64%-35%), and there is no reason to believe that voters wouldn’t prefer a new Republican – without Delay’s ethical baggage – to a Democrat who lost his own seat after redistricting.

Delay will still hang like a cloud over the ’06 midterm elections, and Democrats appear to be well-positioned to make major gains nationally, including possibly taking control of the House of Representatives. But in DeLay’s Texas Congressional district, the sun is finally breaking through for Republicans.

This column first appeared on Town Hall on April 7, 2006.