Dems battle to hold Texas seats

DENVER CITY, Texas — Facing a roomful of stonily silent workers at a cotton gin just north of town, Rep. Charlie Stenholm backed himself against a long countertop near the front door of the building’s office.
patrick g. ryan
Rep. Charlie Stenholm (D-Texas)

“I like my back to a door, in case it gets a little rough; I can get out of here,” said Stenholm, a Democrat who has represented parts of West Texas for 26 years. It was a joke, but one that held a grain of truth; Stenholm was campaigning in enemy territory, the small towns surrounded by the cotton fields and prairie along the New
Mexico border represented by his opponent, freshman Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R).

The quip drew subdued chuckles from the small group of assembled hands. As an audience, it was a tough crowd. Stenholm paused several times to allow for questions, but each time he was met by awkward silence.

Yet Stenholm didn’t get tense or press. He rolled with the silences, sliding back into his stump speech as easily as he slipped out, drawing on his career as a local farmer and more than two decades of representing his neighbors in Washington to find a comfortable tone and pace.

In a relaxed drawl, Stenholm laid out reasons why voters should send him back to the House for a 14th term. The first was his ranking as the most senior Democrat on the Agriculture Committee, a distinction that would fall to Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) should Stenholm lose.

“They don’t raise much cotton in Minnesota,” Stenholm said.

His stump speech echoed that of endangered Democratic House incumbents across Texas. It emphasized seniority, independence and a willingness to support President Bush while employing the folksy turns of phrase honed over years of representing and engaging constituents.

Stenholm is viewed as the most at-risk of the five incumbent House Democrats from Texas who may lose their jobs because of new congressional district boundaries set by Republicans in the Texas House and Senate. Two-thirds of the voters in Stenholm’s district are new to him.

A tracking poll by Texas Tech University made public last month showed that 53 percent of those surveyed favored Neugebauer, compared with 23 percent who supported Stenholm. A National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) poll at the end of September showed Neugebauer leading by nine points.

Rep. Chet Edwards, a 14-year House veteran and high-ranking ranked member of the House Appropriations Committee who is facing a challenge from state Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth, is thought to be the safest of the five embattled Democrats.

Edwards has relentlessly attacked his opponent’s role in the state House as a leading budget cutter who in 2003 oversaw spending cuts that knocked nearly 50,000 children out of the popular Children’s Health Insurance Program, according to The Dallas Morning News.

Wohlgemuth has also alienated many local Republicans because of her uncompromising style and her intervention in local Republican primaries. The divide among Republicans in Johnson, her home county, became clear at a recent fundraiser that retired radio mogul George Marti held for Edwards at his ranch home 35 miles north of Waco.

Marti, who served by his estimation “eight or 10 years” as former Sen. Phil Gramm’s (R-Texas) chairman in Johnson County and whose daughter worked for Gramm, said of Wohlgemuth, “If you don’t agree with her, that’s it,” adding that she had “split the Republican party in Johnson County right in two.”

Many of the guests were Republicans who had never been to a pro-Democrat function. The crowd included Ted Reynolds, the mayor of Cleburne, Texas, who identified himself as a Republican.

“The perception is there’s a lot of people crossing over to Chet,” he said. “That’s what people are saying.”

Some Republicans in Washington have privately dismissed Wohlgemuth’s chances of beating Edwards.

Edwards’s campaign last month touted a Democrat-commissioned poll showing him leading Wohlgemuth 50 percent to 40 percent. Wohlgemuth’s campaign has countered by citing a Republican-commissioned poll showing the candidates in a statistical dead heat.

The fates of the other three House Democrats facing tough reelection battles are more difficult to gauge. Polls show Rep. Martin Frost, a 13-term incumbent, and Reps. Max Sandlin and Nick Lampson, both four-term veterans, within a few points of their opponents.

Frost is running against Rep. Pete Sessions, who has served four terms in the House, and Sandlin and Lampson face challenges from two former judges, Louis Gohmert and Ted Poe, respectively.

As with the presidential race, these contests will hinge on voter turnout. While Frost, Sandlin and Lampson can count on their Capitol Hill tenures and their records of bringing federal money and assistance to their districts to swing independents and Republicans to their side, they will need to mobilize their bases of support to win.

A recent Dallas Morning News poll showed Sessions edging Frost by a six-point margin, 50 percent to 44 percent. However, only 4 percent of those surveyed were Hispanic, while the 32nd Congressional District is 36 percent Hispanic. When African-Americans and Asians are added to the mix, the district is 50 percent minority, an unsettling percentage for Republican candidates.

In Sessions’s favor, neighborhoods in the district are some of the most staunchly Republican in the country. University Park and Highland Park, both located in North Dallas, rank among the top communities nationwide in contributions made to the Bush-Cheney campaign, said Sessions’s campaign manager, Chris Homan. In addition, the heavily Republican neighborhoods of the district also have had the highest turnout of voters on Election Day.

Of the seven precincts in University Park, six had turnout above 50 percent. In three precincts with greater than 60 percent turnout, Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Perry won by a 4-to-1 ratio in 2002.

By contrast, voter turnout in Frost’s stronghold of Oak Cliff, a heavily Hispanic community southwest of downtown Dallas, has been low. In the 2002 election, more than half of the registered voters cast ballots in only one of the 24 Oak Cliff precincts with records available, despite the presence of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tony Sanchez atop the ticket.

Both candidates have poured money into the battle, the most expensive House race in the country. By mid-October, Frost had spent $3.9 million, Sessions $2.7 million.

The money has paid for a lot of mudslinging, such as a Frost radio ad highlighting Sessions’s streaking on his college campus in the 1970s, making it one of the nastiest races in the country.

The Democratic candidates in East Texas, Sandlin and Lampson, are also in toss-up races. In the 1st Congressional District, which spans much of the northeast corner of Texas, ranging from the historic town center of Nacogdoches — the oldest in Texas — to the oil-money mansions of Tyler, the Sandlin and Gohmert campaigns brandish dueling poll numbers. A Democrat-commissioned poll shows Sandlin up by four points, while a Republican-commissioned survey shows Gohmert leading by nine.

Gohmert has run a campaign similar to Poe’s, which is taking place about 100 miles to the south. Both are running on a strong anti-tax platform, invoking traditional East Texas values and hugging President Bush, while painting their opponents as liberals.

Sandlin and Lampson have responded by loudly claiming to be independent, touting their accomplishments in the House and not mentioning John Kerry’s name unless it is completely unavoidable.

The key for victory for Gohmert is turning out Republican voters in heavily Republican Smith County, while Sandlin must mobilize African-American voters in Tyler, in the heart of Smith County. The district is 20 percent African-American and 63 percent Republican, according to Sandlin.

Fifty miles east of Tyler is Marshall, Sandlin’s hometown. Much of the region north of Marshall, the area of Sandlin’s strongest support in his old district, was cut out of the 1st Congressional District by Republican legislators. Republicans did not even leave Sandlin’s mother’s house in the new district. Sandlin also said that the NRCC has spent more money on ads in his district than any other in Texas.

Lampson is in slightly better shape than Sandlin because almost all of his home base of Jefferson County was included in the new 2nd Congressional District, which encompasses the gritty industrial town of Beaumont. The Republican-laden suburbs north of Houston are the source of Poe’s strength. Lampson estimates that the district was drawn in a way to vote 60 percent Republican.

He has run heavily on his record in Congress. He is quick to mention that his former district has received more federal money than all but one congressional district in Texas and lagged behind only seven congressional districts nationwide.