Democrats' efforts to force former Rep. Tom DeLay to stand for re-election in Texas could backfire, Republicans say.
Friends of the former House Republican boss say Mr. DeLay -- who retired to Virginia last month after being implicated in the Jack Abramoff scandal and indicted by a Texas prosecutor -- is willing to wage a full-scale campaign for the seat if Democrats succeed in preventing the Texas Republican Party from replacing him on the November ballot.
"This whole thing could explode in the Democrats' face," says Rep. Jeb Hensarling, Texas Republican. "He has indicated that if called back into battle, he'll fight -- and I'd say his chances of keeping this seat in Republican hands are pretty good."
As part of their plan to take control of the House from Republicans, Democrats have targeted Mr. DeLay's seat in a strongly Republican district in the suburbs of Houston.
Earlier this month, a federal judge ruled in favor of the Texas Democratic Party's lawsuit to prevent Republicans from substituting another candidate for Mr. DeLay, who in March won 62 percent of the 22nd District's vote in the Republican primary.
That decision is being appealed, but the dispute may not be resolved in time to allow Republicans to mount a strong campaign on behalf of another candidate, prompting speculation that Mr. DeLay may choose instead to make an all-out fight for what would be his 12th term in Congress.
"The Democrats overplayed their hand," Mr. Hensarling said.
Democrats have spent months trying to make Mr. DeLay the poster boy for what they call a Republican "culture of corruption." That strategy boomeranged when Democratic lawmakers -- including Louisiana Rep. William J. Jefferson and West Virginia Rep. Alan B. Mollohan -- made headlines this year with their own corruption scandals.
In recent years, Mr. DeLay -- whose talent for political hardball, first as House Republican whip and then as majority leader, earned him the nickname "the Hammer" -- has replaced former House Speaker Newt Gingrich as liberals' favorite congressional villain. Since Mr. Gingrich's retirement in 1999, Democrats have waged a variety of political, legal and media campaigns against Mr. DeLay.
Democrats' latest legal ploy has spurred enough resentment that some Republicans say Mr. DeLay could win the district again even if he stayed in Virginia and did nothing but play golf.
"If the Democrats use the courts to force him to stay on the ticket, and he doesn't even campaign, he could still win it," says Rep. John Carter, another Texas Republican. "And, remember, his district is still strongly Republican, by about 55 percent to 60 percent, and so he probably has a better chance of winning than if none of this had happened."
Twin clouds hang over Mr. DeLay: One is his Texas indictment by Travis County prosecutor Ronnie Earle on charges of money laundering and campaign-financing violations. That case stems from Mr. DeLay's central role in the 2003 state redistricting that boosted Republicans' Texas representation in Congress, although the U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that most of the redistricting plan was constitutional.
Mr. DeLay also remains a subject of federal investigations into the illegal lobbying activity of Abramoff, a scandal in which two former DeLay aides have already pleaded guilty to violating federal law.
But Mr. Carter said Republicans in Mr. DeLay's district and across Texas are so fed up with Democrats' tactics that they would come out in droves to support Mr. DeLay if he should be forced to seek re-election.
Democrats are attempting "election by litigation," says DeLay attorney James Bopp, who is appealing the decision handed down July 5 by U.S. District Court Judge Sam Sparks in Austin, Texas.
"At every turn, the Democrats file suits, delay for two months the Republican Party's choosing a nominee, keep our guy from raising money as a candidate and keep him from campaigning in the district," Mr. Bopp said.