Wednesday, October 27, 2004

DALLAS - The redistricting plan adopted this year by the Republican-controlled Texas Legislature was expected to help elect a half-dozen more Republicans to the U.S. House this fall, but strongly contested races have put the exact number of gains in question.

Political observers say the Republican Party may gain only two or three seats, but with the 32-seat Texas delegation to the House split evenly, even a few wins would vault Republicans to the majority for the first time in the state’s history.

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court tossed back the redistricting case, saying a three-judge federal panel in Texas should reconsider its decision, which approved the Republican remapping. The decision will not affect the election next week, and few in Texas expect the appeals court to overturn its own decision.

The new district lines, prompted in great part by the personal intervention of U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Sugar Land, Texas, were designed to assure the re-election of most Republican incumbents and make it arduous for more liberal congressmen to survive.

As a result, Democratic incumbents Max Sandlin of Marshall, Chet Edwards of Waco, Nick Lampson of Beaumont, Lloyd Doggett of Austin and Charles W. Stenholm of Abilene found themselves in districts where Republican voters were the majority.

And then there’s Martin Frost.

The 13-term veteran was at the top of the Republican hit list. He said he couldn’t win because of the extent to which the new map carved up his District 24.

Rather than retire, Mr. Frost decided to oppose Pete Sessions, the Republican incumbent in District 32 (north Dallas).

Mr. Frost has tried to project himself as a moderate a man who voted with President Bush on various key issues (homeland security, in particular). Mr. Sessions, meanwhile, has told small-business owners that he will ensure they are not “taxed to death.”

“[Frost] is so well-known. I think that is the main thing here. And he never, ever stops working,” said Allan Saxe, a political science professor at the University of Texas at Arlington.

Cal Jillson, Southern Methodist University political science professor, said the race is closer than he had anticipated.

“And I know it’s much closer that Pete Sessions ever thought it would be or Tom DeLay expected when he re-did these districts,” Mr. Jillson said.

Some of the other targeted Democrats are leading or close.

In District 1, four-term incumbent Mr. Sandlin is leading in several polls against Republican Louie Gohmert of Tyler.

Mr. Sandlin is running as an independent and not as a Kerry-Edwards Democrat.

Mr. Gohmert, a former district and state appeals judge, is expected to carry Smith County (Tyler) handily, but Mr. Sandlin’s support in the rural areas is formidable.

In the District 11 race, Waco Democrat Mr. Edwards, appears to be leading his Republican opponent, Arlene Wohlgemuth despite her attempts to portray him as an archliberal.

Mrs. Wohlgemuth, a state representative who worked with Mr. Bush when he was governor to pass the state’s largest tax cut, has aligned herself with the president on all issues.

In Beaumont, four-term Democrat Lampson, faces a high-profile opponent in former district judge Ted Poe from Houston in the reconstructed District 2.

Mr. Lampson’s strong point is Jefferson County, which includes the city of Beaumont, where voters know him from previous campaigns. But a large chunk of conservative voters in north Houston and suburban towns to the city’s north and northeast are strong Poe supporters.

Mr. Poe, a prosecutor before becoming a judge in Houston, chose to enter the congressional fray despite some influential Republicans urging that he seek a higher court post.

“I think a lot here depends on whether or not Mr. Poe is swept in by a huge Bush turnout. I don’t think he can win it on his own,” Mr. Jillson said.

In the redrawn District 25, Becky Armendariz Klein, a Hispanic lawyer who worked for Mr. Bush and was chairwoman of the state’s Public Utility Commission, opposes Mr. Doggett.

Many political observers say Mr. Doggett can’t win because he is too liberal for the new district and because the constituency is 68 percent Hispanic.

The Democrat leads in spending about 2-to-1, and his backers say he is ahead in several polls, while some Klein backers report steady progress and a close race.

In District 17, Mr. Stenholm faces Republican Randy Neugebauer of Lubbock. The general consensus seems to be that Mr. Neugebauer will prevail.

Two polls indicate that the Democrat is behind by six to eight points probably too much to make up between two candidates who are conservative and well-liked.

“This is such an unusual election year,” Mr. Saxe said. “At any other time, any other year, the Republicans in those districts would have been a shoo-in. But not this time. It’s completely off the drawing board.”

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