Saturday, March 04, 2006

A Texas barbecue?

We who get paid to report and prognosticate about politics have been saying for months that 2006 could be a rough election year for Republicans. We've been citing the polls which all suggest that voters are in a throw-the-bums-out mood -- the bums, in this case, being the Republicans, who control everything in Washington, including the special-interest spigots and other sources of pay-for-play corruption. I myself weighed in recently, here.
But, as the studio execs like to say in Hollywood, about the slippery art of reading the public mind, "nobody knows anything." Until people actually start casting ballots, all we've got to work with are the vibes....which is why the Texas primary that takes place on Tuesday, in the 22nd congressional district, is potentially so important. Finally, we might get empirical evidence, in the form of actual votes.
I'm talking about Tom DeLay, the indicted congressman and fallen House leader, who is fighting for his political survival. We may soon learn whether real voters want to roast him on a spit.
He's on the Tuesday primary ballot in his district just south of Houston; he's pitted against lawyer and ex-federal official Tom Campbell, as well as two lesser opponents. It's not likely that the Republican voters in his district, whom he has served for 22 years, will summarily oust him (by giving a majority of their votes to Campbell, who would then face a Democrat in November), although some Houston political analysts wouldn't be surprised, since his favorability rating in his own backyard is now around 38 percent.
What bears watching, however - as a guide to the mood of the Republican rank and file - is whether DeLay wins in an underwhelming fashion. Under Texas rules, if DeLay wins renomination but draws less than 50 percent of the vote in the four-person race, he must face the number-two finisher in an April runoff. That distinct possibility, while politically embarrassing, would prove there is a fair bit of restiveness within the GOP electorate.
DeLay does have his loyalists, as I reported here, during a trip I took last year to his home base in Sugar Land (a place of malls and greenery where, as I noted, the only people seen on foot are golfers and landscapers). And ever since he was dumped as a House leader, he has been able to focus exclusively on bringing home the federal bacon for his district (so much for small-government conservatism). He has also swamped Campbell in the money-raising competition. Nobody in previous primaries against DeLay has ever scored higher than 20 percent.
Yet Richard Murray, a University of Houston political analyst whom I met last year, a canny reader of Texas politics, insists that "DeLay is in trouble. The primary is no sure thing." Meanwhile, Tom Campbell says, "This (primary) is the epicenter of a national debate on how we conduct the public's business." So let's see what the folks say on Tuesday.