WASHINGTON – For some Democrats, the very prospect of the House maintaining its majority -- and elevating Texas Republican Tom "The Hammer" DeLay to the role of majority leader -- is too much to contemplate.
"It would continue the country down the path of ruin that the Republican leadership has already started to take us down," said Texas Democratic Party Chair Molly Beth Malcolm. "It's a scary thought for this nation."
Some even see DeLay's potential ascension to the number-two leadership position in the House as a hidden blessing for Democrats, who are campaigning to portray the GOP as a party of insincere, dishonest extremists.
"From a personal point of view, I think it would be great to have Tom DeLay as the next majority leader," said Democratic Strategist Mark Mellman. "It'll drive people into our party, and for that I would be eternally grateful."
But DeLay and the GOP are by now used to colorful condemnations of the Houston-based conservative, who has served successfully as the House majority whip. But he has also earned more than his share of support, his boosters note.
The son of an oil man, DeLay was the owner of a pest-control business before he leapt into state politics in 1978. Not long after his election to Congress in 1984, he began to deftly mitigate the minefields of the Washington leadership ladder.
By all accounts he has done quite well. And if the House manages to keep its narrow majority in November, DeLay is a considered a lock to replace majority leader and fellow Texan Dick Armey by a vote of his peers.
His re-election is considered a lock. He is favored 8 to 1 by Campaigns & Elections Political Oddsmaker to win his match against Democrat Tim Reily, a Democrat, in the 22nd District.
"These leadership positions aren't mercy jobs. You have to fight for them like hell," noted Rich Galen, GOP strategist and editor of Mullings.com. Galen said DeLay has no foreseeable opposition to taking Armey's place next year. "I think that speaks volumes to the fact that his colleagues think he's doing an excellent job."
DeLay's office did not return phone calls for an interview.
The congressman became whip when Republicans took over the House in 1994. He has since garnered the nickname "The Hammer" for his take-no-prisoners style of corralling key votes among GOP members and pounding out agreements with Democrats with unyielding prowess.
In the last two sessions of Congress, DeLay has worked the good-cop-bad-cop routine with affable House Speaker Dennis Hastert. And after George W. Bush was elected president in 2000, the team became quite successful at bringing moderates and conservatives together to pass a full roster of GOP-backed legislation.
"They are more or less undefeated," said Galen.
DeLay has also been a tireless fundraiser for the party, using conservative special interest groups as part of his money-making machine. He has also been criticized for bringing lobbyists and big donors to Capitol Hill.
But Michael Barone, political columnist for U.S. News and World Report, said it's not easy to dismiss DeLay's record. He noted the congressman's work in support of better foster care in D.C., sparked by his interest in being a foster care parent himself.
"He has convinced a lot of Democrats and Republicans that he continues to do things because he genuinely cares for them, not just to make corporate interests happy or lobbyists rich," said Barone.
"I think he's a straight-shooter and a principled conservative," said syndicated columnist David Limbaugh. "He's unfairly demonized. But anyone who speaks his own mind and is consistent in his conservative principals is sure to be tagged as a demon in the dominant media culture.
"Their strong opposition to DeLay is just one more indication that the Republicans have the right man."