WASHINGTON – Of the 435 House seats up for grabs Nov. 2, very few have captured national attention, and even fewer are considered truly competitive. FOXNews.com has attempted to bring most of them into focus for our House Hunting series since March.
Our last such installment takes place in a region of the country that bore two presidential candidates in the last dozen years, President Bill Clinton and independent billionaire Ross Perot. The place: Texarkana, in East Texas.
Clinton grew up in Arkansas 30 miles from the Texas-Arkansas border, Perot was raised on the Texas side in Texarkana (search) proper. Both men were reared in different ways by the traditionally Democratic, independent and populist character of the region, but in recent times, at least on the Texas side, things are looking pretty Republican.
That’s because for this election, Texas Republicans were able to redraw the lines of the congressional districts, leaving elected Democrats to scramble. Rep. Max Sandlin (search) is one of five Texas Democrats that could find himself without a job on Nov. 3.
"Max Sandlin is a Democrat in Texas who is used to gaining Republican support, but this is a whole new ballgame," said Nathan Gonzales, analyst for the Rothenberg Political Report. "In this district, I think you would rather have an ‘R’ after your name than a ‘D.'"
Louis Gohmert (search), former chief justice for the 12th District Court of Appeals, has the ‘R,’ and is running a spirited campaign to take over Sandlin’s 1st Congressional District seat. With days to go before the election, Rothenberg had this race in its "leaning Republican category," but the polls indicate it is too close to call.
Certainly, Sandlin is not going to give up. An attorney who was elected a Harrison County judge before getting voted into the House in 1996, Sandlin built his eight-year legislative career on "Blue Dog" (search) fiscal and social conservatism.
"East Texans pride themselves on independence, common sense and decency," said Sandlin spokesman Jim Dow. "In Washington, [Sandlin] used those values, coupled with hard work and intellect, to move into the House leadership and to gain a highly coveted seat on the House Ways and Means Committee."
Supporters emphasize the "independence" of Sandlin’s approach, saying he will buck the party when necessary, usually on social issues.
"Max is a good, independent voice for the people of East Texas and I think that’s what the people of this part of the country would like to have representing their district," said Rep. Jim Turner, a Democrat from Texas' 2nd District, who opted for retirement when his district was dissolved through redistricting.
"He’s traditionally won between 56 to 60 percent in a Republican-leaning district — he’s proven he can pull over Republicans, ticket splitters and still keep the Democrats," said Ed Martin, Austin-based Democratic campaign strategist.
While Sandlin keeps only 40 percent of his old district, the new 60 percent comes from the same media market, so he is already known, Martin said. And he is getting more African American voters, who tend to vote Democratic.
"He’s in a good position," Martin said. "He’s got a record and he knows how to do it."
But Republicans point out just how Republican this district has become, and Sandlin, who is chief deputy whip under Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, won’t be able to shake the fact he is part of the Democratic leadership and not the conservative independent he claims to be.
"It’s one that we will win, and it’s because Sandlin continues to vote outside the mainstream of a conservative Texas district," said Bo Harmon, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee (search).
"Sandlin is a Washington, D.C., liberal who has forgotten where he came from," said Alexis DeLee, spokeswoman for the Republican Party of Texas.
On the other hand, DeLee said, "[Gohmert] stands for strong Texas values, which resonates well with East Texas voters, and that is what will make him not only successful in the election but also as congressman."
Gohmert spokesman Keats Norfleet said his candidate has been traveling this widespread district of nine counties dotted with farms and small towns, convincing conservative voters that the man supporting President Bush is the man they want to send to Washington in 2005.
"His stand on the War on Terror (search), lower taxes on working families, eliminating the death tax and standing up for pro-life and pro-family values — he feels his values are more in line with these Texans than this incumbent," said Norfleet.
Sandlin’s backers say it’s difficult to make the liberal brand stick, particularly since Sandlin voted for Bush’s tax cuts, authorization to go to war and is against gay marriage and abortion.
"He’s voted against [Democrats] more than the rest of the leadership and a heck of a lot more than the Republicans are willing to vote against [House Majority Leader] Tom Delay," said Martin.
Martin and others in Texas say turnout is essential for the vulnerable Texas Democrats. For that, and the tight polls, Gonzales said this is definitely one of the more exciting races in the country.
"Just because the district is drawn to elect a Republican doesn’t mean it’s guaranteed," he said.