Five Texas Democratic incumbents whom Republicans hoped to eliminate Tuesday struggled to overcome President Bush's overwhelming popularity in his home state to return to Congress.
The Democrats — Chet Edwards, Martin Frost, Nick Lampson, Max Sandlin and Charlie Stenholm — seek re-election in overwhelmingly Republican districts. The districts were altered last year in a redistricting plan engineered by Sugar Land Republican and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay who hopes to widen the GOP's control of the U.S. House.
There are now 227 Republicans, 205 Democrats, one Independent and two vacancies in the House. The Texas delegation is split 16-16.
Texas Republicans hoped to pick up all five seats, but polls indicate they may only gain two or three. The Democratic incumbents, known as the Texas Five, fought back hard, outraising their challengers and making most of the races tight ones.
Sandlin, who faces former judge Louie Gohmert in an East Texas district, said not all Texans who voted for Bush and his father in past presidential elections voted straight-party ticket, and he's counting in part on those split ticket voters to send him back to Washington.
"Certainly President Bush is very popular in Texas, but I don't believe there's much room to improve on that vote. The straight ticket vote already is performing as well as it can," Sandlin said. "I think increased voter turnout will be primarily Democratic."
Bush provided a last-minute boost to Republican candidates with a rally Monday night in Dallas, home to the nation's most expensive congressional race.
Frost, dean of the Texas delegation with 13 terms under his belt, is locked in a bitter race with eight-year incumbent Rep. Pete Sessions. The candidates together have raised and spent nearly $8 million. The national parties have added millions more.
They've traded barbs over taxes and homeland security. But they've also ridiculed one another with embarrassing moments: Sessions' college streaking incident and Frost's hiring of a musician with a pardoned child indecency conviction for a fund-raiser.
The race has been a "rolling tit-for-tat for quite some time," said David Simon, a Southern Methodist University associate professor of political science. "I would describe it as a heavyweight title fight."
The Houston-area race between Lampson and former state District Judge Ted Poe is too close to call, while polls give the edge to freshman Rep. Randy Neugebauer in the West Texas standoff with Stenholm, a 26-year veteran of Congress.
The Democrats feel confident about Edwards, considered the front-runner against conservative legislator Arlene Wohlgemuth. And, a win by Edwards would be a definite poke in the eye to Bush's popularity, since the Central Texas includes the president's Crawford ranch.
At stake for Texas Democrats is more than 80 years seniority combined in Congress and several valuable committee spots. Stenholm, for example, is ranking chairman on the Agriculture Committee and Edwards is ranking Democrat on a subcommittee that decides spending for military bases.
Democrats held a 17-15 majority in the Texas congressional delegation before DeLay pushed through his redistricting plan. Rep. Ralph Hall's self-preservation party switch in January evened the split at 16.
DeLay's redistricting plan triggered two walkouts by state Democratic legislators who hoped to kill the plan by preventing the quorum needed to pass it. DeLay used the Federal Aviation Administration to help track down the lawmakers, a move that later landed him in trouble with the House ethics committee.
A Texas grand jury also has indicted three DeLay associates, alleging they violated Texas campaign finance laws in 2002 state House elections. Some of the candidates from those races helped Republicans win the majority in the Texas Legislature, which they needed to pass the redistricting plan.
Despite two years of political wrangling, Tuesday's winners may still find themselves running in entirely different districts in 2006. The U.S. Supreme Court in October ordered a three-judge lower court to review whether the redistricting scheme was overly partisan and unfair to voters.