HOUSTON – Democrats, who often ignored Rep. Tom DeLay's (search) Republican-leaning district, see a political opening in 2006 now that the House Majority leader faces ethics questions and dismay over his intervention in the Terri Schiavo (search) case.
Democratic activists in the suburban Houston district have been composing a wish list of possible candidates as the embattled DeLay answers questions about his record.
In past elections, the Republican who won his House seat in 1984 has coasted to victory, often with more than 60 percent of the vote. Last November he won by 55-41 percent.
This week, a Houston Chronicle poll in the district found that 49 percent said they would vote for someone else. That number has sparked the most interest in a Democratic primary in the district in years.
"Now that DeLay is being pushed ever closer to the political brink, everyone is realizing that any of these challengers on his worst day might be better than DeLay on his best day," said longtime Democratic strategist Kelly Fero.
Not so, said Shannon Flaherty, a spokeswoman for DeLay, who dismissed suggestions that the Republican is vulnerable on his home turf in 2006.
"While he never takes an election for granted, he consistently outperforms his opponents because the voters know when it comes to the issues they care about ... Tom DeLay delivers for the people of the 22nd District," Flaherty said.
Among the potential Democratic challengers:
—Richard Morrison, a lawyer from Sugar Land, Texas, captured 41 percent of the vote with only $630,000 against DeLay's $2.9 million in last November's election. Morrison is favored by local Democratic activists who believe he deserves their loyalty for his strong showing.
—Houston City Councilman Gordon Quan, a Chinese-American immigration lawyer, could capitalize on the district's growing Asian and South Asian population.
—Former Rep. Nick Lampson, whose district was redrawn to favor the GOP and covered areas that DeLay now represents, including the NASA area and Galveston. Lampson said he has been approached by several people but hasn't decided whether to run.
A nascent effort to draft former Rep. Chris Bell (search) fizzled when Bell responded to e-mailers that he preferred to focus on his gubernatorial ambitions.
The House ethics committee admonished DeLay three times last year, and new questions have been raised in recent weeks about his overseas travel. Three DeLay associates are under indictment on state charges in Austin in connection with an effort to redraw the state's congressional districts.
DeLay has denied any wrongdoing and has not been charged with violating any law.
The public also has questioned the role of Congress, led by DeLay, in trying to have Schiavo's feeding tube reinserted. The courts consistently opposed the effort for the brain-damaged woman, who died last week.
"He's vulnerable, and he brought it on himself," Lampson said.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which recruits and helps House candidates, has talked to Morrison and Quan about the race.
Until Morrison's campaign in 2004, DeLay faced nominal Democratic nominees, usually local activists without much organization, and one or two third-party candidates.
"Absolutely, we're paying more attention than before," said DCCC spokesman Bill Burton. "We're looking at it really hard."
Morrison, who initially offered to step aside out of party loyalty if Quan wanted to run, said he has changed his mind.
"I'm not going to be scared to spill Democratic blood," Morrison said. "I'm a victim of my own success. Last time, the wisdom was, don't do it, he (DeLay) will stomp you into the ground. ... And now it's a race."