WASHINGTON – Rep. Tom DeLay's House seat is no longer safe as Washington scandals and a lawsuit back home gnaw at his support, say election watchers keeping a close eye on the Texas Republican's fading popularity.
"It's no secret he has a major political challenge on his hands — he's aware of that. Everyone in that part of Texas is aware of it," Mike Franc, congressional expert at the Heritage Foundation, told FOXNews.com.
Franc and other political gurus say multiple ethics committee probes into DeLay's political activities combined with an indictment on money laundering and conspiracy charges, and federal plea agreements by former staffer, Michael Scanlon, and close friend, lobbyist Jack Abramoff, have caused problems for the 11-term congressman.
As a result, the fate of the man who helped orchestrate a redistricting plan that made his own 22nd district in Texas less Republican but counted on a strong incumbency to return him to office is uncertain. DeLay won re-election in 2004 by a 55 percent margin — much lower than in previous elections.
"I think right now it is a serious race and it's a competitive race, but it is somewhat on hold because I think a majority of people are waiting to see how things are playing out in the courts, how the charges are settled," said Nathan Gonzales, editor of The Rothenberg Political Report, an election tracking publication.
DeLay campaign officials deny that the investigations have been eroding support and say last year's election returns are the result of the district becoming more competitive through redistricting rather than waning popularity. They also blame outside liberal groups like MoveOn.org for attacking DeLay's credibility.
"[Constituents] see these attacks for what they are," said campaign spokeswoman Shannon Flaherty.
Increasing Political Troubles
On Jan. 7, DeLay officially announced he was stepping down as majority leader — a post he had temporarily relinquished in September when he was indicted on money laundering and conspiracy charges. Conspiracy charges related to election code violations have since been thrown out. However, DeLay's case was dealt a blow Jan. 9 when the court failed to dismiss the remaining charges or to expedite the trial.
The charges stem from allegations that DeLay and two GOP fundraisers funneled $155,000 in corporate contributions through the Texans for a Republican Majority, a political action committee founded by DeLay, to the Republican National Committee, which in turn handed the cash over to state Republican candidates. The receipt of corporate donations by state candidates is illegal in Texas.
DeLay and his supporters maintain that Texas prosecutor Ronnie Earle's case against DeLay is politically motivated.
"The Democrats used this runaway district attorney here in Austin, Texas ... He's won this battle, that's for sure. I mean, I have been indicted ... on laws that didn't exist at the time" they were said to have been broken, DeLay said, referring to Earle, a Democrat, in an interview with FOX News earlier this month after he quit his majority leader post.
Fort Bend County Republican Party Chairman Eric Thode said he is convinced DeLay has not been impacted, and that he will be re-elected in November.
"[Voters] view this as a lot to do about nothing, which is the case with the garbage coming out of Ronnie Earle's office," Thode said. "I think you are looking at a highly-educated voting public who realizes that this country was founded on one principle, that you are innocent until proven guilty."
But Beverly Carter, publisher of the weekly Fort Bend Star newspaper in DeLay's district, says the story of DeLay's legal problems is "getting more sizzle and getting more legs," and voters are starting to grumble.
"The scandals have hit him over and over," said Carter, a lifelong Republican and local party precinct chief who has been a longtime critic of DeLay.
She added that DeLay, who hails from Sugar Land, has "a serious challenge" to his seat this year. Fort Bend County, which incorporates Sugar Land, is the largest county in the district. Voters there cast 40 percent of the vote in this race, and chose DeLay by only 53 percent in 2004.
A Houston Chronicle poll taken Jan. 10-12 showed that of the 560 registered voters surveyed in DeLay's district, 52 percent voted for DeLay in 2004, but only half of those said they will do so again. The poll also showed DeLay with a 60 percent unfavorable rating compared to only 28 percent favorability.
On the GOP side, attorneys Tom Campbell and Michael Fjetland and political activist Pat Baig are challenging DeLay in the primary.
Meanwhile, former Rep. Steve Stockman and Gabriel Owens have filed as independents, and Libertarians Stan Norred and Bob Smither are seeking their party's nod.
Former Rep. Nick Lampson, a four-term Democrat who lost his Texas seat in 2004 when the Republican-driven redistricting drove him out, says he now wants to do the same to DeLay.
"When I looked to see the best opportunity for me to run, the best opportunity was District 22," he told FOXNews.com.
Ed Patru, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, balked at such talk. He said Democrats are fueling the rumors of DeLay's demise, but the party has no intention of indulging them.
"The Democrats are always going to go after Tom DeLay," he said, adding that, "Nick Lampson is no more likely to defeat Tom DeLay than Ronnie Earle is likely to single-handedly dismantle the entire vast right-wing conspiracy."
Flaherty said DeLay is gearing up for a fight — particularly against the outside liberal interests who have been dogging him for years.
"He has been at numerous events since his decision (to step down from leadership), and he's getting tremendous support," she said. "They say he delivers for his district."
Party Power Vacuum
But whether DeLay loses his seat or not, political observers say his departure from leadership and from a powerful bully pulpit where he has commanded extraordinary influence over the Republican agenda, legislation, Washington's K Street lobbyists and campaign fundraising has already created a void in the GOP and hurt his own chances for a full recovery.
"I think it will be difficult for anyone else to exercise the hold and control he had on the Republican Party," said former Rep. Martin Frost, D-Texas, who also lost his seat after redistricting in 2004. He noted DeLay's "iron control" over members, which earned him the nickname "the Hammer" shortly after he took on the role of majority whip in 1994.
"When the history of the 20th century Congress is written — post-World War I to the present — Tom DeLay will emerge, in the judgment of any honest historian, as one of the more influential leaders of the century," said Franc. "For him to pull back from the leadership will leave a vacuum."
But observers say DeLay cannot continue to help his party amid the scandals and investigations or in an election year where candidates are expected to embrace the mantle of reform.
"He's been damaged," said John Fortier, political expert from the American Enterprise Institute, who added that while DeLay was "a major share" of the party's extraordinary unity since 1994, "he's not indispensable and as a wounded leader, ostensibly, he puts Republicans in a worse position."
DeLay himself seemed to acknowledge that in his FOX News interview.
"I realized that the way things worked within our conference, we needed to have a leadership race right now, have the election sometime at the end of January and get it over with so that we can go to work in February and have our team in place and get after an aggressive, bold agenda. Every day that went by undermined the ability to do that. I realize that it was better for me to step aside and get that done and move forward," he said. The GOP leadership vote will be held Feb. 2.
Franc said the loss of DeLay in the leadership impacts the party in the short-term.
"No doubt, but there is no reason why the loss has to be felt in the long-term at all. It's not implausible for a new leader to be as effective as DeLay was," he said.
Flaherty said DeLay will continue to be effective when he reclaims his seniority seat on the House Appropriations Committee. His constituents and other members are optimistic, she added, and ardent in their support
"DeLay has been a great friend, and an even greater leader," she said. "He's still going to have all of those relationships and provide strong leadership. He's committed."