WASHINGTON – Former Rep. Tom DeLay is on the ballot, then off and then back again. It looks like the Texas two-step, yet this many twists and turns suggest a jitterbug.
The convoluted course for the once powerful House majority leader began with a primary victory in March. Then came his resignation from Congress in June and a recent push by Texas Democrats to keep DeLay on the ballot, infuriating Republicans.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in New Orleans, planned to hear the case on Monday.
After his primary victory with a comfortable 62 percent, DeLay announced in April he would resign from the Houston-area congressional seat that he had held for more than two decades. On June 9, the combative DeLay delivered a no-regrets speech to the House as he left the Capitol Hill stage.
Texas Republicans quickly maneuvered to choose a replacement candidate to face Democrat Nick Lampson in November, but the state's Democrats cut in. After all, DeLay was too juicy a campaign target, what with his felony indictment on money laundering, four run-ins with the House Ethics Committee and ties to convicted Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Democrats sued to force DeLay to stay on the general election ballot. A federal judge agreed, even though DeLay had quit Congress and the race, and moved to Virginia. But his wife, Christine, still lives in Sugar Land, Texas, and he owns a house there.
Republicans appealed and are seeking an expedited ruling.
Republicans "want to say, 'You're thwarting people's right to choose their candidate.' Baloney. He's the one who decided to cut and run," said Boyd Richie, spokesman for the Texas Democratic Party.
DeLay has hinted that if he is required to be on the ballot, he might not be an absentee candidate.
Democrats "may get exactly what they want," DeLay said at a recent tribute to him in Sugar Land.
Forced out of the No. 2 position in the House by his indictment in Texas, DeLay wants to see how the appeals court rules. Once that decision is rendered, either side could appeal to the Supreme Court.
Texas officials are eager to end this dance. Sept. 6 is the last day to certify the ballot for the Nov. 7 vote, and any postponement breaks the chain of steps needed for a smooth Election Day, said Scott Haywood, spokesman for Texas Secretary of State Roger Williams, a Republican.
So what if DeLay stays on the ballot?
He could actively campaign to win back the seat.
On the downside, he trails in fundraising and has mounting legal bills. Lampson's camp reported $2.2 million cash on hand at the end of June; DeLay said he had $641,274. He also spent $485,275 on legal fees from April to June.
On the upside, even that lag might not hurt DeLay, who remains popular with Republicans in his suburban Houston district. President Bush won the district with 64 percent of the vote in 2004; DeLay handily defeated three opponents in the primary.
Given a choice between the resigned congressman and "a liberal Democrat," most of the district's voters would prefer DeLay, said Gary Gillen, Republican Party chairman in Fort Bend County. That is the most conservative of the four counties in the district and DeLay's home turf.
Jim Bopp Jr., attorney for the Republicans in the lawsuit, said, "The bottom line is the Democrats are trying to dictate the choice for the Republican nominee and if they get really lucky, to have their candidate run unopposed. Only if they do that, do they have any chance to win this seat."
If DeLay wins his seat back, he might decide to retire after taking office. The Texas governor would then have to call a special election. The current governor is Republican Rick Perry, but he has four challengers this fall, including two independents, a Democrat and a Libertarian.
Bill Miller, a political consultant in Austin, Texas, said he would bet on DeLay's sticking around if the former congressman is re-elected and cleared of criminal charges.
"The only way he would not come back if he's re-elected is if Republicans lose control of the House. He'll say, 'You wanted me, here I am,'" Miller said.
If DeLay is off the ballot, the district's Republicans will renew their stalled efforts to choose a replacement. Precinct chairmen from the four counties that comprise the district would choose a ballot replacement from a list of contenders that includes a few state legislators, the mayor of Sugar Land, one of the Republicans DeLay defeated in the primary and a Houston city councilwoman.
Whoever is elected in November would begin work in January. But the district currently has no representation and someone has to finish DeLay's term. The first possible special election date after DeLay's resignation is Nov. 7 — also Election Day. That means voters in the district would have to vote twice for a representative.
The winner would serve from November through early 2007, when the other ballot winner is sworn in.
Of course, with several candidates, there's always the chance for a runoff.