SAN ANTONIO – Republicans are still hot over the loss of two congressional districts to Democrats in 2006 — especially the one that had been held by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay — and they're looking to win them back this fall.
But first, they must separate the wheat from the chaff in the March 4 primary. Both seats drew multiple GOP candidates eager to take on incumbent Democratic Reps. Nick Lampson in the 22nd District and Ciro Rodriguez in the 23rd District.
National Republicans have set their sights on finding someone who might evict Lampson and Rodriguez in November.
"These are the ball game, absolutely," said Hans Klingler, the state GOP spokesman.
Lampson, who won his seat after scandal forced DeLay to resign, and Rodriguez, whose district was redrawn to include more Hispanics after a court fight over minority voting rights, routinely appear in news releases headlined "Target Dems ..." from the National Republican Congressional Committee.
"I think (the seats have) got symbolic value for both parties," said Gary Keith, assistant professor of political science at the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio. "For Democrats, they're trophies that they won from Republicans. And for Republicans, it's Tom DeLay's seat that they've just got to get back."
Lampson's district covers a piece of Houston and the rapidly growing Fort Bend County. Rodriguez's is the largest district in Texas, stretching from San Antonio to the U.S.-Mexico border and west toward El Paso.
Two Republicans are competing for the right to challenge Rodriguez, and 10 fill the GOP ballot in the race to face Lampson.
"When candidates can barely contain themselves in getting into a race, that says that there's probably a pretty good opportunity to capitalize on," said Ken Spain, a National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman.
One candidate in DeLay's old district is making her second try. Republican Shelley Sekula Gibbs was elected to fill the remaining months of DeLay's term, but Lampson beat her write-in campaign in the general election.
"I'm going to work to make sure (Lampson is) a one-term congressman," Sekula Gibbs said. "I promised the voters that I would work very hard to win this seat back."
If none of the 10 Republicans seeking that seat receives 50 percent of the vote in the primary, the top two vote-getters will face a runoff in April.
All 10 are pushing their conservative credentials and highlighting issues such as illegal immigration and national security. Most are focusing on attacking Lampson rather than each other.
"I think all of the candidates in this race, we all stand on the same platform," said candidate John Manlove, the former mayor of Pasadena. "The differences are in our experience and track record."
In the 23rd District contest to face Rodriguez, Bexar County Commissioner Lyle Larson is taking on attorney and banker Francisco Quico Canseco, who has been actively campaigning since early last year.
"It was just the perfect storm for us to lose this position" in 2006, Larson said. "The base will be energized (this time). They really want this seat back."
Republicans are optimistic about ousting Rodriguez even though the 23rd District was redrawn to be more than 60 percent Hispanic, a bloc that tends to vote Democratic.
"In the last four years, there has been some strain of the Hispanic base away from Republican Party and I think this is a tremendous opportunity to get a good foothold in South Texas," Canseco said.