DALLAS – Three Democratic presidential nominees offered their support Thursday for Texas Senate Democrats who are holed up in New Mexico, but the defection of one of their own may imperil the senators' efforts to avoid a vote at home on redistricting.
State Sen. John Whitmire (search), the longest-serving Democrat in the state Senate, returned to Texas Wednesday from Albuquerque, where 10 of his fellow Democrats remain. Whitmire is taking a lot of heat for returning home, but he said that's where the fight must now take place.
"I just don't know what 30 more days in Albuquerque would accomplish. Ultimately, I think everyone knows we need to fight this on the Senate floor. We can do it next week or we can do it two or three months from now, but it's going to happen," Whitmire said.
According to Whitmire, some of his Democratic colleagues have talked of staying in New Mexico until Christmas.
Whitmire's return means enough senators are now available to meet in a special session called by Gov. Rick Perry (search) to vote on a redistricting map that opponents say would gerrymander districts to make it easier for Republicans to win.
Republicans have argued that the current map, which was decided by a court, does not reflect recent voting trends in the state. Republicans now run the governor's mansion, the state Senate and state House.
The departure of the 11 Democrats had made it impossible to have a quorum, without which no official business can occur. Perry said he was happy to hear Whitmire returned home, but so far hasn't scheduled another special session to vote on redistricting.
The Texas 11's quirky escape west has certainly drawn more national attention to their cause. Seven of the 10 remaining Democrats in Albuquerque met with presidential hopefuls former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt, who were in town for a debate. Six of those later met with Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman. The other three went to Washington to press their case.
Gephardt offered words of support and Power Bars to help the lawmakers in their fight. He also called the redistricting vote part of a Republican power-grab that started with the impeachment of President Clinton.
"This is part of a pattern," Gephardt said, pointing to the recall of California Gov. Gray Davis (search) as another example. If it continues, "We're going to have chaos in our political system."
"It's a 12-vote margin to determine which party controls the U.S. Congress," said Rodney Ellis, one of the senators who went to Washington. "And this power grab, pure and simple, is about trying to stack the deck, trying to get another bite out of the apple."
In Washington Thursday for a press conference with Moveon.org (search), a liberal political organization formed in the 1990s to oppose the Clinton impeachment, the lawmakers announced the launch of new radio and TV ads that will run in swing presidential states including Florida, Illinois, Missouri, Ohio, Arizona, New York, Nevada and Texas, along with the District of Columbia.
Moveon.org also ran a full-page ad in the New York Times telling President Bush: "Don't mess With Texas."
The Democrats said they are trying to expose involvement of Bush, his presidential adviser Karl Rove (search) and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (search) in the Texas redistricting effort and the last-minute redrawing of a congressional map in Colorado.
The White House has insisted that the redistricting fight is a state matter. But the Texans in Washington, and one ally in the House, said the similarities between Colorado and Texas indicate a concerted effort by Republicans to gain advantage illegally.
"What's happening here is people in the Republican Party are trying to overturn the results of elections. They are trying to overturn the results of elections in Texas two years ago. They are trying to overturn the results of the election in California. They are trying to overturn results of the election in Colorado," said U.S. Rep. Martin Frost, D-Texas.
Estimates vary, but those opposed to the redistricting say it could mean a loss of five to 10 Democratic congressional seats. Currently, Republicans hold 15 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and Democrats hold 17 seats.
Whitmire said that he couldn't continue to avoid the work that he was elected to do, and that he wanted to work within the system to find other means of opposing the redistricting plan. Lawmakers who intentionally prevent a quorum are subject to arrest.
Whitmire said he wasn't concerned with whether he became a hero or villain.
"Well, I'm not worried about being a hero for the Republican Party, that's never been a particular goal of mine," he said.
Fox News' Todd Connor and The Associated Press contributed to this report.