PEARLAND, Texas – Republicans in this suburban Houston district who have sent Rep. Tom DeLay to Washington 11 times are wondering whether his legal troubles preclude a 12th trip in 2006.
"He's lost a lot of credibility with me," said Sandra Alldredge, who described herself as a lifelong Republican and DeLay voter. "I always thought he did real well for the local district," she said, but his recent indictment "puts a cloud over everything. I may have to vote for a Democrat this time."
DeLay is expected to go to trial next year in Texas on money laundering charges, and he also is included in the Justice Department investigation of Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his dealings with lawmakers and Bush administration officials.
DeLay's indictment forced him to step aside, at least temporarily, as House majority leader.
A recent poll in the district found that more than half the voters said they would vote for someone other than DeLay. The CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll also showed DeLay with a 52 percent unfavorable rating, and 55 percent said they believed the criminal charges against him were definitely or probably true.
DeLay's staff dismissed the numbers.
Republican voter Mike Bayus described the criminal prosecution as "a witch hunt," but said he didn't know how he would vote. "After I've seen all the facts, I probably will still vote for DeLay," he said.
DeLay captured 55 percent of the vote in the heavily Republican 22nd Congressional District in 2004, the lowest numbers he's gotten since he was elected in 1984. The district whose boundaries DeLay engineered has changed.
He added some suburbs south of Houston that are not as solidly Republican as his home county. That turf, Fort Bend County, has a small but rapidly growing population of Asian immigrants and upper-income blacks who tend to vote Democratic, said Rice University sociologist Stephen Klineberg.
Former Democratic Rep. Nick Lampson is planning to challenge DeLay next year.
"This new poll affirms what we've known all along: Tom DeLay is in big trouble," Lampson campaign manager Mike Malaise said in a statement.
Still, 61 percent of those surveyed said they were unfamiliar with Lampson. Of those who knew him, 28 percent had a favorable impression.
Lampson will be getting help from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which funnels money and organizational support to candidates around the country and has virtually ignored DeLay's safe Republican district.
"We've absolutely called it a top-tier race," said DCCC spokeswoman Sarah Feinberg.
Carl Forti, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, was confident DeLay will prevail when the field is set.
"The dynamics will totally change when you have two real people in the race," he said. When candidate "voting records are put up side by side, it's a whole new picture."
Still, Vice President Dick Cheney headlined a DeLay fundraiser this past week. DeLay has never bothered to make splashy campaign events, instead quietly visiting constituents in small groups.
Rice University political scientist Bob Stein said DeLay may not be able to put as much effort in his re-election once his trial begins.
"Love him or hate him, he's no fool," Stein said. "He's realized he may have lost his leadership post, but with the trial he faces losing much more than that. He may not be as focused on keeping his House seat as he has been."