(5/16/2004) GOP Set to Conquer Redivided Texas
By Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 16, 2004; Page A06
CLEBURNE, Tex. — Texas Republicans kicked up a mighty ruckus last year with their bare-knuckled congressional redistricting exercise, prompting court challenges, a grand jury investigation, and wholesale escapes to Oklahoma and New Mexico by Democratic legislators trying to derail the plan.
Now that the smoke has cleared, however, Republicans appear to have achieved exactly what they wanted: surgically redesigned districts that are jeopardizing the careers of five Democratic House members and significantly enhancing GOP hopes of keeping the House majority this fall and beyond. The Texas legislature has created districts so heavily Republican that even some of Congress’s most conservative Democrats will have trouble winning reelection.
“The Democrats are putting up a very brave spin, but if the Republicans don’t win every one of these races, they’re guilty of malpractice,” said Paul Burka, executive editor of Texas Monthly magazine and a longtime independent observer of Lone Star politics.
In a mega-state where the two parties vied for supremacy a mere decade ago, the redistricting coup is the latest and most audacious step in a Republican march that has crippled the once-mighty Democratic Party in many towns and counties. If Republicans win just one of the five targeted races, which seems almost certain, they will control the governorship, both legislative chambers, both U.S. Senate seats and the U.S. House delegation for the first time since Reconstruction.
The redistricting was orchestrated primarily from Washington by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), whose aggressive fundraising on behalf of state legislators who approved the redistricting plan has attracted an Austin-based grand jury’s attention.
Desperately hoping to keep the Texas legislature’s Republican majority from obtaining a quorum to enact the DeLay plan last summer, Democratic state representatives fled to Ardmore, Okla., and Democratic state senators escaped to Albuquerque, where they holed up for six weeks. But Republicans in Austin eventually rammed the plan through, packing Democratic voters into 10 districts to make the state’s remaining 22 districts as pro-Republican as possible for the Nov. 2 election.
Recent voting patterns in all five of the targeted districts make Democratic victories difficult, said Bryan Eppstein, a Fort Worth-based GOP consultant who has conducted detailed analyses of the precincts involved.
If his predictions prove true, they will constitute a giant leap in a political trend that has been gradually reshaping the South since the mid-1960s: the disappearance of white, moderate-to-liberal elected Democrats in favor of black or Latino Democrats in heavily minority districts, and Republicans in mostly white districts.
In Cleburne, south of Fort Worth, Republicans mingled recently at the local party headquarters to await returns from a runoff primary and to marvel at how rapidly their county and others have gone from Democratic control to Republican.
“There is no real Democratic Party in Johnson County anymore,” said the county GOP treasurer, Roy Giddens, who wore a red, white and blue shirt for election night. What’s truly remarkable, he said, is that the Democratic Party dominated local government and politics only a few years ago.
Johnson County Commissioner John W. Matthews (R) agreed, expressing amazement more than glee. “The transition was so dramatic,” he said. When Republicans began winning local elections, several Democratic officeholders switched parties to save their political skins. Nowadays at election time, Matthews said, “it’s amazing the Democratic turnout: It’s nonexistent.”
All of this is bad news for Edwards, the affable seven-term Democrat from Waco, 55 miles to the south. The GOP redistricting plan robbed him of some friendly precincts and gave him Johnson County and several other GOP-leaning communities.
Edwards, however, says that “this isn’t a new experience for me. . . . I’ve won seven consecutive elections in a district that goes Republican at the top of the ticket,” noting that Al Gore won barely a third of the vote in his district in 2000. Edwards said his moderate views on social and fiscal issues, and his strong support of the military and its private-sector contractors, will appeal to many independent voters.
Republican activists say the district, which includes President Bush’s home in Crawford, was drawn especially for conservative state Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth of Johnson County, who won the primary runoff that Matthews and Giddens were monitoring. In her victory speech to about 100 supporters in a modest office building in Cleburne, Wohlgemuth outlined her main campaign themes for defeating “liberal Chet Edwards.” “It’s time we sent someone to Washington who is going to support our president rather than support Ted Kennedy,” she said to cheers and applause. She particularly criticized Edwards for voting against a ban on a procedure that critics call partial-birth abortion.
Such talk appeals to many Texas voters who say they, or their parents, used to be Democrats. “Democrats jumped off the bandwagon when they went from pro-life to pro-choice,” said John Lacey, 44, a roofing contractor who dropped by Wohlgemuth’s headquarters.
Edwards won reelection in 2002 with 52 percent of the vote against a Republican who raised about one-third as much money as he did. His new district is more Republican, say insiders from both parties, and Wohlgemuth is likely to match him dollar for dollar.
Quoted in part from The Washington Post – May 16th Edition