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Battle for Control of Congress Plays Out in a Redrawn Texas

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  • Battle for Control of Congress Plays Out in a Redrawn Texas

    LUBBOCK, Tex., Oct. 13 - After 26 years representing the people of West Texas in Congress, Representative Charles W. Stenholm might have thought the days of knocking on doors to ask strangers for votes were behind him.

    But Mr. Stenholm, tall and silver-haired, is pounding the pavement like a freshman this year - and for good reason. One of five Texas Democrats split from their constituents by redistricting, Mr. Stenholm, a conservative who often votes with President Bush, is fighting for his political survival against a first-term Republican incumbent, Representative Randy Neugebauer, on Mr. Neugebauer's home turf. Two-thirds of the voters in his district are new to him.

    How Mr. Stenholm and the rest of the "Texas five" fare may determine the shape of Congress for years to come. With five of the 35 most competitive races in the country, Texas is the linchpin of the Republicans' national strategy to maintain or expand their slim hold on the House. Already, the redistricting has prompted one House Democrat to switch parties and another to retire.

    Nationally, though, more Republican incumbents than Democrats are retiring, and Democrats are hoping to pick up some of these seats. They are setting their sights on places like Pennsylvania, where Representative James C. Greenwood, a moderate Republican, is stepping down; Washington, where Representative George Nethercutt, also a Republican, is running for the Senate; and Connecticut, where another moderate Republican, Representative Christopher Shays, is in a tough fight for re-election.

    Texas, Republicans say, will be their insurance policy against such potential losses. And should the party do well elsewhere, Texas will be the icing on the Republicans' cake.

    "I look at Texas as a tremendous opportunity for us," said Representative Thomas M. Reynolds of New York, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. Representative Tom DeLay, the House majority leader, who created a firestorm in Washington and Texas in engineering the redistricting, says he expects the new lines to result in up to seven new Republican seats.

    Independent experts do not quite agree; Mr. Bush has been a polarizing figure, even in his home state, and they expect one or more of the endangered Democrats to survive. Even so, Amy Walter, who tracks House races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, sees Texas as "the firewall" that will protect the 12-seat Republican majority, or "the battering ram" that will expand it.

    Another of the Texas five, Representative Chet Edwards, was recently taken off the list of vulnerable incumbents maintained by Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper. But Mr. Stenholm, a former cotton and wheat farmer who is playing up his political independence and his status as the senior Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, remains at risk.

    And so the congressman recently found himself hunting for votes in rural Hereford, a West Texas cattle town, cutting a lonely figure as he went door to door. His black ostrich-skin cowboy boots were worn through to his socks. His manner was polite yet determined as he introduced himself, offering bumper stickers or lawn signs to those who would take them.

    "Which one you want?" Mr. Stenholm would ask, arraying the stickers like an accordion fan. "You want Republicans for Stenholm, Democrats for Stenholm or Independents for Stenholm?"

    The question reveals just how hard it is to be a Democrat in West Texas, which is why Mr. Stenholm's party is working hard to re-elect him. As of Friday, he had out-raised Mr. Neugebauer, $2.1 million to $1.9 million.

    "This is the last chance for Democrats," Ms. Walter said. "If Charlie Stenholm loses, there's not another Democrat to take his place."

    The White House is working hard to see to that. On Oct. 11, while Mr. Stenholm was campaigning in Hereford, Mr. Neugebauer was at a rally with Mr. Bush in Hobbs, N.M., just over the state line. Mr. Bush proclaimed the congressman "a man that I can work with."

    Vice President Dick Cheney, meanwhile, has held two fund-raisers for Mr. Neugebauer; one netted $415,000, the most Mr. Cheney has raised for any House candidate.

    In addition to Mr. Stenholm and Mr. Edwards, the Texas five include Representatives Max Sandlin, Nick Lampson and Martin Frost. Mr. Frost is another 26-year veteran in a bitter member-to-member matchup, against Representative Pete Sessions in Dallas. That race is the most expensive in the country; both men expect to raise and spend more than $4 million.

    A recent independent poll by The Dallas Morning News found Mr. Sessions leading Mr. Frost 50 percent to 44 percent, with a 3.5 percent margin of sampling error. There are no recent independent polls in the Stenholm race other than one conducted by students at Texas Tech University, which found Mr. Neugebauer leading by a ratio of roughly 2 to 1.

    Like Mr. Stenholm, Mr. Frost is working hard. The only Jewish member of the delegation, he said he was counting on Jewish and Hispanic votes. His campaign workers have knocked on every door in the district and are beginning a second round.

    "I have to do two things to win," Mr. Frost said. "I have to increase Hispanic turnout and I have to get people to split their tickets."

    Getting Republicans to split their tickets is a challenge these Democrats have faced since Mr. Bush became president, and in some cases under Mr. Bush's father. But the old Texas districts were drawn by Democrats, including Mr. Frost, or by judges, as in 2001.

    In 2003, the Texas Legislature, newly controlled by Republicans, redistricted again. A three-judge federal panel approved the lines, which Richard Murray, a professor of political science at the University of Houston, calls "an unusual display of political power, political muscle," designed to push old-time Democrats like Mr. Frost and Mr. Stenholm out of office.

    For Mr. Stenholm, the challenges are daunting. He currently represents District 17, a compact block of counties surrounding Abilene, his home. His new district zigs and zags like an unfinished jigsaw puzzle across West Texas and through its panhandle, encompassing 27 counties and 29,000 square miles.

    Abilene is included, but the major population center is Lubbock, home to Mr. Neugebauer, 54, a house builder and former City Council member who won a special election last year to fill a vacant House seat. Even the district number favors the Republican; it is 19, Mr. Neugebauer's current district, which makes the freshman an incumbent running for re-election - a claim Mr. Stenholm, after 13 terms, cannot make.

    Mr. Bush has been hugely popular here. In 2000, Mr. Neugebauer's campaign said, Mr. Bush averaged 73 percent of the vote in the new District 19. So Mr. Neugebauer is taking every opportunity to link Mr. Stenholm's name with that of Senator John Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee. While Mr. Stenholm likes to say he is focusing only on one race - his own - Mr. Neugebauer's Web site features an old audio clip of Mr. Stenholm saying he would back Mr. Kerry.

    Mr. Stenholm is retaliating by reminding voters that Mr. Neugebauer "votes 98 percent of the time with Tom DeLay." Mr. DeLay arouses ire in West Texas, where farmers complain the redistricting will cost them a seat on the Agriculture Committee, on which Mr. Neugebauer also serves. But in a blow to Mr. Stenholm, the Texas Farm Bureau endorsed the Republican this year.

    A former high school football and basketball star who grew up in the small town of Ericksdahl, Tex., Mr. Stenholm, 66, knows the language of farmers, and he knows the language of rural Texas.

    "I'm pro-life, pro-military and pro-family," Mr. Stenholm told a group of farmers at a Monday breakfast in the little town of Dimmitt, "and there is nothing in my record that says anything other than that."

    But that may not be enough, so Mr. Stenholm, like Mr. Frost, is reaching out to Hispanics. Going door to door, he took pains to visit a Hispanic neighborhood, followed by campaign workers who asked permission to put up lawn signs. He had started his day at 6 a.m. to make the two-hour drive from Lubbock to Hereford, and by 5:30 p.m., still knocking on doors, he seemed a bit weary.

    Looking around, though, he was pleased to see Stenholm signs on just about every corner and said he hoped the word would get out that he had been there. He was asked whether, after 26 years, he felt he should not have to be working this hard.

    "Well, sure," he said, shaking his head. "But you know, this is very personal. They may beat me, but they're going to darn sure earn it."



    http://www.nytimes.com/2004/10/18/po...tml?oref=login
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