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Parsing the Polls: Dems Retain Slim Shot at Picking Up DeLay's Seat

At the start of 2006, The Fix dedicated an entire Parsing the Polls entry to the question of whether Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) could win a twelfth term in November.

Nick Lampson
Former Rep. Nick Lampson's race for the 22nd District got much tougher with Tom DeLay's decision to resign. (AP File Photo)

With DeLay's announcement Monday night that he will resign from Congress, that question is now moot. The salient debate now turns to whether Democrats still have a real chance to capture this Republican seat in the fall. In an attempt to get past the rhetoric offered by the two parties, let's parse the polls on Texas's 22nd District.

First, a few caveats.

As of press time, it was unclear whether there would be a special election to fill the remaining months on DeLay's term. Our understanding from national Republican strategists is that DeLay will wait to resign until Gov. Rick Perry (R) has the option of not calling a special election. There does appear to be some confusion, however, over whether Perry could or would call a special regardless of when DeLay resigns. If a special is called, all bets are off.

Also, it remains unclear whom Republicans will pick to replace DeLay on the ballot in November. The identity of the chosen GOP candidate could greatly affect the dynamics of the race.

With those points in mind, let's parse the polls.

The only major independent poll conducted in the race was commissioned by the Houston Chronicle in January. It showed former Rep. Nick Lampson, the Democratic nominee, with 30 percent to DeLay's 22 percent and former Republican Rep. Steve Stockman, who is planning to run as an independent, at 11 percent. When voters leaning toward one of the candidates were included, Lampson jumped to 32 percent, DeLay to 25 and Stockman to 14.

Aside from the horse race question, almost no questions were asked about Lampson. That does not mean, however, that there is nothing more to be gleaned from the survey.

The most telling question was this: "Generally speaking when it comes to political parties would you describe yourself as a Democrat, a Republican, and independent or what?" Forty-two percent of the sample identified as Republicans, 27 percent as Democrats, 23 percent as independents and eight percent either didn't know, refused to answer or identified with some other party.

Because there is no official party registration in Texas, a question like the one above is helpful in terms of trying to figure out what the electorate might look like this November and just how many Republicans Lampson will need to convince to cross over and support him to win.

(As a sidenote, presidential performance numbers in Texas are somewhat deceiving given that President George W. Bush hails from the Lone Star State. Bush won 64 percent in 2004 and in a slightly more Republican district in 2000 he took 67 percent.)

One Democratic pollster who has worked in Texas estimated that roughly 45 percent of the voters in the 22nd are "solid" Republicans -- meaning that they are strongly aligned with the party and are likely to support Republican candidates in almost any circumstance. Another 10 percent of the district's voters lean toward the GOP, meaning they loosely affiliate with the party and its candidates. The remaining 45 percent are either Democrats, independents or something else.

Against DeLay, Lampson was running either even despite those party identification numbers -- a result of DeLay's divisiveness, according to DeLay's former pollster Rob Autry. "Despite DeLay's tremendously polarizing image, polling showed he had a 50-50 chance of winning reelection largely because of the significant Republican vote support you have in this district," said Autry. "If we run a solid Republican candidate without the polarizing image, we win this seat going away."

Privately, Democrats admit that without DeLay as the Republican nominee it will be hard to convince loosely affiliated Republicans to support Lampson but believe their candidate also has a number of advantages that will accrue to his advantage in the race.

Lampson's biggest edge, according to his backers, is that he is not a reflexive liberal who is out of step with conservative-minded voters in the Houston-area seat. As evidence, they point to Lampson's "A" rating from the National Rifle Association and his opposition to federal funding of abortions.

Republicans believe that Lampson's voting record will make characterizing him as a liberal an easy task -- noting that he voted against the creation of the Homeland Security Department. (Expect the campaign against Lampson in the 22nd to closely resemble the one Republicans ran in the 2nd district in 2004. Lampson lost that race to now Republican Rep. Ted Poe 56 percent to 43 percent.)

One thing that both sides agree on is that Lampson's name identification is roughly 50 percent at the moment -- meaning that one in every two voters in the 22nd recognizes the former lawmaker's name. What the parties disagree on is whether this is a good thing or a bad thing for the Democrat.

Democrats believe that Lampson's name ID is sure to be higher than whoever winds up as the Republican nominee, meaning that the Republican candidate or the party will need to spend significantly in the costly Houston media market to match Lampson's name recognition. Republicans counter that Lampson will have a very difficult time convincing voters who don't already know him that he shares their values given his voting record in Congress.

So, can Lampson win? Yes. There are several Democrats who currently represent congressional districts that have similar or even more difficult demographic challenges to those faced by Lampson (Texas Rep. Chet Edwards, Utah Rep. Jim Matheson and Kansas Rep. Dennis Moore jump to mind). Lampson should also have nearly $2 million on hand when his latest quarterly campaign finance report is made public later this month, ensuring that he will be able to run an aggressive media campaign.

The problem for Lampson is that his strongest argument in the fall -- that voters need someone other than DeLay representing them in Congress -- has been nullified. The race was sure to be a referendum on DeLay if he stayed on the ballot; it now is more likely to turn into a simple partisan choice -- a change that makes it much tougher for Lampson to win.

We'll be waiting expectantly to see some post-DeLay polling in the 22nd District. That should give us a better sense of whether this race will remain in its top ten spot on the Friday Line.

By Chris Cillizza  |  April 5, 2006; 8:34 AM ET
Categories:  House , Parsing the Polls  
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