As DeLay exits the House, what now for Texas Republicans?

With Tom DeLay's departure Friday, the search is on for a candidate who, the GOP hopes, will win his seat in November.

Even before Tom DeLay's departure from the US House of Representatives Friday, the race is heating up to fill his shoes in his home base of Sugar Land, Texas, where Republicans must pick his replacement for the November ballot.

Getting the right candidate is critical, say political scientists, because the GOP is in danger of losing Mr. DeLay's seat.

The former majority leader said he withdrew from the race because he didn't want his criminal indictment on campaign finance charges in Texas to interfere with the campaign.

But Democrats in his suburban Houston district hope that DeLay has tarnished his party enough to give them a victory.

DeLay does not see it that way. "I don't feel any regret at all," he said after one of his final speeches in front of Congress this week. "I am very excited about what the future will hold, and very proud of the things we were able to accomplish." He has vowed to continue to work for Republican causes behind the scenes.

This week DeLay made himself ineligible to be on the ballot by informing the Texas secretary of State that he has moved his official residence to Virginia.

To find his replacement, the four counties that make up District 22 will each hold Republican caucuses this summer and select a precinct chair. Those four will then each cast a vote to choose the candidate for the ballot.

Political scientists believe political jockeying has already begun - since there are four counties, and it takes a majority vote to put a candidate on the ballot.

"There is great concern that the seat could be lost to a Democrat," says Bob Stein, a political scientist at Rice University in Houston.

Yet District 22 is heavily Republican, and a Democratic win is a long shot - even for the well-financed and well-known former Congressman Nick Lampson, say political scientists.

But voters here have become disillusioned with DeLay. Jim Mills, a "recovering DeLay supporter," doesn't know who he will vote for in November, but says Mr. Lampson is not a choice. Mr. Mills will wait to see who the GOP chooses.

As for DeLay's legal trouble, he says, "How do I know whether he's guilty? He's certainly guilty of excessive ego and excessive hubris, the sins of pride. At the very least, it was time for him to get ... out of the way and let somebody else come in."

Part of the problem with waiting to pick a GOP contender is that the candidate will have little time to raise funds - and a personal profile.

Also, fellow conservative Steve Stockman, who was elected to the House in 1994 as a Republican and served one term before losing his seat to Lampson, is working to get on the ballot as an independent. He could play the spoiler for the Republican Party, since most votes for Mr. Stockman would come from conservatives.

"Between a late start, poor financing, limited name recognition, and a weak Republican party nationally, Lampson could sneak in," says Professor Stein.

In addition, this month the US Supreme Court will rule on Texas redistricting, an effort spearheaded by DeLay that redrew congressional districts in Texas to favor Republicans.

If portions of the plan are found to be unconstitutional, the result could mean an all-comers race in DeLay's district. That would work to Lampson's advantage, says Stein, because of the large number of Republicans who are interested in the seat.

A recent poll of GOP voters in Fort Bend County showed that Sugar Land Mayor David Wallace was the favorite, but analysts agree that there is no front-runner.

No matter who is elected in November, DeLay's departure has left a huge hole in the Texas delegation, says Calvin Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

Several of the state's most senior Democrats lost their jobs in 2004 because of redistricting, and a large group of first-time Republicans was swept into office believing DeLay would be able to nurture them for many years, says Dr. Jillson.

"The result is that Texas now has the most junior congressional delegation since the 1920s," he says. "And DeLay's own district could now have a freshman congressman. The state will be paying for that for some time to come."

Staff writer Gail Russell Chaddock contributed to this report from Washington.

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