Tom DeLay's exit is big loss for House GOP

The former majority leader was a lightning rod, but he was integral in crafting the Republican majority.

In another legislative century, Tom DeLay might be on a fast track to have a building named after him.

A fierce competitor, he helped Republicans take back the House in 1994, then build a national majority - while pushing through landmark conservative policies in overtime votes. Friends and foes alike called him "the Hammer."

But after years of legal woes, he may leave Congress this spring with another nickname: "Representative No. 2." That's how he's named in a plea agreement on corruption charges made by a former staffer last week.

It's a fall from power that has become nearly a template in the highly polarized House of Representatives, which has seen its last two Speakers bashed on ethics.

His exit deprives Democrats of Exhibit A in their "culture of corruption" campaign theme to take back the House in fall elections. But it also deprives House Republicans of their most effective political infighter - and a seat in Texas that may still be tough to hold.

"DeLay wanted to create a Republican majority that would last for decades. He was very strategic and extremely creative in the tools that he put at the disposal of the majority," says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. "What he did for Republicans transcended ideology. If it meant helping [GOP moderates] like Chris Shays or Sherwood Boehlert, he did it because he could see beyond the limited circumstances and see that the Republican majority was what was important."

In the end, what moved him to step down were concerns about holding the GOP majority, Mr. DeLay said. "Because I care so deeply about this district and the people in it, I refuse to allow liberal Democrats an opportunity to steal this seat with a negative, personal campaign," he said in an address to his Texas constituents.

"Whatever legal problems were hanging over his head, he did something that was designed to help the Republicans: to remove himself as the lightning rod," says Professor Baker.

On the eve of his resignation - announced Tuesday but not effective until later this spring - Mr. DeLay had raised $1.3 million for his campaign, expected to be the most expensive race in the 2006 cycle. He faced former Rep. Nick Lampson (D), who lost his seat in 2004 after a Texas redistricting engineered by DeLay.

"When Nick Lampson declared for this seat, he was betting that Tom DeLay would be wounded and vulnerable and perhaps not even on the ballot," says Calvin Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

His exit this late in the election cycle creates problems for Texas Republicans, but not insurmountable ones. DeLay's announcement that he will move out of the state takes his name off the ballot in November. Now, Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) can call a special election before November - at which time anyone is free to enter the race. Or the Republican county chairman can select someone to run.

Possible contenders include popular Sugar Land Mayor David Wallace, Harris County Judge Robert Eckels, Houston City Councilwoman Shelley Sekula-Gibbs, and political outsider Tom Campbell, a former general counsel for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who came in second after DeLay in the GOP primary in March.

Unlike the big idea men of the GOP revolution, such as former Speaker Newt Gingrich, Mr. DeLay didn't seek out cameras. He avoided national news media, preferring to reach out to targeted audiences through local talk radio or gatherings of the GOP faithful.

Despite his legal troubles, the conservative movement never abandoned him. Nearly a year ago, in the throes of a deepening corruption scandal, nearly 900 conservative activists gathered at the Capitol Hilton to demonstrate their support in standing ovations.

"He was a strong workhorse for keeping the House together at a time when they had narrow majorities. He was never the policy leader, but he was a guy who helped bring the Republican majority to vote together and win consistently," says conservative activist Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, who helped organize the event. "It is a tribute to Tom DeLay's leadership and the strength of the Republican Party that he won't be missed, because a competent leader trains many people who can do his job," he adds.

On a personal level, DeLay still faces an indictment in Texas over money laundering related to violation of campaign laws. Two former DeLay aides, Tony Rudy and Michael Scanlon, have pleaded guilty in federal corruption investigations, and ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, a former DeLay ally, is cooperating with federal investigators in a widening corruption probe on Capitol Hill.

"Tom DeLay was the embodiment of the Republican ascendancy, and now its precarious situation. He embodied the idea of a movement that came to do good and limit government and ended up dong very well in the corruption of perks and power," says Marshall Wittman, a former conservative activist now with the Democratic Leadership Council.

"The question now for the conservative movement which wrapped themselves around DeLay is whether they will become introspective about the course of the Republican revolution," he adds.

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