Image: Rep. Tom DeLay
Tim Johnson  /  AP file
Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, addresses his supporters and the media on the campus of the University of Houston on Feb. 23.
updated 3/4/2006 2:11:58 PM ET 2006-03-04T19:11:58

Rep. Tom DeLay has rarely faced a serious challenge in the 22 years he has held office, dispatching opponents with seemingly little effort.

This year, after being forced out of his job as House majority leader amid corruption and campaign finance scandals, DeLay, R-Texas, has waged an aggressive campaign to defeat three opponents in Tuesday’s primary election. The winner would face former Democratic congressman Nick Lampson in November.

Two of DeLay’s Republican opponents, Mike Fjetland and Pat Baig, are considered long shots. So DeLay has aimed most of his political vitriol at attorney Tom Campbell, who was general counsel for the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration under President George H.W. Bush and who has worked on the campaigns of several top Republicans.

Campbell has gone straight for DeLay’s ethics jugular. In one television ad, he contends DeLay was distracted by his legal troubles. In another, residents of DeLay’s district repeatedly describe Campbell using the word “integrity.”

“Mr. DeLay is unelectable and Republicans in our district have a choice. They can either elect a conservative that doesn’t carry the baggage Mr. DeLay carries or one that Nick Lampson has the ability to beat,” Campbell said. “It’s time for Mr. DeLay to come home.”

DeLay temporarily stepped down as majority leader after he was charged in a campaign money laundering case in Texas that has yet to go to trial. Pressure from his scandal-weary colleagues forced him to give up trying to reclaim the position.

At the time, DeLay defiantly swore he would return. “I plan to run a very vigorous campaign, and I plan to win it,” he said.

One of DeLay’s campaign tactics was to try to distance himself from disgraced ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who pleaded guilty to federal charges in January and is cooperating with investigators in an ongoing congressional corruption case.

DeLay’s travels with Abramoff, and the contributions from Abramoff and his clients, have raised questions about their association. Abramoff’s former business partner, who also pleaded guilty in the case, is a former DeLay aide; at least one other former DeLay aide has come under scrutiny in the probe.

‘The sleeping giant’
DeLay’s campaign spokeswoman has said that the Abramoff matter is little more than “D.C. gossip” and that DeLay will win easily with a tough, organized grassroots campaign.

“We have awakened the sleeping giant,” said Houston Republican strategist Allen Blakemore. “Everybody knows he is a very accomplished and very tenacious campaigner and will win handily.”

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DeLay is accused of funneling corporate campaign contributions through a Texas political committee he launched and the Republican National Committee to state GOP legislative candidates in the 2002 election. Corporate money is largely banned from political campaigns in Texas.

In light of the Abramoff scandal, some in Congress have called for reforming the use of so-called “earmarks,” money for members’ pet projects, also called pork.

Bringing home federal funds
DeLay, however, has bragged about bringing money home for his district. A member of the House Appropriations Committee, he says if he’s re-elected, more money will come.

If re-elected, DeLay “will do exactly what he’s been doing for 20 years” in Congress, like fighting for tax reform, the war on terror and more transportation dollars, spokeswoman Shannon Flaherty said.

“They need someone who is tough and is a fighter and who isn’t just going to talk about these issues, but is actually going to get in the game and win for Texans,” Flaherty said.

Campbell calls himself a former DeLay supporter.

“I voted for DeLay every time, and the last time I just was so embarrassed I made a resolution I wasn’t going to do it again,” he said.

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