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5 nasty battles in Texas after redistricting

Texas is a red state.  So, it’s surprising that some of the nastiest partisan campaign battles are brewing in some of the most conservative neighborhoods of the Lone Star state.  NBC News' Bethany Thomas reports from Dallas.
Former President George Bush endorses former state District Judge Ted Poe, left, who is running against Democrat Nick Lampson for a newly drawn congressional seat.David J. Phillip / AP file
/ Source: NBC News

Texas is a red state. There’s no question about its Republican loyalties.

Former President George H.W. Bush calls Houston home and President George W. Bush sneaks away to his Crawford ranch as often as he can. So it’s surprising that some of the nastiest  campaign battles are brewing in some of the most conservative neighborhoods of the Lone Star state. 

Following last year’s congressional redistricting, five districts are at stake in what the Democrats call House Speaker Tom DeLay’s “power grab,” or attempt to regain GOP control in his home state. 

Walk down the street in many of the neighborhoods of the five districts or turn on a TV or radio -- and the evidence of the battles are hard to miss in the heated advertisements and banners. 

Contentious congressional redistricting
The tension has lingered since last year when Democrats in the Texas House of Representatives walked out in response to the GOP plan to redraw congressional districts. 

The old map, drawn by a Democratic legislature in 2001, gave the Democrats a 17-15 advantage. The Republicans say they redrew the congressional map in an effort to make the delegation match the population.

The House Democrats fled across state lines to Oklahoma to avoid a vote and possible arrest by Texas state troopers. The legislature rules that those who thwart quorum can be arrested and brought back to the legislature, although the arrest carries no other criminal or civil sanctions.  

The Democrats said Delay was the driving force behind the maneuver.  “We have a message for DeLay.  Don’t Mess with Texas,” said Rep. Jim Durnham.

Several months later, 11 of their Texas Senate counterparts fled to neighboring New Mexico for 45 days to block the consideration of another redistricting bill.  

Eventually, Texas House and Senate negotiators drafted and approved a new map that could give the Republicans as many as seven more seats, allotting them a 22-10 lead.

Of the seven seats in question, the GOP can so far claim victory on two. Longtime Democrat Rep. Ralph Hall switched parties and now faces an easier race in his 4th District of Texas. Another Democrat, Rep. Jim Turner, opted to take an early retirement.

Here's a look at the remaining races, which will be decided Tuesday.

Dirty fight over new District 19
Two incumbents are pitted against each other and joined by a Libertarian Texas Tech professor for West Texas’ restructured District 19.

Republican Rep. Randy Neugebauer currently holds the 19th seat. But after 26-year veteran Democratic congressman Charlie Stenholm found himself cut out of his former District 17, he joined the race for 19. But, Stenholm, a conservative who often votes with President Bush, could find himself on the chopping block come Tuesday.

The campaign has been bare-knuckled, with on of Neugebauer’s ads showing a “Charlie Washington” bouncing 88 checks. When asked about the allegation in one of their debates, Neugebauer explained, “Well, when we talk about deficit spending, I think Mr. Stenholm must know a lot about deficit spending.” 

A West Texas television station poll shows Neugebauer ahead,  55 percent to 43 percent, with professor, Chip Peterson, lagging behind by carrying only 2 percent of the vote. If these polls prove true on Tuesday, the GOP can rack up this district as another new gain.

Redrawn District 1 and 2
Redrawn District 2, is roughly 40 to 60 percent Republican and includes some of the most conservative parts of Houston in its territory.

In the race, Democratic Rep. Nick Lampson faces well-known Harris County District Judge Ted Poe. 

Lampson recently complained to a group of veterans. "It's designed for me not to be able to win," referring to a change in district boundaries that removed more than half the area he has represented since 1997.

Poe has gained national attention for his creative sentencing of criminals, ranging from requiring a man who beat his wife to publicly apologize on the steps of Houston City Hall to ordering murderers to securely place a photo of the victim on the wall of their prison cell as a reminder of the crime.

East Texas’ District 1 race could replace Rep. Max Sandlin, an eight-term Democrat, with retired district court judge, Louie Gohmert.

Sandlin refers to the redrawn districts on his campaign website. “I’m not changing (parties, like Hall). I’m not leaving. I’m going to give them the fight of their lives and I fully intend to win —and I mean win for the people of East Texas.”

Remapped District 17 -- a snake through Central Texas
Local Waco residents refer to the area of remapped District 17 as a snake reaching down through Central Texas.  The region usually votes 2-1 Republican and was created to accommodate conservative Arlene Wohlgemuth, a 10-year state legislator. 

And although the odds are stacked up against him, 13-year veteran Democratic Rep. Chet Edwards may have the best chance of any of the five Democrats.

Edwards has more money, experience and cross-party support than his opponent. He also is an alumnus of Texas A&M, and could grab some of the conservative territory that the Republicans had designed for Wohlgemuth.

Wardrobe malfunction still drawing ire in District 32
One of the most controversial and expensive House races this year is District 32. An estimated $8 million has been poured into the district, home to some of Dallas’ most elite neighborhoods. The contenders: Incumbent Rep. Martin Frost (D), a 13-term veteran and four-term Rep. Pete Sessions (R). 

Some analysts describe District 32 as one of the most exciting House races this year. It’s also proven to have been one of the dirtiest.

Dallas resident Carol Conditt used to consider herself a Sessions' supporter. Then, one of the Frost campaign efforts got a hold of her. “I’m now going to vote for Frost because Sessions was against the whole (Janet) Jackson bearing her chest debacle. And yet, he used to go streaking when he was younger.”

What had moved her was an old newspaper clipping circulated by the Democratic campaign  showing college-age Sessions streaking with about 300 fellow classmates at Southwest Texas State University in 1974 to break a streaking record. 

GOP hoping for an insurance policy in the House
There’s little question that election day will be close. Like the presidential race, these House races will be just as nail-biting and influential in the national political scene.

What’s the overall impact if the GOP earns these five seats on election day? 

Republicans consider the potential gain an insurance policy to keep a House majority. In other seats across the country, more Republican incumbents are retiring than Democrats, and the party hopes to use Texas as a buffer against other possible losses. States like Pennsylvania and Connecticut could lose their GOP representative and it’s a way for the Republicans to guard their 12-seat majority.

And maybe it gives some sense of accomplishment to the voters in Texas. “It’s nice to see Texans getting involved in the grand scheme of things. We assume our red status for the presidential race,” said Dallas resident Dorris Bess.  “We’re not a swing state and it’s fun to see the candidates out working the crowds just like Bush and Kerry do in the Midwest.”